This Is My 30th Anniversary As A Writer!


An article in the London Times by James Marriot this morning gets the day off to a depressing start. It was inspired by the fact – long known to us authors – that the average writer earns less than minimum wage. Earnings for professional writers have fallen by a staggering 42% since 2005, just as publishers are growing (in 2006 alone UK book sales shot up 7%). Yes, we’re being exploited but it’s a buyers market.

There are too many of us in fiction. If you write ‘down’ – ie. make it simple and unoriginal, you’re more likely to attract a publisher than if you write something fresh. Or perhaps you’re simply a bad writer with a good line in opening chapters. In every article like this the usual multi-millionaire writers are trotted out from Rowling to Patterson to Archer. Even Paula Hawkins, whose ‘The Girl on the Train’, a novel which can brighten any bookshelf simply by being removed from it, gets in there with £15 million.

Sebastian Faulks suggests that rather than attempt a literary novel you should go into banking, soft furnishings or selling printer ink. A handful of fiction writers debut each year with a mega-contract. This is a loss leader from the publishing house to create excitement, and has little to do with quality of writing.

Marriot does have an excellent to-do list for writers; unfortunately I appear to have tried them all.

Auction yourself. My excited agent did that with my novel ‘Plastic’ and we didn’t get a single bidder.

Be marketable ie. halfway presentable, able to speak in public without drooling or mumbling. I do that, sometimes quite well.

Write the book you want to read. I always do that as I refuse to take on commissions. Whether the public wants to read it is another matter.

Go for the zeitgeist. Did that with at least four books.

Sell the film rights. Done that many times, nothing got made.

Write a memoir. Did two of those.

Start reviewing. Did that for donkey’s years.

While books are selling more, reading about them has all but died out, so writers can no longer make a living reviewing – it’s punishing work that pays £40-£60 a review. You get two a month, which you first whittle down from 20, and have to read the books (obviously), analyse them and then write about them. Magazines used to pay for short stories. That outlet vanished with the arrival of digital editions.

In fact, only 11% of writers can earn enough to make a living from their work. The literary life, argues Marriot with good reason, is effectively dead.

For nearly the whole of my career I had two jobs, but I’m now a full-time writer. Career novelists are people who’ve been around as long as I have – this year will be the 30th anniversary of my first book, but we’re the last of a generation. From now on writing novels will be a sideline for most.

People often say I’ve been unlucky (one woman told me ‘You must be disappointed that no-one has ever heard of you’) but I think the reverse is true. I’ve been privileged to make it into that final generation of career writers. It hopefully means I keep going. Writing ruins your sight, your social life and your posture, but it’s all worthwhile when a reader takes the trouble to write and say how much a book meant to them.

And that’s why we still write.


30 comments on “This Is My 30th Anniversary As A Writer!”

  1. Linda Evans says:

    You have given me so many hours of pleasure. Please don’t stop. I feel like the privileged one.

  2. Martin Tolley says:

    Writers are seriously undervalued. A national newspaper today praises a country house hotel for its food. A quick look at their online menu lists a “Salad of Isle of Wight tomatoes, chutney, pickles and oils” for £16. It doesn’t even require cooking. By that yardstick how much should a full-length book be?
    Anyway, congratulations (and thanks) for the past 30 years. You and I are of a similar vintage. If you can keep writing for another 30 years, I’ll do my best to keep reading.

  3. Linda Ayres says:

    Congratulations on reaching this milestone.
    Thank you for all the reading pleasure, the long journeys made more pleasant and times of sorrow or stress when opening a ” Bryant and May” is like dear friends coming round.
    I am always waiting on Waterstones door step when you have a new book out,but confess to buying other authors offerings via charity shops. It always makes me feel slightly guilty.

  4. Brooke says:

    Congratulations! Deeply appreciate your hard work, productivity, imagination, creativity and wide range of thinking. And your willingness to engage with us every day. Interesting– that’s not on Marriot’s rather pedestrian list. May I suggest something more unconventional but doable:

  5. Bob Low says:

    I first came across your short stories in the early Years Best Horror anthologies, originally edited by – if I can remember correctly – David Sutton, Stephen Jones and Ramsay Campbell – in the early nineties, and it was one of the happiest discoveries of my reading life. Congratulations, and here’s to the next 30!

  6. BuckeyeB says:

    For what it’s worth, anyone who knows me has heard of you & Bryant & May…& thanked me for it!

  7. SteveB says:

    I remember many years (20 or so) ago getting a Patterson book because I thought it would be easy reading for a transatlantic flight. How wrong I was, it was utterly unreadable. Lesson learned

  8. SteveB says:

    Anyway yes thank god for one Christopher Fowler and a few others
    Congratulations admin, here’s to the next 30

  9. Jane says:

    Given the comment in your tagline about your alternative career, I think we ought to be more than slightly worried that writing is no longer providing authors with full time incomes!

  10. Helen Martin says:

    Going into the alternative career, Jane, especially failing at it, would guarantee food, shelter, and clothing for the next quite a few years and probably provide the opportunity for steady writing. Not that I’m advocating it.
    (World Cup note: that was a shocking performance by England yesterday – I knitted all through it.)

  11. Mike says:

    Here’s a chance to boost Mr. Fowler’s profile and keep B&M detecting

  12. Peter Tromans says:

    I’ve given the same advice as Sebastian Faulks to young engineers. Engineers, that is to say real ones, not plumbers, electricians, managers, entrepreneurs and other rip-off merchants who purloin the title, engineers suffer the same fate of broken eyesight, posture, social life, but never spirit.

  13. Jo W says:

    Well Mr. Fowler,thirty years writing? You must have learnt to write at a vewwy early age,what, about six munffs old?
    What a precocious child. ;-).
    Here’s to many many more years. Well done.!

  14. Wayne Mook says:

    Congrats on the big 3 0.

    I’m currently reading Forgotten Authors, although it’s taking longer than it should, I keep scuttling off to find more work by them. A splendid book, many thanks for it. I’ve been reading your works for many years and remember meeting you at Fantasycon on more than one occasion back in the day when you still wrote horror. I remember you being happy when Full Dark House won as it meant a lot of the old horror readers were happy to follow you into crime.

    I read Rebecca (who slammed doors) to my wife, who remembered about Jim and the Lion from her childhood. I guess I should read some Belloc to my 6 yr old, she enjoyed Shock-Headed Peter and Edward Lear.

    Here is to another 30 years, although the collections came out before Roofworld.


  15. Bruce Rockwood says:

    Keep going! Your work is significant. Perhaps you can license Bryant and May to a computer game for added revenue.
    Or an RPG spin-off. Or like the Discworld games that allow reader fans to engage with your characters and London over time.

  16. Wayne Crich says:

    I think much of this has been do to with the stranglehold publishers have on the whole industry. I know I am spending more than ever on books and sales figures at least here are healthy.

  17. As a professor of English I’ve been a professional reader for most of my adult life, yet Bryant & May (along with several of your other works) hold a very special place on my sagging shelves. Of course they’re superb entertainments (as Graham Greene used the term), but they’re also consistently thoughtful and imaginative, powerfully evoking a distinct sense of place with prose that’s as fresh as Tolstoy’s “big green shining cucumber.” Thank you, young man, for eking out a living as a career writer for the past 30 years. Here’s to many more.

  18. Helen Martin says:

    Thank you also, Admin, for the recommendations of other authors. I have just finished Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans and was startled by the bringing forward of the suffragettes to the second war. There were a number of other themes in that book but the sad ending of those two fierce women and Noel’s gallant determination that the one should not be done out of her recognition came through like a trumpet call. He may have had some twisted morals but his ethics were alright. We forget people once the battles are over. I remember my Mother almost in tears on discovering that one of her socialist heroines was dying of dementia in the local hospice. She should have gone with trumpets sounding.

  19. Brooke says:

    Arthur and John got my vote on Dead Good Reader.

  20. Wayne (yes, another one) says:

    Congratulations on achieving such a long career. You are my go to writer whenever I need to escape the reality of this world I dive into those spaces you have created. From your rather cool and most enjoyable B&M novels to your spooky twisted short stories they are always just what I need to escape. It is a comfort to know that you are there ruining your eyes and your posture just so that you can deliver another reality diversion.

    Thank you for your long service and long may you continue.

  21. admin says:

    That’s very kind of everyone. I really wasn’t fishing for compliments but am always happy to accept them! I love Martin’s point about salads and writing. It’s a good rule of thumb!

  22. Jan says:

    Sorry Chris I’ve been offline for a day or two many congrats. It doesn’t seem Like 30 Years – but there you go.
    Happy anniversary …..where’s that chatty young fella who wrote “Roofworld” disappeared off to then? Seen or heard from him recently?

    Here Helen Jane is probably scratching her head ‘re Your world cup comments!! Think this last England defeat was a definite strategic throwing of a game in order to get an easier route to the final.. IF that is we can get past Columbia who r no slouches. I HOPE it was strategy at any rate. Don’t go mixing your Jane’s with your Jans.

  23. Denise Treadwell says:

    I have no idea on England ‘s chances, I looked what Las Vagas had to say on their odds you wouldn’t make any money !

  24. Denise Treadwell says:

    I can’t readi a book about the blitz. I think its too close to me .As my father was in tangmere. He was in the The Battle of Britain. Wait it has to be really good!

  25. Victoria says:

    Hello, Mr. Fowler. Congratulations on your 30 years, and a very belated thank you for Bryant and May. (I have been meaning to say Hello and Thank You for awhile, this seemed like a very good spot to do so.)

    I discovered Bryant and May in the Mystery section at my local library just as I was starting what turned out to be a life-shattering (job, family, friendships, everything) five-year bout with depression and anxiety that almost took me out more times than I care to remember. (I am still here because I was raised very Christian, and while I’m not sure I believe in Hell anymore, I was, and currently remain, more scared of the possibility that there is a Hell and I might wind up in it than of trying to slog through another minute/hour/day. I’m not Christian anymore, but I’m not not Christian, either. Just tired of thinking about it all. I don’t think there are any answers.)

    Back to the library. The book that caught my eye and picked up was The Victoria Vanishes, because my name is Victoria and I had a feeling that it might be a *British* mystery, as the spine did not look very US-y. I discovered I was right, and by the time I noticed “A Peculiar Crimes Mystery” on the front cover I was practically wiggling around, I was so excited. I’m pretty sure I was talking to myself, too. And, it was a series! Being also somewhat OCD, I had to start with Full Dark House, of course, which was fortunately also on the shelf at that very moment.

    Bryant and May got me through some very bad awful times that are still difficult for me to even consider, let alone mention. (I cried, sniffled, wailed, and cursed my way through every day for 19 months straight. I counted them up when I finally had a day when I didn’t cry.) I always knew, however bad the day was, that I could come home and burrow under my bedcovers and meet my beloved fictional buddies — not just Bryant and May, but Colin, Meera, Dan, Giles, Janice, Alma, Maggie, and London, both present and past.

    I’ve read all of them twice, excepting Wild Chamber, which I’ve read once so far, and Hall of Mirrors, which my library doesn’t seem to have gotten in yet. (They just got London’s Glory not very long ago.). What I love is that they keep disappearing and reappearing on the shelves in my branch — you clearly have a lot of fans here in North Carolina, USA.

    I’m sorry I have not actually bought your books (excepting London’s Glory in paperback) and therefore helped you earn a living, but they have made me realize what treasures lie in a most quiet and unassuming library branch in my town, and now I hunt the shelves for other finds.

    I enjoy your website, although I admit I’m not very bright about your subjects, and I also admit that while I do not like James Patterson (do you know he actually does tv commercials here for himself each time a new one of his books comes out? ugh and I’m sorry if you all have to see them across the ocean), I probably read a lot of stuff that is not very brilliant or clever. I do draw the line at poorly-written, which I can tell because I got through a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in English. Which is where and how I got very sick of literature. The university I went to for my MA also had an MFA in creative writing program, so I also got very sick of Writers and Poets. I love books, but I’ve seen way too much pretension and posturing to be completely trusting anymore, even all these years later — or especially all these years later.

    Now that I am finally slowly climbing out of my own personal Pit of Despair, I find I’m also sick of the morose, the gooey romance, the manipulative emoting, the unhappy or meaningless ending, and stuff that goes to dark and scary places outside my own experience that give me nightmares and make me realize how very small my world is.

    Which is where Bryant and May come in. They are familiar characters I’m not afraid of, yet they go to places I don’t know of or understand, and I’m not afraid because they are with me. And their pain is real and understandable to me. They have been through so much, but they still get up every day with purpose and keep going. Then they make me laugh. What is that?

    Minor apologies for the length of this comment, but it is what I’ve been wanting to say to you for a long time and I’m very happy I can finally manage to do so. I wish this were a private email, but life is what it is, and your website is what it is. Courage is not a strong point for me, but I’m working with what I’ve got.

    I wish you all the best for your continuing writing career and for your life.

  26. Denise Treadwell says:

    Congratulations and may you continue for many years to come..

  27. Ed says:

    Victoria, Your entry above is one of most literate and interesting discourse I have read on this or any blog.
    I too began my Bryant and May journey with Victoroa Vanishes.
    Thanks for sharing.

  28. Helen Martin says:

    There, Chris. Hang on to Victoria’s comment for days when You are feeling down. (Doing a literature degree could do anyone in.)
    Sorry I said Jane when I meant Jan. Belgium and Japan were pretty good, and the Japanese fans cleaned up their mess in the stands; nice.

  29. Wayne Mook says:

    Hiding or disappearing into a book really helps me too, Victoria I look forward to reading your future posts.

    Having now just finished Forgotten Authors (currently in the process of buying Mistress Masham’s Repose by T. H. White, for the little one, honest.) I am now pushing on with Stephen King’s On Writing, I’m sure you recommended it here, but I could be wrong, it is a refreshing read and shows how a writer changes with life as does their work & work practises, back to a desk in the corner – in short if you are going to write, write where you feel comfortable. It’s obvious little pointers like this that enlighten things.

    Your book was a joy, I hope we will hear about more forgotten authors in the future.


    P.S My wife suggested I post this because of the tribe of Wayne’s on your site.

    “It’s Wayning men, Amen….” Sorry.

  30. Martin Tolley says:

    Victoria, thank you so much for your words here which I found very moving. Many of us have used books to take us to places we want to be, and to release us from places we want to leave. Books have been my friends (often more reliable than people). I don’t suppose anyone writes a novel or “an entertainment” with the idea that it will help to heal anyone, but books are powerful things. When they are set free into the world, who knows what they will achieve?

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