Saturday, 24 September 2011

How to speak publisher - D is for day job

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?



  1. I think the same arguments apply to my other job. I work from home so people think I do not work. They think they can interrupt. They think they can ask me to do other things, that I have "plenty of time"! They also think that "because it's for charity" I can take on everyone who asks for help. Sorry, there are only 24 hours a day in the 7 day week - and when there is a major disaster I can be working for most of those. If you are volunteering your services I will help but if you are a well paid government official look elsewhere or pay me at the professional rate - they never do. They look elsewhere. So is there any other industry so dismissive of its suppliers? Yes, the industry which deals with complex humanitarian emergencies. (Oh yes, it is an industry - plenty of people make money out of the misery of others.) Sorry, just had to get that rant in!

  2. Yes, Catdownunder, you are so right. I've just finished writing a book about charities and humanitarian disasters (as you know). So I'm well aware of how many people make money in the charity business. But there is no reason why they shouldn't earn a living, just as we don't expect doctors to work for free because their patients are miserable!

  3. Another excellent post - it genuinely hadn't dawned on me that I'm worth more now I'm being commissioned!

  4. Hear hear. Having said that, fiction is tricky because it doesn't come in easily measured hours - a friend once worked out that they earned about 5p per hour for one rather difficult book.

    It's even worse for illustrators - recently a friend was offered a book by a big mainstream publisher that was 4 months work. Fee? £2000 - before agent's commission. And they don't even have the pretence that illustrators have a different day job.

  5. Sarah, that's awful! I agree about fiction - much harder to quantify. Sometimes the rate is very good (if the book goes easily) and sometimes it's very poor (if the book is difficult to get right). But it should represent some reasonable amount for a realistic period of time - several months of full time work for a novel, for exammple. (As for the agent's fee, that's just an expense like any other, though - the publisher doesn't need to take that into account.)

  6. Well said, that woman! It's an absolute outrage that writers are expected to work for so little. The idea that you should be grateful for the exposure!! Next time the plumber presents his bill, try telling him you're not going to pay because you'll let people come and admire his pipework! It makes me so angry. Argghhh! *bangs desk with fist*.

  7. Hurrah - someone standing up for writers. Of course we should be properly paid for what we do.

    We love it, or we wouldn't do it. Nobody goes into nursing, or teaching, or social work, unless they love it - and they are paid a living wage.

    Publishers might whinge about writers wanting a decent return on their efforts, but they would be lost without us. (And, with the rise of digital publishing, we are not necessarily lost without them!)

  8. Very interesting post. I'm lucky enough to have a day-job which is sufficiently flexible for me to fit the writing around it, but it's still a major struggle, not least because the better paying day job usually takes priority. I also know from experience that, if I undercharge in my day job, the client tends not to value what I do. So I suspect an insidious and ironic side-effect of this odd business model is that it encourages publishers to undervalue authors. If they had to spend more on our services, they might invest more in getting real long-term value from what we produce.

  9. This is a truth too seldom aired.

    Writers are the one essential of the publishing industry, but unless you are a best seller, you are likely to be treated with near-contempt. Worse, many writers accept this and collude with it.

  10. No one says it better - Anne Rooney for Union Chief!

  11. Thanks for writing this - many of us are too nervous to tell it like it is!

  12. So true.

    I don't remember quite how I found out about freelance writing, proofreading, and tutoring, but it was an accident. I had so swallowed the "You need a day job" bull that the idea that, yes, you can support yourself in the writing industry actually startled me.

    I still get giddy and giggly, sometimes, when I think about the fact that I can pay the bills with what I love to do.

    But nothing kills the love faster than working for a pittance. Your brain gets tired, and a job that doesn't use your brain starts to sound like a dream.

    Been there. Not going back.

  13. Thank you - and a timely reminder, Carradee, that it is worth it. It is better than doing as you are told for money. Much nicer to have less money and enjoy what you do.

  14. Brilliant post. Just wondering whether I'm brave enough to forward the link to my publisher...

  15. Great post. I find it especially interesting because my day job is as a publisher. My take isn't that writers are asked/expected to work on the cheap - it's the whole industry which is notoriously badly paid. It all works on the same principle that "you enjoy doing it anyway and there are plenty of other people who will work for this money if you won't" so I find whenever I recruit, wanting exceptional qualifications while me (or rather the company) offers very little money, I still have hundreds of over-qualified people sending their CVs/resumes.

    Why are we in this situation? I think it's partly that the industry punches above its weight in terms of profile, but rarely shifts the huge numbers needed to make a lot of money. Bloomsbury was built on the success of one author. My publisher Quercus has risen from non-existence to being almost a top-10 UK publishing house in five years based on the success of one author (sadly Stieg Larsson rather than me!). Books get a lot of coverage in the media because media people seem to love them, but they don't shift the quantities or earn the revenues of things like computer games or even legal mp3s.

    Yes I agree 100% writers sould be paid more. As an industry insider I see how tight the margins are and am not immediately clear how that can be achieved. Is it a false economy as you suggest to refuse to pay a decent price to an experienced writer and pick someone who'll work for the fee instead? Almost certainly yes, but in every large publishing house I've worked you can't go much outside what has become established as the norm. It tends to be smaller, less systems-driven places that can make more exceptions on an individual basis.

    Sorry for such a long comment!

  16. Keith, THANK YOU for such a long comment. This is an immensely valuable and generous view from the other side of the fence. Or actually from both sides of the fence.

    I agree that the whole industry is badly paid, and your insights into why that should be are very welcome here. In my RLF-fellow hat, I saw lots of students who wanted to work in publishing despite the low pay. My particular gripe, though, is with publishers who offer not the standard low rate but something pitifully below that (like £400 for a 96-page A level guide, or £200 for a 48-page schools and libraries text). And publishers making a lower offer now than they did ten years ago for essentially the same book. I'm sure the in-house staff are not paid *less*, nor other suppliers.

    I agree, too, that the newer publishers are often more nimble, and better placed to survive difficult times as a consequence. I had a book out with Quercus this summer - they don't fall into my grumbling category at all and I would happily write for Quercus again.

    Malaika - yes! send it to your publisher!