The Long Haul
Can I make a Living?
Most new writers dream of the time when they will become established and be able to live by their writing. The reality is that few established writers – even those widely considered ‘leaders’ in their field – can actually afford to do so. Literary publishing rarely makes either party involved in its creation and promotion – writer or publisher – rich. And, if you’re a poet, there is no money to be made from the actual product itself.
Of course, there are always notable exceptions. And, as always, it’s the exceptions that often appear to be – largely due to the attention they tend to attract in the media – more of a rule. Certainly, a combination of great talent, hard work and determination is crucial for any writer to realistically anticipate publication and some degree of acclaim. But for those who go further, whose profile and sales go stratospheric, there are often other enabling factors, not the least of which that most fickle mistress: chance. Being in the right place at the right time and – what’s more to the point – writing at the right time, can make all the difference to a career. For all the effort that you put into your writing, you cannot control the zeitgeist. Even heavyweight publishers who play a significant role in defining the market have tried and failed. Today’s much hyped one thousand-page epic may sink without trace, for all the efforts of the marketing department. Tomorrow’s quiet coming of age novella may become a sleeper hit with both critics and the public, leaving its publisher more bewildered than anyone else. It goes to show that you never can tell.
Given that a typical advance and the projected royalties from the sales of a work of fiction of modest success are unlikely to amount to a living wage for the majority writers, they generally have to balance their creative passions with the more prosaic matter of making money. Most will keep the day job. Some may keep the day job but change track – to become full-time lecturers in creative writing or take up residencies at one of the many burgeoning creative writing departments across the UK.
Of course, some writers do choose to quit the day job and go freelance. The life of a freelance writer is often regarded as glamorous and exciting. In reality, it’s a financially precarious and often highly stressful occupation, subject to many volatile external factors. Even extremely successful, well-established freelancers will tell you that it’s more often a famine than a feast. It’s also highly competitive and almost all freelancers have significant journalistic training, experience and plenty of excellent contacts.
Most published writers, whether they work full-time or freelance, can and do earn some money by ad hoc teaching on residential courses or workshops, literary readings and creative commissions or appearances for broadcast on radio or TV. The level of income generated from these kinds of work can vary quite considerably, but fees will increase exponentially according to your critical and/or commercial reception, and seniority.
Readings and other types of ancillary work are, for most writers, enjoyable ways of supplementing an income but, whatever end of the spectrum you happen to be at, the opportunities can’t be regularly relied upon – and fees offered will, in any case, never amount to a living wage. Despite this, the work you do get will be very important. A good performance at a well-attended reading can help to sell books and, at the very least, it will help to enhance your profile (and profile enhancement is something the literary writer can never have too much of). Workshops, equally, promote interest in your work. And if you’re fortunate enough to have your fiction, creative non-fiction or poetry broadcast on TV or radio, then this can sometimes meaningfully boost sales.
Most of this type of work will only be offered to you once you have published a book. Do not pester organisers of distinguished literary festivals or residential courses to book you. You’ll be wasting your time and, of course, theirs. And they may be considerably less pleased about this than you are. Progress in literary life is based largely on merit and professionalism. It takes time and effort to build up a body of work and to carve out a reputation for reliability and decency. Things won’t happen overnight.
Opportunities for readings, however, will come along a long time before you’ve attracted a publisher. Because of the importance of readings in eventually helping to market your work and the fact that good readers of their work enjoy more regular work than poor readers, it’s a great idea to get your practice in now. Attend local readings. Connect with the good people who get things done – at the grassroots level. Connect with other writers. Be enthusiastic and personable. Take part in open mike nights – a hugely fun way to hone your skills and gain confidence in front of a crowd, and a brilliant chance to make new friends. Do well and you may be asked to do a longer ‘slot’ in the future, and perhaps, eventually, an entire set. For more information on open mike click here.