Every now and then (and usually in the US) people ask if I am, or refer to me as, a ‘full time writer’. This usually means do you/can you make your living from writing. I can and I do, but I’m fairly certain that people don’t always realise what that implies. For very many of us, the vast advances and publishing deals that are so blithely spoken of in the press, are simply not a reality. For MOST of us they’re not a reality. Even for those for whom it IS a reality, it’s not quite like that blissful myth of sitting in a pretty little cottage and writing 6 hours a day and finding cheques popping through your letterbox at regular intervals.
This is what I tell people at writing workshops :
You read the paper, you see that Joe Blogger has just sold their first book for £100,000. You are both very happy for them (they’re in your writing group) and intensely jealous. You assume they now have that £100,000 in their bank account. Wrong.
First, even if the deal you’ve read about hasn’t been inflated for media purposes, almost all book deals are for two or more books. (Yes, there are exceptions to every rule, I’m talking about most here.) So maybe Joe Blogger has signed a two-book deal for £100,000. That’s still not bad, right? Any money for making one’s own work is welcome indeed.
So, what Joe Blogger really has for their first book is £50,000. And Joe’s agent takes 15-20% of that. And Joe doesn’t get it all at once anyway. Joe gets one third on signing the contract, one third on delivery of the completed manuscript (which might be right now if Joe has finished the book, and might be in a while if Joe’s got one of those much-vaunted but pretty elusive deals based on 3 chapters and a synopsis), and one third when the book is published. Which may be many months or even a year or so away. (Some deals have paperback money as well if the book comes out in hardback first.)
Thus … what Joe might actually be getting, right here, right now, for their first book deal is … £100,000 divided by 2 for a 2-book deal, divided by 3 as this is the contract-signing payment and the other payments won’t come until later, minus 20% to the agent.
Done the maths? Yes, £13,333 (checks calculator twice more, re-does the sum in different form, same number comes up, phew!). Still not bad.
But how long has it taken Joe to write this book? If it’s only taken a year, then that’s a useful chunk of money to help Joe take some time off the ‘proper’ job and concentrate on the second book of that deal – the second book that now has to be delivered in 12 months or less. But what if Joe is getting £50,000 for the first book that took them 5 years to write, or 10 years? 15?
None of it is awful, I’d still rather be a book writer than most of my other jobs, including house cleaning for rich people or (the worst) working in a plywood factory. I know plenty of other ‘artistic’ jobs that pay plenty less. (Though I far prefer the word/concept craft to art anyway, more on that another day)
BUT, it’s not the same as the media image of how much a writer earns. For most of us it’s a very very long way from it. Danuta Kean has written brilliantly about this on her blog, with stats from the Writers Guild, but the most often quoted one (or the one I quote most often!) is that the average writer in the UK earns around £9000. If you factor JK Rowling and Andrew Davies into that equation, then you realise some “full time” writers must be earning hardly anything.
What helps? PLR (Public Lending Right) helps. It means that when you take my book out of the library, I earn a little bit of money. Some years 2p a time, some a bit more. ALCS (Authors Licensing and Collecting Society) helps. That means when your university tutor photocopies my essay/story/article to share with the group – and registers as having done so!! – I get a small payment. And, with a backlist of 11 books and dozens of stories an articles, it does add up. (I’ll no doubt go on at greater length about copyright and the vital importance of the money AND the moral rights to one’s own work another time.)
The point here is that, going into a new year, and thinking now about the book I want to start very soon, and the next one or maybe two after it, I start to wonder about the current financial climate and the future we’re heading into. I do believe I’m fortunate to make my living from work I (mostly!) enjoy. But there are very very few writers who do so from PURELY writing books. Most of us also write stories, articles, teach a bit, do a bit of broadcasting or presenting, give talks etc etc – we generally enjoy these things too. And sometimes we even get paid for them. Phew.
As for am I a full time writer? Well, today I have written this, (failed to successfully) unblock a drain, answered a bunch of emails, printed info and stuffed 20+ envelopes for my buddhist district, read and made notes on a friend’s new play, looked at the contract for a play I might direct later in 2009. It’s coming up for 2.30pm (on a ‘holiday’ day – no holiday pay for freelancers after all) and I’m ABOUT to start doing some work (research) for the new book. I think this probably is what being a full-time writer involves. But it’s definitely not the escaping-to-Tuscany myth about writing. (Then again, I usually prefer reality to running away!)

ps – yes, Joe can make royalties, eventually. AFTER the publishers have recouped their advance, and, depending on the contract, those royalties usually come in at somewhere between 7 and 12% of the ASKING price for the book. So if you buy the book at a discount for, ooh, I don’t know, £3.99, then Joe, on a good day, after the publishers have made their advance back, might get 10% of that £3.99 = 39.9p, agent again gets 20%, leaving Joe with a grand sum of almost 32p for that book. Again, it’s better than a poke in the eye, it’s more fun than working in a plywood mill, it has great chances and wonderful opportunities and some people who truly are making a brilliant living from it. And some who aren’t.