Many publishers assume writers have a so-called 'day job'. It helps them excuse (to themselves) the pitiful fees or advances they offer most writers; it's all OK, writers are doing something else for money. 'Don't give up the day job!' they say nervously, or with a laugh, when telling you the scandalously low offer. Now look here, publishers. Writing IS my day job. Just as editing is yours. That's why you want to commission me - because I'm a professional. So cut this crap about a day job.
Of course, no one comes out of an MA in Creative Writing, sends off the novel they have been working on for the last year and by return of post gets an advance they can live while writing the next novel . Or maybe someone has, once, done that, but it is not the usual way of proceeding. Sorry, MA hopefuls. So unless they are living on daddy's millions or a spouse with an income, most writers start off by doing something else while they're learning their craft. As do most actors, musicians, sculptors and artists of many other types. But that does not mean that the'll always have a day job. By the time you are commissioning them, they have obviously already learned their craft or you wouldn't want their book. It certainly does NOT mean that writing should be so poorly paid (for the writer, but not the editor, publisher, bookseller, bla bla) that a full-time writer can't support themselves . An actor in an amateur production is not paid; a writer knocking up stories for a tiny magazine is not paid (or not much). But once you are acting in TV series or writing for so-called reputable publishers, you should be paid because clearly your work is now good enough for someone to make money from it. And that someone should be you, not just other people.
There is something of a distinction to be made here between fiction and non-fiction writing, especially for children. It's easy for the publisher to think to themselves, 'Ah, she likes writing these stories, so she will want to do them anyway. Getting some money is a bonus.' (Crap, by the way - you want it, you pay for it.) They are less likely to think someone might spend their leisure time writing trade books about earthquakes, or fast cars, or textbooks about bacteria. But publishers still don't necessarily pay properly for these, especially the text book. After all, some text books are written by teachers, aren't they? And teachers have a day job so they don't need much money. Crap again - you want their time, you pay for it.
Some children's non-fiction is written for a flat fee. The fee should obviously reflect the amount of time the writer is expected to put in. So if you are offered a fee of £1500 for 48 pages (which used to be typical, but it's fallen over the last five years and you might be offered only £1200), you need to know how long you can afford to work for that money. We could get into lots of complicated stuff about finance here, but all I will say is that you must remember the £1500 is not your income but your turnover. It has to cover expenses such as computer costs and heating your house during the day while you work in it. It has to cover non-earning time such as the time you spend answering emails, chasing late payments and putting together proposals for books that are never sold to a publisher. So they're not going to get three weeks, are they? This is when they might mention the 'day job'. Hey, publishers: I will not work for virtually nothing so that your publishing company can make money on what they will otherwise claim is not a viable book. Is the editor working for less than the going rate? Or less than they were paid ten years ago? No. Are you paying less than the going rate for your electricity? No. What will happen if I go to Waitrose and ask if I can have my food for less this week because my overheads have risen? What do you think?
At the back of all this is the person who really does have a day job. There are plenty of people who are teachers, farmers, accountants and so on who have a steady income and also write. But that doesn't mean their time is not valuable! They are writing instead of playing with their children, watching television, visiting friends. If a publisher intends to make money from that person's writing, they should pay a fair rate for it. Anything else is exploitation. Fiction is tricky - writers write at different rates. I write at different rates! I have written a book that has taken ten years and a book that has taken two hours. Of course a publisher can't pay an advance of £400,000 because it took you 10 years to write your novel. What is not acceptable is for a publisher who wants to produce (say) an A level guide to budget £400 for the author, knowing that it means someone with at least degree-level skills in that subject will have to work for less than £5 an hour to do it, even if they do have a 'day job' that pays the bills. It's less than the minimum wage.
I have turned down (of course) requests to write a book for £200 - a 96-page book, not a 30-word board book. The publishers are affronted and say 'there are plenty of people wanting to be writers...' And I say, 'fine, use them. They are inexperienced, and you'll spend the extra on badgering or tutoring them and paying editors.' Yes, there are lots of people who want to be writers - but very few of them are any good. Most of the good ones (who are committed and ready) are already writers. Oh - and another thing: the deadlines usually suggest you don't have a day job as they could not be met by someone working odd evenings and weekends.
Isn't it rather odd that publishers consider the people who produce the main component of their product to be doing something else most of the time? Isn't it rather dodgy to build a multi-million dollar industry on a bunch of people whose attention is usually somewhere else? And is there any other industry that is so dismissive of its suppliers?