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.
Sometimes people will ask how they can get better at writing. What do you do? How do you come up with ideas? How do you start on something? The answer to all these questions is: you write. I have been writing for as long as I can remember – I was writing hand written, 20 page horror stories in grade four. I was writing a novel when I was 15 (by page 54 I was at the end, so not really long enough). I have always been writing.
I write 1000 words, every day. Not all of it is good, quite a lot of it will never see the outside of my hard drive, but I do write, every day. It’s like when you get to that tipping point when you’re doing a regular exercise routine, where you feel guilty if you take a day off. That’s how I feel about writing, I can’t stand not doing it.
It’s one of the hard things to explain to people – the ability to write well is not something you can pick up and start straight away. Everyone can write, but not everyone can communicate through words, and even fewer can convey emotion or feeling through language. To be able to find the emotional centre of what you’re writing about and re-create those feelings in the body of the reader is incredibly difficult. Only the best can do it consistently, and that’s after years and years of work. It’s hard to explain that I can write well, because I’ve spent years doing it. And even then, I’m still working everyday to get anywhere close to that next level.
How you get better at writing is you write. And you research. You read everything you need to form an entire city of ideas inside your head, till the story flows through your fingers and daydreams come to you in complete sentences. I research everything, from the specific sound of a punch, to the smell of the inside of a jail cell. I recently wrote a piece where I light-heartedly used Shakespearean language – no one would have noticed, but I researched the differences between ‘thy’, ‘thee’ and ‘thine’ for authenticity’s sake. I love the research, I love getting to know the world I’m working in. And I love to read. And I guess that’s the key point of the whole thing.
How you get better at writing is you write, you research. And you love it. You don’t love it and your readers will know. You’re not passionate about it, your writing will be flat. You might write something quite good, but the key to great writing is that you have to love it. You have to love sentences and paragraphs and the feeling that can be captured in the smallest details. How one line can break your heart or make your day. You have to love the content, find the heart of it and bring it out. If you’re not real, if you’re not able to put humanity into what you do, you’re never going to reach that next level. It’s hard to do, and it’s difficult to open yourself up to readers and put yourself on the line. But that’s what you have to do.
How you get better at writing is you write, you research and you love it. And you make it your own.
And the key to getting better is you have to do it. Every day.