When I signed my first book contract, I figured things would play out like this:
- Book released – tours, interviews talks
- Writing opportunities come my way, doors open
- Sign next book contract, quit job to write
- Be full time author
Because that’s what authors do, right? That’s what all those other authors with books in stores are doing – they’re writing, that’s their job. Right?
Unfortunately, the reality of being a writer is somewhat different. The book was released and I did a few appearances and talks and interviews, which was all great, but it wasn’t an all-encompassing job that took up every moment of my life. I remember I bought a new diary to book in all my upcoming interviews and such, and in the first week there were a few entries. Then there weren’t many the next week, none the next month. Basically, there’s about a six week window of notoriety and coverage, then the world moves on.
Now, there are exceptions, of course, some books go massive, but for the vast majority of writers, your shelf life is pretty finite. It’s many, many months of work – years of work in most cases – then a blip of attention and celebration, then many, many more years of work again. The reality is, most writers don’t make enough money to be writers all the time. I eventually made a reasonable amount from my first book, but it wasn’t enough to justify quitting my job. In fact, in total, it wasn’t even half of my annual income from my regular employment. Even the most successful writers in Australia don’t make a heap of money – Richard Flanagan, who won the Booker Prize this year, he was considering going to work in the mines because times were getting tight. Making money from writing is tough, it’s constant work, and it’s something I didn’t really consider or know anything about going in.
How much is not enough?
A survey conducted earlier this year in the US found that 54% of ‘traditionally published’ authors make, on average, less than $1000 per annum from their writing. The same study found that only 1.3% of traditionally published authors make more than $100,000 a year. In the Australia, according to Payscale.com, the average wage for a writer/author is $32, 803 p.a. That’s actually considerably higher than I’d expect, and what I know from my own experience and authors I speak to. Annabel Smith wrote a good piece on the struggles of Australian authors in a piece for The Wheeler Centre earlier this year, outlining the challenges faced by authors, and the realities we have to confront, including, for most, (as noted by author Ryan O’Neill) that ‘writing must come second to better-paid work’. It’s the commercial reality of doing any art, really – few people ever get the opportunity to have their work published, and even fewer again have any chance of making it big and building a career around that success.
It’s more obvious in the world of music – there are thousands of bands who work tirelessly and do everything they possibly can to get their music released, only to see it burn out quick and they’re back to where they started. The memory of the public is very short, for example, take a look at this chart of Google searches for Radiohead since 2004:
Those two big jumps (M and H) are the releases of their albums ‘In Rainbows’ and ‘King of Limbs’. Those lower scribbles in between, that’s everything else, when no one’s searching for Radiohead and no one really cares what they’re doing. And that’s Radiohead, one of the biggest bands in the world. Your work is only likely to be of significant interest in that short period after release, but you, of course, have to live through the rest of the time, and you need funding to do so – few artists can reach high enough peaks to no longer be concerned by money. Very few. Hardly any. Making money from art means constant work – if you can release work consistently, you increase the chances of being able to create a sustainable career. If you can release high quality work quickly, even better, but for most authors, it takes years to write a book. If it doesn’t sell a heap, not a heap changes, lifestyle-wise, although doors do open and opportunities increase as a result.
Geez, this is all a bit gloomy, isn’t it…
It’s definitely true that being a writer is tough, it’s not likely to be a path be paved with gold. But that’s not to say you shouldn’t do it. Having a book published was my one driving ambition, it was a life dream realised, and I would never play down the significance of it, the achievement I felt, that I still feel as a result. But what I would suggest is that you temper your lifestyle expectations if you want to pursue your art.
And that’s probably not such a bad thing either way – who really cares if you drive a Hyundai or a BMW anyway? If it gets you there, does it really matter? How comfortable do you need to be in a car, how fast do you have to go? As a society, we too often emphasize the importance of material wealth. But rich people get depressed too. They still have problems, different problems to me or you, but issues none the less. I can’t tell you how many highly paid executives I’ve heard talk about how they want to write a book – because money can’t buy them that kind of achievement, can’t give them the status or respect they desire. And if they’re actually able to do it, to become published authors, you know what’ll happen? They’ll find something else they need, some other hole in their life that’s not yet full. Ambition is important, a crucial part of advancing and being more than you are. But you also need to take account of what you do have, what’s available to you right now. Things probably aren’t so bad.
And it’s important to realise what makes you you – what are the things that make you happy or excited? What holds your attention so totally that you don’t even notice the hours slipping by? Those are the things. Those are your things. And if you can find your one thing that you really want to do, that’s what will fulfill you more than anything else. Away from expectations or judgements, you know, in yourself, where you love to be, what you love to do. So do it.
Don’t write expecting to be paid. Don’t create expecting to be praised. Do things because they excite you, because you just have to do it. Get lost in your own world and see what you find every now and then. Allow yourself to be in your stories and creations. Because that will make you happy, which, by extension, will make the people around you, the people who care about you, happy too. Imagine what could be if we could replicate that kind of ripple effect across every person in the world. Creating art is never about making money, it’s something that resides inside you that you need to get out. Getting out is one of the best things you can do, and you should never hold back from doing so. Yeah, making money is hard, but the further you put that out of your mind, the better your work will be. Don’t think about who’ll read your work, who’ll buy it, where it’s going next. Wrap yourself up in the world of your imagination and explore the depth of what you’re capable of. That’s far more valuable, far more likely to be resonant, real, more likely to generate real connection with your audience.
I write because I love writing. If I don’t write, it eats at me and keeps me up at night and annoys my wife (through my grumblings). I end up criticising films for poor transitions and character motivations, like I know better. But you know the best way to show you do know better? Do it yourself.
Why are we afraid to call ourselves writers? This often comes up if you’re in a writing course or at a writing event, if you were to ask the room ‘who here would identify themselves as a writer?’ you’ll see a lot of hesitancy. People aren’t sure they have the right to take that label. It’s as if saying you’re a writer is aggrandising yourself, as if, by owning it, you’re immediately putting yourself up alongside Hemmingway and Tolstoy and writers you’ve idolised your whole life. ‘What right do you have to such a title? Because you ‘try’ to write?’
Why are we afraid to say ‘I’m a writer’?
Here’s a couple of things to consider:
There are billions of great stories in the world, more than could ever be told in the history of time. There are not billions of great storytellers. That’s the way it is, not everyone’s a great writer destined to produce works of literary brilliance. Almost everyone has at least one great story to tell, but for the majority of us, that story will never be heard or written. For every great film or book you read, there are probably thousands more you’ll never experience, because they simply don’t exist.
There are billions of writing tips and strategies and people who’ll tell you what, in their experience, is the best way to go about creating stories. But they’re not all right. There is no ‘right’ way to go about producing literature. There are certain things that you should do – like writing everyday, reading everything you can, learning and taking on feedback – but no one can say ‘you do these things and you’ll become a published author’. Because there is no one way to go about it. If there were, everyone would do it. It always reminds me of Mark Haddon’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time’, a novel which includes pictures as part of the text. Next time you go to your writing class or group, you put your hand up and ask whether you should put images in as part of the text in your novel. No doubt you’ll hear scoffs and someone will tell you ‘no, absolutely not’, which makes sense, you would advise against it. But that book sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. There are no definitive rules on how to write great literature. You can make anything work, within reason.
The thing is, if people are afraid to own the label ‘writer’, people are at least somewhat afraid to write. At the least, people are afraid to show their work to people, because ‘it’s just something silly I’ve been working on, nothing really, forget about it’. If people are afraid to be writers, we’re missing out on great stories. You need to do it, you need to put your words down, do what you feel. You need to get it out there – yeah, you might get criticised, but that’s part of the process. Every author gets rejected and trashed and hurt. You take on what you can while staying true to yourself, want to achieve. What you think makes your work great. You only have to answer to yourself, know that you’re doing the best you can to achieve what you want.
We need people to own that label, to stand up and say ‘I’m a writer’, because we don’t want to miss out on great stories. It’s quite possible that the greatest novels of all time have never been put to paper, and that’s a massive shame. And maybe your stuff isn’t going to change the literary landscape, sell millions of copies, affect the lives of people in generations to come. But it might. Why not you? Kurt Vonnegut sold cars before he became ‘Kurt Vonnegut’. JK Rowling was a secretary. Great writers are people, just like you, doing the same things you are. Why can’t you succeed like them?
And that’s the one thing to keep in mind.
There are billions of people in the world. But there is only one you. No one else can write what’s in your head. And if you write, you are a writer. So be it.
I am a writer.
Maybe one day, you’ll read my stuff.