Friday, 24 August 2007

The I’m-a-writer-and-no-one-understands-me blues

I expect three and a half million bloggers have got here before me on this one, but a YouGov poll of 2,461 people in the UK has found that nearly 10% of my fellow Britons aspire to being an author.

There has been a great deal of speculation about this, but I suspect there are a number of factors at play here; not least of which is ignorance. Most people seem to think that (a) writing is easy and (b) that it pays well. Sorry to disabuse you, fellow Britons, but it is neither.

Let us deal with the issue of remuneration first. The figures for author’s earnings in the UK that I have are not as up to date as the YouGov poll, but I suspect things have changed very little in the last few years. A poll of members of the Society of Authors suggests that about 5% of authors earn over £75,000 a year. That was the good news. 75% of authors earn less than £20,000 a year; 60% earn less than £10,000; 46% (nearly half) earn less than £5,000 a year from their writing (and for some that is their only income).

Put another way, three quarters of the authors who took part in the survey earn less than the national average wage; two thirds earn less than half the national average wage; and half earn less than an employee on the national minimum wage. That is how much we value authors in the UK.

Those statistics will hide certain facts. After all, if your only book in print is a small local history, you are not going to expect to make a living from it. But then, nor are you likely to bother joining the Society of Authors. For the most part the figures are an accurate picture of how authors are rewarded for their hard work (and we’ll get to that in a minute). It is no wonder they are to be found slogging up and down the country doing what they can to promote their works and pick up extra cash for giving talks. If you live anywhere near the site of a literary festival, there are times you are tripping over the pesky blighters and wondering why they don’t all go back to their luxury homes in Gloucestershire and pen another best seller. Except, of course, they are just as likely to be living in a council flat behind a steel reinforced door wasting days filling in their tax credit form.

The problem is, the media (I know it’s a generalisation, but you know what I mean) are not interested in the everyday lives of yer average author – coping with the kids in the holidays, getting the dog to the vet, finding money to pay the bills by working unearthly hours in a burger bar (where the pay is way better than their last royalty cheque), worrying about whether the car will pass its MOT. They like the glam, rags-to-riches, self-mythologizing darlings (who are usually the ones to pick up all the extra cash from appearances); the ones who pick up huge advances for poorly written work; the ones who look good on television.

Writing, for the majority, does not pay well. And we are singularly (if somewhat relatively) disadvantaged by living in the UK. Here, writers do a good deal worse on average than their European counterparts, despite writing in a language with a potential audience of something like 2 billion. So, all those people who aspire to be authors in the belief it is a money-spinner, be warned. The chances are against you making your fortune, even if you are a highly accomplished writer.

Which brings us to the other common belief about writing: that it is easy.

We all know of tales of writers who could dash off a book in a few days; some of them are well written as such people have a natural fluency and an energy that is to be envied. But the likes of Edgar Wallace, Georges Simenon, or Mike Moorcock in his early days are a rarity. Nor is their ability some sort of fluke. They went through exacting apprenticeships that honed their skills; and producing works at that speed takes its toll.

Most writers take a little longer to get their work on to paper. A dense literary novel of 90,000 words, even if you are able to work day after day without real life intruding, can take a year or more – especially if it is well written and subjected to a number of drafts and editorial work. I have yet to meet a writer who doesn’t have off days; who doesn’t sit staring at their computer wondering what the hell they think they are doing; who doesn’t overdose on caffeine; who doesn’t become addicted to any one (or more) of the three billion online games you can play; who doesn’t want to take a can of petrol and a match to all their work and a lump hammer to their computer before going back out into the world and making their way in a simple, safe job that pays on a regular basis.

And that is only part of it. You can spend a year (or more) of your life, sweating blood over your book and alienating your family and friends in the process without the slightest guarantee it will ever get published. Very few writers can scribble an idea on the back of an envelope and expect a big advance. Very few authors are even guaranteed that a publisher will want to look at their latest work. So once you have finished the book, you have to go through the highly stressful process of submission. I won’t even go there today, save to say it is not a genteel world involving civilized people making rational decisions based on literary merit.

Plus you have to cope with non-writers.

I have been incredibly lucky. My mother was very supportive in my early days of writing and it was from her I got my love of books. She was rewarded by seeing me get into print. My wife is equally supportive and I could not get through it without her. The rest of my family have always made encouraging noises and have never once (at least not to my knowledge) shown any sign that they think writing is a daft thing to do. I’m the only one that thinks that. My only regret is that my father never saw any of my work. It would have perplexed him, I suspect (the only book he ever read was an engineering handbook), but he would have been supportive.

Why non-writers think that writing isn't a proper job I will never know. Who on earth do they think wrote all those scripts for every television show and advert they ever watched, every movie they went to, every radio show they listened to, every play they saw, every paper and magazine, every paperback they picked up and filled a couple of hours with, every cereal packet they read?

These were produced by writers struggling to earn a living, using their native language to convey every conceivable emotion and bit of information, to make people laugh and cry, to inform them, puzzle them, and sometimes even to make them think. All those great works of philosophy weren't just written by philosophers, they were written by people who were writers as well. All those schoolbooks – writers. All that popular science, all those cookery books, DIY manuals, gardening books… Writers.

Writing is a proper job and a lot more useful than some that could be mentioned. It is a job often undertaken at the author's risk and involving a great deal of will power, mental and physical stamina, not to mention intelligence. If you have a writer in the family, you should be bloody proud of them for having the wit and the courage to want to do something so useful, knowing that they will probably never receive the rewards they justly deserve.

And if you know of someone who wants to be a writer; support them, but don’t let them go into it without knowing the facts. Perhaps if those people who had been polled were aware of all the facts, there would be considerably less than 10% of the population with writing as their dream job.


Telmis said...

Food for thought here Grum.

Not sure what draws me to writing; not sure what I hope to get out of it; not even sure what being a writer means!

Twice a year for 3 years I have written two pages for a glossy magazine, but I don't get paid. It is the inhouse magazine of an organisation I belong to. I don't think of myself as being a writer here....but ....if these articles get sold elsewhere (and one is) then I think I am a writer!

So am I merely trying to be a 'Professional'; and in so doing, am I downgrading amateurs as writers as well?

If they offered pay me more for a drawing than my writing, which would I choose? I don't know.

So am I just trying to sell my 'work' ...for where does the drawing end on the Greetings Card, and where does the poetry on it begin?

These are questions for me rather than for you - nevertheless an interesting posting, thank you

John S

Graeme K Talboys said...

It is an interesting question: is there a line to be drawn between the amateur and the professional, and if so, where? I don't think there is a line as many works of art (of whatever medium) are produced for their own sake. If they get published afterwards, that is a bonus. If money is involved it is the cherry on the icing on the cake.

Anne Brooke said...

We're supposed to get paid??!!?? Ehh-oopp, missus, I must have missed that lesson at writing school!!

And actually, as I've just said in another format, I've always thought of writing as a highly improper job. Much like sex - it's only good if it's dirty, tee hee!



Graeme K Talboys said...

They do miss out all the useful bits, don't they. Shove you out the door with a, "There's a nice little rabbit, go play with the wolves."

LOL - I've never claimed writing is the most fun you can have sitting down.

Viki Lane said...

Fascinating and thought-provoking stuff, Grum. My particular gripe is with those who think that publication is simply a follow-on of the writing process, as if you finish typing, then press a button on the computer and your novel plops out of the back and straight into a Waterstone's 3 for 2 promotion.

Graeme K Talboys said...

Don't we all wish! A bit like all those books that imply that all you need to do to get an agent is write to one.

Some of my aunts used to keep asking me when my next novel was going to be published. I explained the process at a family gathering once and saw jaws drop.

john said...

Its a good job I dont view writing as being my main source of income. It will be (hopefully), the bit of pocket money, probabily used to pay off a final demand knowing my luck.

Lane said...

Sobering figures indeed and an excellent post. Thanks. I look forward to an in-depth look at the submission process:))

Graeme K Talboys said...

Thanks. It is sad that more people cannot make a proper living from writing. It says a lot that people are still prepared to go through it all for so little financial reward.