Friday 21 September 2012

The elephant in the writing room

"Write what you love, with no thought to whether it's what the market wants."
"Write with passion - don't worry about selling it."

How many times have we heard this? We heard it reiterated again, more than once, at CWIG (the Society of Authors Children's Writers and Illustrators' Group conference). That's all very grand and noble and swilling with creative integrity - but it's not very practical if you need to live by your writing.

It highlights the big divide in the writing community that no one ever discusses. So I'm going to invite the elephant to step out of the corner and introduce himself: the divide between those who have to live by their writing and those who can indulge in writing whatever they want because they have an independent income, accumulated riches from an earlier career, a large pension, a lottery win, an Arts Council grant, a wealthy spouse, or a 'day job'.

A very few people are able to write exactly what they want and, because it coincides exactly with what the market wants, can make a good (enough) living from it. Super. I'm *so* pleased for you, genuinely. Remember, though, that markets change. The people who sold crateloads of books a few years ago sometimes can't get a contract now. They have not become bad writers; the population has not suddenly gone off their books. It's just that what publishers want to buy changes.

Let's suppose Roald Dahl didn't die, but went into hiding. And now he submitted a book outline, under a false name, to a children's publisher. What are the chances of his book being published? Slight, I'd say. There's too much that is violent or scary for most publishers of books for 8-10s now. Fashions (and sensibilities) change.
So what about those of us who have children to feed, a house to run, and no high-earning partner willing to let us off our share of contributing to the household income? We either have a different day job, or we write other things as well - things that sell but are perhaps not our overriding passion. You could see it as a different kind of day job. I am a writer, and my day job is also being a writer.

Unless you are mega-successful or very prolific, you can't make a living just by writing what you like best. Let's suppose you are lucky enough to get a two-book deal with a £50,000 advance. (That's pretty lucky, these days.) You take a year to write each book (some people do). So that's £25,000 a year. Now give your agent 15% + VAT, which is £4,500 and we're down to £20,500, which is already less than the average wage - and expenses have to come out of that. My annual expenses vary hugely, but are never lower than £3,000 so let's use that figure. Now we're down to £17,500 a year. And you have to get this type of contract *every* two years without fail. And only if your books earn out do you get more. (Plus PLR.) Doesn't work, does it? It's a low enough income to get income support.

If you need more money, maybe you do other things, such as school visits or teaching creative writing. That's fine - but it's no more noble and filled with integrity than writing something you are less passionate about.

Enough of the hypothetical. How does it work? These are the books I have written over the last two years:

seven short vampire novels
an adult history of physics
children's non-fiction books on -
  • maths
  • aerospace engineering
  • the work of charities in emergencies (eg war, famine, earthquake)
  • what the world would be like after a pandemic
  • fast things
  • rock bands
  • animals
  • internet safety
  • cybercrime
  • the history of surgery
a novel I'm not going to tell you about yet
three retellings of classic stories
four picture books

So that's a total of 26. OK, some are very short. But no matter. It's still a fair number. (As we're going for full disclosure, I've also written part of a book that has several authors, done a bit of copy-editing and critiquing, been an RLF fellow, an RLF lector, taught an 8-week undergraduate summer school on creative writing, built a few websites, and made two book trailers.)

I'm not going to tell you which of those books I was passionate about, but I did draw up a table of passion-against-income for each of them. I have estimated total royalties likely and have ignored PLR, so the income bit is not wholly accurate, but it gives an idea. So, in terms of percentage of income from writing, missing out one book that doesn't have a publisher yet (but is 10 on passion) and missing out the partial book, here's the breakdown:

% of income     passion rating 0-10 for book  number of books in this category

22%                  10                                         8
25%                   8                                          6
6%                     7                                          2
31%                   5                                          5
13%                   4                                          4
3%                     2                                          1

So if I had only written books I was passionate about (and we'll go down to 8, as fairly passionate about) I would have earned half as much. Which is not enough - though I can see that if I had other money from somewhere, it would have been a very nice sum to have.

There really are two classes of writer. Those who can afford to spend years on a book and accept a tiny advance are not professional writers. They may be published, and popular, and very good - but they are recreational or part-time writers. Professional writers need to worry about margins and expenses and need to negotiate good deals with their publishers. The recreational writers are no less 'real' writers, but their position is different - and they have no right to claim moral superiority or greater integrity on account of that position. Those of us who need to earn a living are not 'selling out'. A book should be judged on its own merits, and a writer shouldn't be judged at all.


  1. Oh, I am SO with you on this! A professional writer is one who makes a livable-on income from their writing. Every else may - and must - must be just as "professional" in their approach to their work but if they are living off a day-job or a partner or any of those other things, then they are not a professional writer.

    They should settle for "published" writer" which should be a sign of excellence and is not income-related.

  2. You are absolutely right.

    I am privileged, and I know it. No rich spouse, but I'm widowed and my children have flown, so only have my own needs to pay for. I'm retired, and my pensions gives me enough to live on and to travel. So my writing is a joy - and if it gives other people joy, then that's a bonus.

    My only defence - I do know just how lucky I am.

  3. I wonder where I fit into this. I 'live off a day job' so to speak, but the day job is business writing. So I do write for a living, and the income ranks 10 and the passion ranks between 1 and 3 at best. My fiction ranks 10 for passion and between 0 and 1 for income.

    Does this make me a professional writer? I write for a living; the bulk of it just happens to be for an audience of business people rather than young readers.

    1. It's an interesting question - I don't know! I guess different people draw the line in different places.

      I sometimes do some educational computer writing when I get too poor (mostly courses or revision guides for learndirect, so for the general populace but through a business/educational organisation). I don't count those if listing my writing. But I also don't count journalism, and that is professional writing, just not what I do most of the time. So I suppose I count things that can be bought from bookshops/Amazon and have an ISBN. But that's just my personal method.

  4. The problem is that a writer aiming for traditional publishing has to please an agent and a publisher before accessing readers - and readers' taste is different from that of publishing professionals.

    One advantage of self-publishing is skipping the agent/publisher hurdle. I can only speak for myself, but I've found if I like what I've written, a proportion of readers will too. If I wrote with one eye on a publisher, I doubt my writing would improve or appeal more to my readers.

    It's also easier for an indie author to make reasonable money from a good ebook. Print books, of course, are another matter; but they are inevitably becoming less important.

    1. I don't know of anyone making good money from independent ebooks in the children's market, Lexi, which is why I didn't consider it. But if you make enough to live on from sales of your ebooks, that makes you a professional!

  5. I wonder then, why is it necessary to make the distinction between 'professional' and 'non-professional' if it's simply a case of how one makes a living, not the quality of the writing? Why does it matter what you call yourself? What point is being made here?

  6. The point I am making is that those who say you should only 'write what you are passionate about' (and often claim the moral high ground because they do so) are generally not having to make a living from their writing, so they can afford to be picky. And privilege is no grounds for claiming a monopoly on integrity. The post was not about whether anyone calls themselves professional, but about the division in the writing community between those who can afford to indulge their passion and those who need to put food on the table and bricks in the wall. And how the former should not accuse the latter of 'selling out'. I am not talking about the quality of writing - a professional writer might write bodice-rippers of low quality but high sales, but they are still professional writers if that's how they live.

  7. Yet another superb blog post. I love your last sentence. Always, always informative, frank and eloquent.

  8. Your Low Passion Writing that pays the way is effectively your 'day job' - hence your profession. No one has any right to be morally superior but they'll be so none-the-less - I get it all the time - I'm an unpublished writer so even lower down the pecking order - shrug it off Anne - you write excellent books, High or Low passion.

  9. All I can say is, you're lucky to be able to have writing as a day job. The kind of advance you get? The best I ever got was A$ 3000 for a YA novel. I don't have support either, and bills have to be paid. By your reckoning, few Australian writers are professionals! The vast majority have to work outside the home and I don't mean school visits. We don't have a big enough population to allow us to stay home and write. Even the education market has dried up in the last few years for all but a few of us. I have done some education books for a pittance but at least the royalties come in, though not enough to pay my bills. So be glad you can make a living, if a small one! Your agent is good value, appreciate him/her. And please don't refer to good, hardworking writers as "recreational"! I regard myself as a professional and so do my publishers.

    1. Sue, this post is not about 'professionalism' and I am not criticising anyone for how they make money! I am complaining about those few writers who take the moral high ground and criticise others for writing anything that they are not putting their heart and soul into. I am NOT criticising people who do other work - I am saying that I do other work, but that it is other writing and don't see why I should be criticised for that.

      You fall into my category of professional writer anyway as you are using money from writing in order to live. If, at the same time, you criticise me for writing about (say) vehicles or something else I'm not passionate about instead of getting a different day job, then you are one of the people I am grumbling about. But even then I would be grumbling about your attitude to me, not about what you do.

      By the way, no-one has any idea of the advances I get. I gave an example of the largest advance someone(else) might expect, a biggish-name UK novelist who has regular fiction contracts with a large publisher. I am not that type of writer, but that's the type of person who usually makes the 'write what you're passionate about' statement, so I'm using their world to answer it.

      I said 'recreational or part-time'. That is two categories. You are clearly part-time. How is that offensive? Some people are recreational - they write at weekends because they enjoy it and don't make any money from it (and many don't want to - it's recreation). I am not calling any hard-working writers anything. By the way, it's also possible to work hard at something that is recreational, and I'm sure any recreational activity is more rewarding if you work hard at it than if you don't.

      I am not using 'professional' as a mark of quality. A profession is something that generates an income. A vocation is something people are drawn to do. You can be a professional and vocational writer, or you can be one or the other.

      You and I are in the same category: people who need money to live on. I said 'We either have a different day job, or we write other things.' You do one, I do the other. I don't expect to be criticised for writing other things, any more than I would expect someone to be criticised for also being a lawyer, farmer, psychotherapist or postman (all real examples).

  10. Thank you so much for airing this subject. I envy those who can take a purely artistic view of their work, because the money is not a primary concern, but in some ways I think I am more motivated and driven to achieve precisely because I do need to make my living.
    I do count journalism as part of my writing income, I also teach, do manuscript appraisals and school visits. I have to think about the market when I embark on projects, as none of these things pay brilliantly. I tend to find that it's the journalism on which I compromise the most - I can't be as picky as I might like about the commissions I accept.
    I also think there's another danger with the 'write what you like' advice, in that a good writer may end up feeling like a reject and failure because there is no place for their work in the market.