Friday, May 16, 2008

The Cost of Letters

Matt Curran has bowled us all a typically challenging googly over at the Macmillan New Writers' blog:

This year sees the 10th anniversary of a “lost” book that caused a small stir on its publication. The Cost of Letters – a Waterstone’s publication, and their most important publication for some years – was about setting the record straight both for consumer and potential writer, around the finances of writing. For this they plundered the opinions of writers such as Will Self, Sebastian Faulks, Jane Rogers, Fay Weldon and Melvyn Bragg, and compared them to 1948 authors such as George Orwell, Dylan Thomas and Cyril Connolly – authors that were approached in 1946 to answer a post-war questionnaire on the big issue: “How much do you think a writer needs to live on?”
Matt invited the MNW gang to answer the questions themselves and, always eager for a new blog topic, I'm happy to oblige:

How much do you think a writer needs to live on?
This depends entirely on individual circumstances: the answer essentially is "the same as any other profession". I live in south-east England, with a hefty mortgage and a daughter to put through university. If I was fresh out of university myself, single, and willing to live in the arse-end of nowhere, I could get by on rather less... On the whole I'm happy not be in the latter position, and embrace my financial commitments freely.

Do you think a serious writer can earn this sum by his writing and if so, how?
God knows... In most cases, almost certainly not. But the important question is less about the amount than the predictability. I can conceive--just--of writing a book successful enough that with a year's royalities, subsidiary rights, and an advance on the next book, I could make as much money in a year as I do in my profession (already this is a stretch...). But what I can't imagine is doing it every year. Although the British public sector is certainly not a job for life (my own organasation now goes through an annual spasm of redundancies as a matter of course), as long as I stay in the job, I know roughly what my income is for the next year. For a full-time writer, barring the freak of a book so successful it sets the author up for life, solvency will always be uncertain.

If not, what do you think is a suitable second occupation for him*?


My own occupation--public sector accountant--is not too bad for a writer. It pays well enough that I can treat the writing as hobby without (most of the time) the job destroying my ability to do something else in the evening. (On the other hand, I am outraged at the thought that because the job makes me a higher rate taxpayer, 40% of any income I make goes straight to the taxman, unless I take elaborate steps to minimise it).

Other professional options: Higher/Further education lecturer (not school teacher), particularly creative writing; freelance anything. Both options allow sufficient periods away from work to devote to writing.

Do you think literature suffers from the diversion of a writer’s energy into other employments or is enriched by it?
Depends entirely on the job. A writer who writes about "real life" benefits from living it. A fantasist, who arguably has less point of contact with the real world, has less need of that kind of interaction. But I can't imagine any of us envisage writing seven hours a day, 48 weeks a year.

Do you think the state or any other institution should do more for writers?
The economics of this proposition are barmy. There are already too many writers--there's no incentive for the state to create more of them. The people who really want to write, will. Writers need to be pretty independent-minded people; they're also generally a supportive bunch. We can look after ourselves. Other than addressing my grievance of tax on second incomes--which will never happen--the state has role to play here. (This question really does reek of 1946!)

Are you satisfied with your own solution of the problem and have you any specific advice to give young people who wish to earn their living by writing?
I am making a decent living and I also have time to write (although I'd like more). "Satisfied" in the sense of "barely adequate" is just about right, I think.

As to advice to others, if you're expecting to make a living from writing, forget it. Plough your energies instead into doing the best work you can, and having the most fun with it. If you're in this for the money, someone has sold you some ultra-dud information. And if any of you would like to buy London Bridge, get in touch and we'll work something out.

*err...not my word. I understand that female literacy is increasingly widespread, and that some women have occupations too...


David Isaak said...

The gigolo option sounds intriguing. How exactly does one prepare for that as a secondary career? Are there trade schools? Do you get a certificate?

Alis said...

'A fantasist, who arguably has less point of contact with the real world, has less need of that kind of interaction.'

Apart, presumably, from the need to study human nature and human interactions as the best fantasy (the best writing in any genre) has believable characters interacting in psychologically real and emotionally truthful ways?

Your 'gigolo' did make me laugh - another example of incongruity in comedy - just wasn't expecting it!

Tim Stretton said...

As you say, Alis, fantasy does not acquit the author of the obligation to create nuanced characters who strike some emotional resonance with the reader (although reading some fantasy I'm not sure how widely the point is acknowledged).

What the fantasist doesn't need to do is to create an environment which is familiar to the reader - so when I'm writing I don't need to know how teenagers dress, say, or what songs are in the chart. And that's probably for the best...

And as for gigolos, David - I run a course on the subject. For only $2,000 I can provide informative materials via the Internet, with your diploma and accrediation for free!

David Isaak said...

Ah, so that's how you've really solved the problem of a writer's income...