Late Shift: Why Writers Work At Night

Reading & Writing

Once we had an image of the Victorian lady author, a person of gentility and slender means, seated at her escritoire quietly at work on a sensation-novel. It was a job opportunity open to those who did not become tutors or lady’s companions, the spinsters’ choice.

Well, it turns out things haven’t moved that far on. The Guardian reports that writing is once more in danger of becoming an elitist profession, with many authors being subsidised by their partners or a second job in order to stay afloat, according to new statistics.

Findings from the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society report into author earnings announced last summer that earnings for professional writers had fallen to less than £10,500 a year.

However, the picture is more complicated; while the average professional writer earns ten grand, the mean earnings for a writer’s household were more than £81,000 a year, and median household earnings were at £50,000 per annum. Writers need to supplement their income from other sources, such as a second job or household earnings contributed by a partner. The report analysed answers from more than 5,500 professional writers (NB they didn’t ask me).

This is bad news for new young writers and working class writers, they point out, as it puts a limit on the number of people who can consider writing as a profession. If you can’t pay your way at the start of your career you need to do something else as well. The system is different in France, where literary skills are held in high regard. Florian Zeller, the novelist/playwright, had his first books published in his early twenties and is now dominating the London stage with plays like ‘The Son’ and ‘The Father’, mature works from a writer in his 30s.

However, I need to play devil’s advocate here. I only ever wanted to be a writer, and having no support or idea how to go about it took a full-time job (one that ran into most weekends) and wrote in the margins of my day, basically late at night and early in the morning, something I continued to do for the next 34 years.

The downside was that I didn’t consider that writing was my full-time job until I was in my fifties. As part of the workforce I was surrounded by fresh young voices who helped keep me relevant and up-to-date. Anyone who has worked in an office full of writers will tell you it’s either the most mind-stretching place on earth or the most infuriating. But writing always had to come second to the job that paid the bills.

Equally, when I worked on a writers’ charity which awarded substantial sums to promising writers just starting out, not one of them ever delivered a finished product (often through no fault of their own, it must be said).

Probably the most useful training was the 10,000 hour rule – but reaching it while facing the demands of a second job, well that’s always going to be the hardest part.


18 comments on “Late Shift: Why Writers Work At Night”

  1. Brooke says:

    Dangerously disturbed today; downloaded CREATe report, as data calms me down faster than pills.
    Interesting–mean author earning declining over past 12 yrs even as arts contribution to GDP is growing substantially. Hmmm…intermediary supply chain profits bear examination.

    Report comment: “Nobody wants to read books no one else reads…once a book reaches a
    certain critical mass of followers, consumption becomes self-enforcing.” Confusion of “reading” with marketing and sales. Should read: “Nobody buys a book unless they’ve heard that other people are buying the book.” Hence the business model takes over the art. Stewart Lee makes a similar point in a talk to Oxford students about a writing career.

    Yes, the economics reduce both content diversity and diversity of author voices. None of us are the better for that.

  2. snowy says:

    Anything I might say with regard to the lamentable rates of pay for Authors could be wildly mis-interpreted as being unsympathetic. So to avoid inadvertently treading on toes, I’ll sit at Brooke’s feet and tender to her two observations about the CREATe report.

    It all seems a bit ‘iffy’, odd assumptions, methodology bit ad-hoc, data-set bit suspect, [for those counting this is an opinion not an observation.]

    Comparing the decline in Author incomes with increasing GDP from the Arts, is a bit er.. silly.

    The range of activities the government consider as being in the Arts sector when they calculate GDP is really, really BIG. I mean mindblowingly BIG. Dominated by huge industries like Film, Video Games etc.

    The Publishing sector, from which Authors derive their income is by comparison really, really ₛₘₐₗₗ.

    The comparison they make is only as valid or instructive as saying that in the year 2018, Champagne sales were down 6% while Total Supermarket sales rose 10%.

    “Nobody wants to read books no one else reads…once a book reaches a certain critical mass of followers, consumption becomes self-enforcing.”

    The quote from the report seems to be a definition of a Market Economy and applies everywhere, nobody wants to risk buying a new exotic flavour of Ice Cream/Phone/Pizza unless they see other people enjoying it. ‘Herd Effect’, the very thing that Advertising tries to stimulate. [But nobody comes here for a lecture on Consumerism!]

    [Oh! I just remembered you can stream BBC Radio progs. Might I suggest that you consider ‘dipping a toe’ into ‘Simon Evans Goes to Market’ on Radio4? A rather rare collision of comedy and economics!]

  3. Jo W says:

    This is off topic,but have you any idea who that lovely lady is in the photograph? Is she one of your ancestors,Chris?

  4. Brooke says:

    Snowy, I take your points about methodology (self reporting?), definition of “author/writer,” data set, etc.. I didn’t read closely at all before I found something else to amuse me.

    Comparing the decline of author incomes with overall contributions of arts to GDP could have been interesting. E.g. A sector can be small and enjoy high growth and profits. How does publishing compare to other creative sectors in terms of growth and profits? And compensation practices for creatives? CREATe summary does say authors in film and other media report higher income. Which raises questions about representation in data set, methodology, etc.

    You make my point–market/consumer forces are reshaping all careers, at least in US, including technology, legal and medical. It’s not just advertising–that’s just the visible signal of shift underneath; shifting business models make it harder to find your way to a solid level of income.

    I do stream BBC and have listened to Evans. And now back to FT Weekend, and ploughing through Rise and Fall of American Growth.

  5. snowy says:

    Nothing to disagree with there.

    I suspect that if it were possible to pull the data ‘apart’ it would reveal that author’s share of income is being squished because they are trapped between an increasingly monopolistic digital retailer screwing down prices and analogue publishing houses trying desperately to hold on to traditional models of business, [with the old profit expectations].

    But to pursue that line is going to result in extended analogies, detours via The Combination Act 1799, which might be diverting for us, but an entertaining distraction for others it would not make. And certainly I’d need more than one cup of ‘Dr Tibble’s Vi-Cocoa’* to get me though it.

    [* It’s a Victorian thing, in a desperate attempt to wrestle this back into context and proof that there really is very little new in the bright, modern 21st Century World.]

  6. snowy says:

    Ahem… bit naughty this!

    Just found out that the Wellcome Collection have an exhibition of Magic… stuff on, inc. live perfomances. Free!

    Of probably limited interest to those that don’t care about Magic or live within reach of London. But there are one or two kicking about that match both criteria, and it is probably slightly more interesting than B & myself indulging ourselves noodling on about economic theory.

    Carry on!

  7. Wayne Mook says:

    The critical mass of followers sounds like the old word of mouth, it can push sales along in a wonderful way. A full scale on TV advert for books aren’t really viable although targeted on some of the niche & local stations maybe a way forward.

    Authors tended to expand their income by doing thing for the print newspapers and then there was the was the short story market. A number of authors are now lecturers or writer’s in resident, which helps but would exclude working class and some of the new writers too.

    The good thing though is getting work out there to make a name is possible but it means next to no income. Small press and online publishing can build up the name so it gets mentioned, so you start to get your word of mouth. Online blogs & Good reads help. Although the online monopolies do need looking at, but the monopoly of capital that has been getting worse means a number of monopolies are being overlooked. Vested interest or is that conspiracy theory territory?

    Still in times of austerity the arts take a hammering, and the available old books for free or a small price from 2nd hand sellers becomes an option for the buyer.

    Big lumpy, padded, best-sellers are something I don’t like and mean you don’t get to read as much if you do read that author. Plus they take up a lot of shelf space, I’ve been avoiding bloated books for some time now. a counter argument is that you get longer to spend in that authors world. Plus it seems size equals value for money, feel the width not quality and all that.

    I guess the film or TV deal are a way to fortune.

    Which brings me to the next question, is there any news about a TV series especially now New Tricks is over? You could sell it as Jonathan Creek meets New Tricks.

    Most writers have been ill paid and few make it big just like jobbing artists & musicians, and as I’ve said there are hard times and now more completion for peoples leisure, what there is of it as it seems to decrease.


  8. Helen Martin says:

    Then there are the weird parallel incidents. A friend and I have been reading Kate Moss’ books about Languedoc. A friend clips several publications for me and I always turns the clips over to see what else there is. There was an ad on one clipping for “History from Oxford”. Among other publications from that illustrious press was one whose sub title was the place of women in Languedoc society. Now if I could only find the clipping again or the proper title/author of the book we could buy a copy. People follow recommendations from people they know and respect. It is too bad we have made everything come down to monetary value.
    I don’t like to suggest that satisfaction is more important than monetary return, especially when covering basic life is becoming so difficult, but there are lives which don’t usually provide large amounts of money. Artists, musicians, and yes, writers, don’t usually make huge incomes, but often have more satisfaction than the great merchants. Fame isn’t even such a great thing. I was a teacher and school librarian and I didn’t expect a huge income; it took both of us to run our household, but was that such a terrible thing? We have always had a lot of fun and the few times we’ve gone on holiday have been very special.

  9. snowy says:

    *Moves in mysterious ways*

    “The Voices of Nîmes: Women, Sex, and Marriage in Reformation Languedoc” by Suzzanah Lipscomb?
    OUP Oxford (14 Feb. 2019)
    ISBN 978-0198797661

  10. Brooke says:

    Snowy, thanks for the tip about the Wellcome Collection!

    Friends visiting London for first time and taking their 7yr old son (not something I would do but…) asked for suggestions; Wellcome was on my list. Also
    British and Science Museums
    Tower (see the ravens)
    Regents and/or St. James Parks, and Kew Gardens.
    Any other suggestions?

  11. snowy says:

    Depends a lot on the child and their interests, Imperial War Museum, HMS Belfast on the river, Natural History Museum, [Dinosaurs!]. I would need to have a bit more of a think!

  12. Brooke says:

    We’ve got until June 1 to think about . Good suggestions.

  13. snowy says:

    7 year olds tend to have broad if not very deep interests in things, except for those things that they are completely obsessed with. Get bored/tired easily, need to be fed and watered regularly, very long journeys really need to end at a destination with WOW!

    Plus the rest of the family want to enjoy London.

    Day one get the big places done and dusted, Sightseeing bus with a hop-on – hop-off ticket will get you round all the big landmarks, Buckingham Palace, Tower of London, St. Pauls, Trafalagar Square etc. Plus hop off at any passing attraction that takes their fancy for an hour and then hop back on. Just find your way back to the hop-off/on point and carry on round. [Some bus tours give you a discount pass to use at attractions included in the price of the ticket]. 48 hour tickets are available if people want to take a more leisured approach. Not quite the ‘authentic’ London, but an easy way to get a lot off stuff done without too much stress.

    Londoners would probably pull faces at the suggestion of using a Tour Bus, Cost! But navigating the Underground or myriad Bus routes might be a bit of a challenge for a visitor. A Tour bus is a closed loop and without the toil of climbing in and out of holes in the ground. Plus even if you only see it fly past the window you get a feeling for the scale of the place, something you won’t looking at the walls of a tunnel.

    Other days pick and choose things to do in harder to reach places, Transport Museum, Zoo, Legoland, [Warning! the latter is out in the sticks, separate train journey!], relax into the holiday a bit more. Midweek trip to the cinema, [7 is a bit young for the theatre], IMAX? If there is a child-friendly picture on!

    Finish BIG! whatever is the best thing to see, save it for last, have a last meal in a grown-up resturant, send the last postcards, pack up ready to go to the airport in the morning and go to bed tired but happy.

    Parks make ideal places to stop for a picnic lunch, midday battery recharge – weather permitting. Grab a sandwich/fish and chips/meze/tapas and some fruit or nip into a supermarket/deli for a loaf of bread and some cheese/pate/sliced meat.

  14. Helen Martin says:

    Parks are definitely a good idea, including the one which only allows adults with a child. Younger kids do become cranky quickly and need distraction. Remember their eye level is down by your waist.

    Does this 7 year old like planes? RAF Hendon (separate trip but not long) I’m not a fan but I had a good time

    does he like trains? a trip to Swindon for the Great Western museum. Lots of real trains.

    Greenwich by either water or underground. The great lawn is great for rolling. I wish I could recommend the museum but it’s mostly for older people and the zero meridian won’t register with a 7 yr. old.

    Snowy, I hadn’t searched OUP list yet but I don’t have to now. Thank you so much That was the book and I’ve written down the details this time.

  15. snowy says:

    H, it is a very expensive hardback and is largely based on Prof L’s DPhil thesis. You might be as well served by pasting ‘Suzannah Lipscomb podcast’ into a search box and looking at what pops up.

  16. Helen Martin says:

    Yes, it is expensive, anywhere from US$ 35 to US$54 plus freight on AbeBooks but I could have it from Blackwell’s in the middle of that range, the closest I’ll ever get to Oxford University. I’ll try for the podcast first, though, to see how dry she is.

  17. snowy says:

    Dropping back to amusing 7 year olds, it wouldn’t be completely impossible once in London to then nip over to France for a day or two. Eurostar train ‘under the sea’ to Paris/Lille soak up a bit of culture etc.

    [Or if you really must, you can get to a certain ‘mouse-based theme park’ just outside Paris – from London in less time than it takes to watch Avengers Endgame.]

  18. Ian Luck says:

    I work at night because I’m an unsociable old bastard.

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