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 writing
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
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:
- 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.
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
- ‘What is the fee?’
- ‘Sorry, I can’t work for free.’
- ‘Is that your best offer?’
- ‘What about my out-of-pocket expenses?’
- ‘I need compensation for my travel/preparation time.’
- ‘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?
An important source of extra income for British and Irish authors can be had by registering their books for the following:
- PLR (Public Lending Rights), which is a legal right to payment each time a book is borrowed from libraries
- ALCS (The Authors’ Licensing Collecting Society), who make sure writers receive the money they are entitled to when someone copies their work.
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!