Writing Qs: What Are Words Worth?

Over the past decade, I’ve been a frequent speaker at book events and festivals, bringing me into contact with a great many readers, as well as writers in the early stages of their own careers.  Naturally, lots of ‘how to’ questions arise, and in this short series of interviews I hope to answer some of those questions, to encourage more writers to take their work seriously and follow their ambitions.  
Here, I cover the tricky subject of writer’s pay, and consider what it takes to make this precarious career choice work.

‘How much do you earn as a professional writer?’

Recent findings by the Authors’ Licensing and Collection Society (ALCS) on the subject of writers’ declining earnings make hard reading for anyone who relies on writing for their livelihood. The report states that professional writers (people dedicating over half their time to writing) now make an average income of under £10,500 — 42% down in real terms in the twelve years since 2005. While the survey gives no conclusion as to the reason for this fall, anecdotally, it is suggested that it can be attributed to declining advances and commission fees.

Every year, as writers prepare their annual tax returns, a growing number find themselves questioning the career choice they’ve made, as they once again fall below the taxable threshold, the advice ‘don’t give up the day job’ still ringing in their ears. By necessity, a large proportion of writers have a portfolio career, made up of several different jobs that enable them to continue writing and earn a decent living. Tom Connolly is one such writer: ‘To start, writing novels was something financed by my work as a film-maker. Now, the books have won me writing work, as a screenwriter and writing copy and content, some radio too. Whilst this makes for a rewarding creative mix, it is also laughably insecure and very demanding and the idea of making a living, of supporting my family, solely from writing novels remains in the realm of fiction.’

Sit down in a room full of writers, and you’re likely to hear stories of struggle and compromise that would test the most resilient individuals. ‘No, really,’ I regularly find myself telling friends who think I’ve made it, ‘I’m not the next J. K. Rowling.’ I laugh with them, ‘Ha-ha, yes, maybe one day!’ but inside, I’m taking a deep breath, because in low-income years it can be hard to stay positive. Writing is a career choice of highs and lows, in all manner of ways.

As self-employed creatives, writers are often concerned not only with the writing of their work, but also with the business of ‘getting it out there’. We have poured ourselves into our books, we’ve worked closely with our agents, editors and publicists to launch them into the world, we’ve watched eagerly for the reviews and coveted awards … and then, what? For many, the deafening post-release silence is a troubling period. Diverting ourselves with writing-related assignments can therefore be a gratifying and productive use of time, not to mention providing an additional source of income. But what happens when we are offered these gigs only to find there is to be no financial recompense? Do we accept them, in the hope that we’ll sell dozens of books and garner spade-loads of ‘exposure’? Do we feel flattered that the festival organiser or media editor picked us, when they could have offered the opportunity to someone else? Does this mean our career is finally on the up? Would we be missing out if we said no?

You get the picture. We writers can be an anxious bunch; no surprise when you think of the precarious nature of the industry we find ourselves working in. It is easy to allow seemingly hopeless news, such as the ALCS findings, to affect our optimism and creativity, and for this reason it becomes increasingly important that we take back some control in terms of the work we do, and how we charge for it. As individuals – and as a community of writers – we need to make this self-employed business of ‘writing’ work.

Don’t get me wrong; I’ve done my fair share of unpaid gigs. For the first couple of years after my debut was released in 2009, I said ‘yes’ to just about every event, workshop and article offered to me, as much for ‘exposure’ as for investigating the industry and the way it operated. Today, whilst I identify with the many motivations for saying ‘yes’, including publicity, connections and pleasure, I also feel strongly that society has an obligation to place value on writing, and ultimately on reading. If writers stop writing – or worse still, new writers (fearing a life of poverty) don’t begin at all – what will our cultural landscape look like? Talking in The Bookseller on the subject of falling incomes, author Paul McVeigh says: ‘Working-class writers can’t afford to take up a career in writing, it is considered elitist and too risky. Families with uncertain incomes often expect their children to leave education earlier and to support them, and press them to get a “proper” job rather than rely on writing.’

Speaking of the reason for his 2016 resignation as patron of Oxford Literary Festival, Philip Pullman explained, ‘The principle is very simple: a festival pays the people who supply the marquees, it pays the printers who print the brochure, it pays the rent for the lecture halls and other places, it pays the people who run the administration and the publicity, it pays for the electricity it uses, it pays for the drinks and dinners it lays on: why is it that the authors, the very people at the centre of the whole thing, the only reason customers come along and buy their tickets in the first place, are the only ones who are expected to work for nothing?’

The Society of Authors has consistently campaigned for fair pay: ‘We believe authors should be paid for the work they do. Paying authors shows proper recognition of their professional status, skills and experience and allows them to maintain a career. Authors should feel comfortable asking to be fairly paid and should not be put under pressure to work for free.’ This last point is unquestionable in terms of logic, but perhaps easier said than done; many writers I know find it difficult or embarrassing to discuss the topic of payment, perhaps having been burnt in the past. Indeed, I was recently invited to ‘run a session’ at a forthcoming literary festival, and on replying with a friendly request for further details of format and fees, I was met with silence. I never heard from them again. Thankfully, I’m seasoned enough to not be bruised by the experience, but early in my career that would have caused me to question my value. These days I’m more robust, in part because I’ve found it necessary to develop a loose rule of thumb on what I now will and won’t do for free, along with a go-to script to follow when I do charge, finding confidence in quoting directly from The Society of Authors’ Guidance on Rates and Fees (an indispensable source of information and support — see their website for details).

Today, I will comfortably turn down an unpaid engagement if I can’t see evidence that the event will be a) well attended, b) lead to book sales, and/or c) offer something of wider value, such as fundraising for a cause I support or encouraging more readers into my treasured local libraries. Essentially, the transaction, whether financial or not, has to be mutually advantageous for me to give up time I would otherwise spend writing. While I’ll happily give telephone interviews (which are quick, easy and provide great free PR), I will rarely write a magazine feature for nothing. Most magazines are profit-making entities which rely on good content; why should anyone provide that for free? At the same time, Kate Shaw of the Viney Shaw Agency points out how printed media can sometimes be a good potential source of new readers and income: ‘Indeed, a few years back, one of my clients agreed to do a ‘for free’ article set up by his publicist in a Sunday broadsheet to tie-in with the publication of his debut novel. Since then, he has had a permanent and well-paid writing job with that newspaper.’ Similarly, unpaid blog posts can generate powerful publicity, getting your book in front of the audience who matters the most – the readers – as can radio appearances, where the ‘exposure’ argument actually does stand up, resulting in sales spikes that are hard to argue with. And let us remind ourselves, this is what most of us are in it for: to sell our writing, to make a living doing the thing we do best, while bringing pleasure and experience to the maximum number of readers. How can we do this effectively, when we keep giving ourselves up for free?

Speaking on this subject, Nicola Solomon, Chief Executive of the Society of Authors says, ‘If authors can no longer afford to make a living from their work, the supply of new and innovative writing will simply dry up.’ None of us want that. We owe it to our profession, our craft, and our personal wellbeing to take control of the areas of our writing lives that we do have direct influence over — and demanding fair pay for fair work is a good start. Draw up your own set of rules; decide what you want to give away, and on what terms.  If we writers don’t think our words are worth anything, who else will?

Useful Links and Further Support for Writers:
The Society of Authors
The Royal Literary Fund
Public Lending Rights

Isabel Ashdown’s debut novel Glasshopper was published to critical acclaim in 2009, while she was studying for an MA in Creative Writing. She has since taught creative writing at West Dean College and at the University of Brighton, and she is currently a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the University of Chichester, where she previously studied. Her thriller Little Sister was shortlisted in the 2018 Dead Good Reader Awards, and she recently released her sixth novel, Beautiful Liars.

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