Books Columns

How not to earn a living

More and more books are published but life is hard for the aspiring writer

This article is taken from the November issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


In the old days most surveys of literary opinion confined themselves to politics and international affairs. How were you intending to vote in the general election? What did you think of the Iraq War? Here in a cash-strapped age, the focus tends to be narrowly economic. How much do you earn? What do you think the chances are of this sum increasing? To which the answers, unless one happens to be Jojo Moyes or Ken Follett, are a) “not very much”; and b) “infinitesimal”.

The statistics bear this out. According to the most recent survey undertaken by the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (50,000 respondents), average earnings in 2018 were just over £16,000. Median earnings, meanwhile, had dropped to £10,400, meaning that 50 per cent of the people giving their occupation as “writer” collect a mere two-fifths of the average national wage. Oh, and the top 10 per cent — those Booker winners and Netflix laureates — still bear away nearly three-quarters of the profession’s total receipts.

As literary historians will tell you, it was not always thus. Hugh Walpole, arriving in London in 1909, took home £5 a week from his job at the literary agent Curtis Brown and a novel-reviewing gig for a daily newspaper, while expending 4 shillings a week on his Chelsea bedsitter. His modern equivalent, even if he could find anyone prepared to give him a weekly reviewing slot, would doubtless end up paying all the proceeds out in rent. These are tough times for a precarious trade. How are apprentices supposed to survive?

If this kind of lifestyle wasn’t easy to sustain in the era of Mrs Thatcher, it is even less supportable now: the money has gone, along with the opportunity

The old-style pre-internet, pre-Amazon literary career went something like this. You turned up in London after university, begged a room in somebody’s flat at a tiny rent (£30 a week, say, in the early Eighties), took low-level part-time jobs (bookshop assistant/waitress/clerk) and spent your leisure hours haunting literary editors’ offices until someone took pity on you. Having established yourself as a reviewer, usually by being as rude as possible to every established reputation that came your way, you angled for a publisher’s commission or a newspaper column.

If this kind of lifestyle wasn’t easy to sustain in the era of Mrs Thatcher, it is even less supportable now: the money has gone, along with the opportunity. Newspaper book supplements grow thinner by the week, diminish in clout (the Guardian) or take the reviewing in-house (the Financial Times and to a lesser extent the Sunday Times) while slashing the rates as they go.

The Guardian might still pay £300 for a novel review but the days when a star reviewer could occupy the same column-space week in and week out are as dead as the collected edition or books of belles-lettres with titles like Pencillings in Pastoral.

The same constraints apply to publishers’ advances. It is perfectly possible to read a rave review of a first novel in The Times that might sell 1,500 copies, while bringing its proud author all of £3,000, less income tax and agent’s commission of 15 per cent. There is plenty of money sluicing around in the world of books, but the people who earn it, beyond the pantheon of the Sunday Times top ten, tend to be middlemen, publishers and, above, all distributors.

You are, let us say, a twenty-something wannabe trying to support yourself while writing the novel that is going to knock Hilary Mantel into a cocked hat. What do you do? Option one is to take a job in a sphere stratospherically removed from the world of books — drudge in an office or stack shelves in a supermarket. This will keep body and soul together but has the disadvantage of being physically arduous, thereby making it difficult to work when you come home in the evenings.

Option two is to finesse your way into a university creative writing department. Creative writing — I speak as one determined to foul his own nest — is a terrific racket, built on a coterie spirit and a determination to teach the unteachable, but a necessary one, for without it hundreds of talented people would have nowhere to go.

Option three is to find a berth in the still-burgeoning corporate communications industry, writing press releases for investment banks or drafting speeches for the boardroom ornaments of London EC2.

Of these, option three is probably the best-paid, although the hours are likely to be long, the company uncongenial and the atmosphere snobbish (most City eminences have a fine old contempt for anyone in “marketing”.) Option two is certainly the cushiest (long holidays, conference appearances, etc) while inherently tedious (university lecturers are always up to their ears in “admin”) and harbouring its own built-in paradox. For what is a university creative writing department there to do except flood an already overcrowded bourse with yet more desperate trainees?

And so, ladies and gentlemen, aspiring authors all, welcome to UK Bookworld 2020, a curious, chaotic and underfunded landscape, in which more and more books are published and yet hardly anybody makes any money out of them.

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