How to make a living from writing: some useful tips from the London Book Fair #lbf

helena fairfax, author, freelance editor
The Olympia Hall, venue for the London Book Fair

My first ever visit to the London Book Fair was an inspiring and thought-provoking day. One of the talks at Author HQ was on how writers can boost their earnings. The room was packed, indicating that this is a hot topic for many!

Most authors earn less than a living wage from their books alone, and so like all the other writers there, I was furiously scribbling notes…

How to make a living from writinghelena fairfax, freelance editor

This was a panel discussion run by the CEO of the Society of Authors, Nicola Solomon, together with Management Committee members Philip Womack and Woodrow Phoenix.

In a way it was heartening to know that successful, well-respected authors such as these also struggle to make a living solely from their books, and that most of us are not alone.

Philip Womack is the author of six children’s novels. He was first published ten years ago, at the age of 26. He commented that publishers’ advances are in decline, and he’s still not making a living from his books.

Woodrow Phoenix is an artist and illustrator and also the author of children’s books. He commented that he made more money as an illustrator for magazines and newspapers than he does from his books.

Self-publishing vs traditional publishing

We learned that statistically, self-publishers don’t do as well financially as the traditionally published, but research has shown they are happier, even though they have to do all their own

helena fairfax, freelance editor
The London Book Fair

marketing, etc.

My comment: I’m certainly happier self-publishing my fiction than I was with my publishers, and I actually make more money at it. I also know authors who make a good living from being self-published. It’s definitely not a route to rule out.

Philip Womack commented: “Traditionally published authors benefit from the support of their editors, and they have greater opportunities to benefit from the sales of rights to their books.”

My comment: I provide freelance fiction editing services for self-published authors and I offer them more support than I received when I was with my publishers. (And one of my publishers sold the north American rights to one of my books without discussing it with me first, and it has caused me a lot of problems – and a loss of earnings!)

Literary agents – do you need one?

If you get an agent, it’s important to remember that that agent will usually take 15% of your earnings.

Philip Womack revealed he had had three agents, but recently made a book deal on his own after getting the contract checked by the Society of Authors. (If you’re a member of the SoA, they will give you advice on a contract before you sign. Well worth joining the SoA for that alone!)

Woodrow Phoenix has also had three agents, but gave up two of them because he found he could get work without them. (He kept his agent in France, where it’s obviously more difficult for someone in the UK to find work alone.)

Authors have a portfolio of careers

Nicola Solomon listed the various ways many writers supplement their income:

  • teaching
  • writing for newspapers
  • attending festivals
  • becoming a writer-in-residence
  • private tutoring

Philip Womack does all of the above, but he said it was very hard work. He got into creative writing teaching after writing book reviews for newspapers.

Woodrow Phoenix made a very good point: no one is going to make money for us – we have to work out how to make it for ourselves, for example by pitching to publishers/newspapers. We have to do a lot of speculative work, which all takes time and is unpaid.

How important are contacts in a writing career?

For Philip Womack, contacts were incredibly important. All his books were accepted by chatting to people first.

helena fairfax, freelance editor
Manuscript wish list feed #mswl

My comment: Having to go out and make contacts is one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. A lot of writers (probably most of us) are introverts, and sometimes even having a conversation with a stranger is a big step, let alone going out hustling for work and trying to promote ourselves.

Woodrow Phoenix revealed he had got work through making contacts on Twitter. For an artist/illustrator, the Twitter route could be easier than for a writer, although there are plenty of networking opportunities on Twitter, and there are writers who have had their manuscripts accepted after Twitter pitches, or after responding to a #mswl (manuscript wish list) hashtag.

Six phrases guaranteed to make you money as a writer
  1. ‘What is the fee?’
  2. ‘Sorry, I can’t work for free.’
  3. ‘Is that your best offer?’
  4. ‘What about my out-of-pocket expenses?’
  5. ‘I need compensation for my travel/preparation time.’
  6. ‘My rate for this activity is £…’

The advice from the panel was not to worry about saying these phrases or to feel embarrassed about mentioning money – and that you will actually look more professional if you do. And don’t let people guilt-trip you into doing something for free.

If an event is for charity, ask the organisers to donate your fee to the charity, and credit you – and you can also ask the organisers ‘are you getting paid for this?’ If the organisers are getting paid, why should they ask the writer to do it for free?

Getting funding

An important source of extra income for British and Irish authors can be had by registering their books for the following:

helena fairfax, freelance fiction editor
      Library image courtesy of Pixabay

From experience, I can say it’s well worth authors signing up at both these websites. Many authors receive money from them twice a year, and can even earn more this way than they do from their royalties.

  • The Society of Authors administers a number of grants for authors which are worth investigating.
“You don’t have to be ashamed to be in this job for money.” Philip Pullman

It’s very un-British to talk about money, and writers often find it even more difficult than most. People assume we’re writing for our arts’ sake, when in reality, we have to live, and we’re writing in order to earn a crust.

The panel discussed how asking for money for writing is different from other trades. Many people have an idea for a book and think it would be a fairly easy job to write it up, if only they had the time. People don’t appreciate the time and effort that goes into being a professional author. Even after ‘The End’ has been written, the book will then go through several rounds of rewrites and edits, all of which are hard work and take time.

Besides all this, professional writers tend not to moan or make a fuss about their jobs, even when it’s hard work, which contributes to the perception that it’s easy and therefore not worth paying someone a lot of money for.


I left this talk feeling resolved to be far more assertive about asking for money for my time and skills – easier said than done!

If you’re an author, do you still have a full-time job? Do you do any other writing-related work to supplement your income? 

If you have any comments at all, or any other advice on ways authors can earn a living, I’d love to hear from you!



34 thoughts on “How to make a living from writing: some useful tips from the London Book Fair #lbf

  1. Thanks for this. I’ve been mainstream published and am now self-published under my own imprint. I so agree with the ‘we are happier’. I have far more control, and, as I write a series, my earnings go up with every book.I also think you get sales through social media (Twitter is great), and by articles in writing magazines. I am on various Twitter # (mainly Brexit related) and am surprised by the amount of people who are reading my books. Once people get to know you, they are far more likely to want to read your books.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Carol, thanks for your interesting comment. It’s taken me a long time to get the most out of Twitter, and I’m still not sure I do. One of the comments at the talk – which I didn’t write up here – was to remember to treat Twitter like a conversation, and that it’s no point going on there and tweeting ‘Buy my book’ six times a day. I do follow hashtags on Twitter (it’s great for breaking news!) Now I need to learn to engage more and to reply to tweets that are interesting.
      I totally agree that once you’ve built up online friendships with people, they are more likely to buy your books. This is something I’ve seen many self-published authors do very well indeed.
      Thanks so much for dropping in, and for your great comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wonderful post, Helena. Such an interesting event. I don’t believe there is anything like PLR (Public Lending Rights) in the States. My books are constantly taken out from libraries in Wisconsin. I check at times. I can’t even imagine getting paid each time.

    I also enjoy being out on my own and have made earned more money than with a publisher. Best wishes to you in all your writing endeavors!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Our libraries are under threat here, Susan, and many are closing down. It’s a great shame for local communities when that happens. The PLR system is a real boon for authors. I hope we don’t lose that too!
      That’s great news that you’re making more now as a self-published author. I hope you go from strength to strength. Thanks very much for dropping in, and for your comment!


  3. Sounds like a super conference, Helena. And you’ve got great tips here. Just knowing all writers aren’t making a ton of money, and it’s not just me who isn’t is comforting. :) I’m putting out my next book entirely on D 2 D and I’m curious how it will work. Should be easier for me, since I won’t be uploading to each site myself. Will have to see how sales go. I’m planning a sale on the first in the series the week before the 4th book comes out. April 16. Hoping that will jump start things. Authors are incredibly generous with info. I’ve shared this post.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Marsha, congratulations on getting your fourth book out. I’m curious, too, to know how you get on with D2D. Everyone recommends writing a series as the way to go, and to have the first book in the series on permanent offer. Very best of luck with it. Thanks for dropping in!


  5. Hi Helena, fascinating post, and there’s something warming (and alarming) to know more successful authors struggle to make ends meet. I still have a full-time job (35hrs) which covers financial obligations, and am lucky that I’m able to fit my writing in before work (though the 5am starts do take a toll).
    Even though I didn’t get in to writing to make money, the dream is still to make enough in royalties to give up the day job. Just got to find that bestselling idea. If you spot one, send it my way 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s so difficult fitting in writing around the jobs that bring in the real money. Carrying on takes dedication and hard work. I admire you for your 5 am starts. At the moment my writing start is at 6.30. I write as much as I can then go on to my editing work – the work that pays the bills.
      I don’t know anyone who went into writing who thought it would be an easy route to riches. It would be an absolute dream, though!
      Thanks so much for dropping in, and for your great comment. Wishing you the best of luck with your writing!


  6. That was very interesting, Helena – don’t know if I’ll ever get to the Book Fair! I do agree about the happier comment – and even to some extent earning more by doing it ourselves. My best publisher out of the four small ones I had did have better reach than I do, but I’ve earned more from my other books by getting the rights back and doing it myself.
    I also write occasional Scottish articles for a US magazine and occasional short stories in magazines. Have also supplemented my income by doing talks, adjudications and workshops for Scottish writing groups. I’m adjudicating at the SAW weekend conference (Friday to Sunday next weekend) and doing a workshop on the Saturday. Scottish conferences and groups tend to always pay their authors too which is great!

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Hi Rosemary, you are a great example of an author with a portfolio career. That’s interesting about writing for the US magazine. I hadn’t thought of approaching any magazines outside the UK. It’s also great for you that Scottish groups are more likely to pay!
    Thanks for dropping in, and for your comment. Have a great time at the SAW conference!


    1. Hello Richard, it’s a big decision whether to go self-published or not. Many authors are hybrids these days. My non-fiction book is with a publisher and I’m enjoying being with them. I also love the independence and control I have with my self-published fiction. Good luck, whatever you decide. Thanks for dropping in, and for your comment!


  8. All very interesting. I’d also be interested to find out whether the writers who make their living solely from writing are actually supporting themselves and their lifestyle absolutely solo. Ie, are they paying their entire mortgage, all their household bills etc totally solo, or do they have another wage-earning adult in the household?

    People mean different things by ‘making a living’ from writing; for some it simply means earning any kind of income whilst for others it means being able to support a household without any other income coming in.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Jane, that’s an interesting point. Personally I understand ‘making a living’ to mean earning enough money to support a household. The number of writers who can do this from sales of their books alone must be very low.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Anita. Sorry to miss you, too! I only decided to come at the last minute, because of family problems. I’m so glad I did make it. It was a really interesting day. Thanks very much for dropping in, and for your comment!


  9. A useful post for me to read. Thank you. I have just finished the first draft of my first book and know I have far too much to learn in one lifetime! I usually earn a living researching, writing and directing feature documentaries. My top tip to take away from that profession is definately don’t be shy in asking for the going rate for a writer, especially in the USA. We all have to have portfolio careers so earning a living as a teacher and writing too is not a problem is it? Being a “house husband” didn’t stop me writing films. It just means a 16 hour work day!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Steve, we do all have to have portfolio careers, you’re right. In a way it’s not a problem – as long as you are being paid fairly for the work you do as a writer. So often people expect you to work for free. Readers often even expect you to give a way your book for free. I don’t think there’s any other trade that is so undervalued.
      Congratulations on getting the first draft of your book done, and best wishes for the editing process. I’m glad the post was useful. Thanks for dropping in, and for taking the time to comment!


      1. Oh trust me, I have earned no profit on my latest feature film for the last 3 years!!! A true labour of love or I’m an idiot more like. I console myself by writing stories anyway because I just need a pencil and paper to create something and I can use a pen name so no-one knows its me writing this rubbish. That’s why what you do is important. Supporting other writers is essential for the common good. I can’t afford to attend events just now so it’s great to get your feedback. Thank you.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Helena, this is a lovely post. It’s hard to write a book but it’s sometimes harder to get it published. I would also like to have a published book someday. Good luck to all the writers, you guys are an inspiration.


    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment, NJ. It’s so true what you say about the difficulties of getting a book published. All the successful writers I know work hard – and they persevere when others would have given up. Thanks for your kind wishes. Wishing you all the best with your writing!


  11. I’m glad that I found this article. I’ve almost finished something and I’m getting ready to push out some pitches. Actually I’m keeping a diary of my progress to help me finish it. I’ve been thinking heavily about networking.


    1. Wishing you the very best of luck with your pitches. And yes, networking is invaluable. I’m grateful to all the friends I’ve made in the writing community for their advice and support. Thanks very much for dropping in – and good luck!


  12. I know I’m late to this … a superb article and engrossing read! Your comments to self are excellent and helpful. This has given me a lot to think about and a real boost to ask for money for talks etc … or donation to charity if a charitable event! Have a great time there this year.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Thanks, Annika. It was great to refresh my own mind with this post. I do find it hard to be assertive when asking for money. Reading through this again has reminded me that I need to bite the bullet and not feel embarrassed. Wishing you good luck with it, too!


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