How I make a living as a writer

Trust me, this is much better than a picture of my bank account…

Trust me, this is much better than a picture of my bank account…

Well, this is a scary post to write. I want to write it though, because people in creative industries never talk about money. There seems to be some kind of unwritten rule that you just… don’t. And I don’t think this helps the problem of creative work not being valued enough financially. My partner is a professional singer – he’s constantly being asked to sing at people’s parties or weddings for free, as though this would be ‘fun’ or ‘nice’ for him. People don’t seem to understand that no, this is his job, it is how he earns a living. It’s no more ‘fun’ for him to sing at your wedding than it is for a teacher to give a lesson for free, or a lawyer to look over a contract for you for free, or a writer to give your first draft a read for free. 

So yes. Money. We all need it. Let’s talk more about it. Or, more specifically since this is my blog, let’s talk about how I make a living from writing.

It is definitely not the case with writing that reward automatically follows effort. Reward follows luck, effort and talent in equal measure.

It still astonishes me that some people might think that writing books is an easy way to make money, but apparently the myth persists. I'm not going to go all doom and gloom on you, but it really, really isn't. There are a handful of people who make a lot of money from writing, but they work really hard to do so, and there are thousands more who do not, and they also work really hard. It is definitely not the case with writing that reward automatically follows effort. Reward follows luck, effort and talent in equal measure.

So, first of all, I have been freelance for nearly ten years. That's ten years of unreliable income, so I am pretty used to it now. I am also very fearsome to anyone who pays me late, and I don't hesitate to issue a late payment demand and/or solicitor's letter to any company that hasn't met my invoice terms. I think this is essential. It's too easy to get caught up in 'wanting to be nice' or feeling grateful to have the gig (I read recently someone saying that in media you always feel you should be grateful for 'being in the room' and it makes me furious - you are talented, they wouldn't give you the work otherwise, they're not doing you a favour, they NEED you - stick these mantras up above your computer if you are ever in any doubt). The most important thing, I think, is not to continue working for people who have proved themselves to be unreliable payers. The situation will not magically get any better. Don't throw good time and money after bad. (To bastardise a metaphor). Move on, spend your energies getting work elsewhere. 

Rant over…

I’m a trained journalist and my freelance work used to be mainly from sub-editing shifts in-house at design magazines, but then I started to get more writing and digital work, and then I moved across to doing work for interiors brands rather than media outlets (this pays much better!). Mostly editorial work - writing blogs and articles, but also consulting on brands’ marketing, their PR, helping them with their brand identity, identifying their audience etc. I've done social media too (although I don't enjoy it as much and think I'm slightly too old to be as naturally good at it as people who grew up with the internet). I've done proofreading and even some web design. I like the variety. I currently work two days a week on a freelance basis doing content marketing for a software company - which is very out of my original remit of interiors and design, but pays a lot better and is the stuff of freelance dreams. A regular, part-time gig which affords some level of security. I take on other freelance work as and when it comes in. 

I also have a flat I rent out, and this gives me an additional monthly income too (although it's pretty unreliable as maintenance issues and fees eat into my rent a lot). I'd like to caveat this by saying I know how very, very fortunate I am to be in this position. I owned my flat separately before I met my partner. We deliberately decided to keep it as a rental property when we bought our current home, rather than sell it and buy a more expensive family home, because we are both self-employed and neither of us have pensions. So, we live in a smaller house than we might do if we both had ‘normal’ jobs. I feel a bit uncomfortable about being a private landlord for several reasons but I have made peace with this by trying to be the best landlord I can! I’ve just spent £10k having the loft boarded and the whole place redecorated for my new tenants and I always fix maintenance issues immediately and without question. It would be a struggle for me to be able to write two days a week if it wasn’t for my rental income, so I am very grateful to have it.

But now we come to the books. As you may or may not know, if you receive a traditional publishing deal with a big publisher, you will usually be offered an 'advance'. Which is exactly what it says it is - an advance on the money that the publisher hopes your book will make. However, if your book doesn't make a penny, you don't have to pay the advance back - so the publishers take all the risk. Advances vary massively, but the six-figure splashy deals that many people associate with getting published are so rare (I did not get a six-figure splashy deal). And advances are split over several payments - usually three, or four, correlating with the dates you sign your contract, submit your completed manuscript, and the day it's finally published. This can often mean money is stretched out across a couple of years. In my case, the advance payments for my debut will stretch out over three tax years! Also, if you have an agent, they will take 15% of this. Plus then, of course, there’s tax.

So, if you get a £10k advance (which would be considered a really decent deal for a debut author) it’s not like you’re just given ten grand to go off and spend. It’s more like £8,500 split into three payments over at least a year, of which you need to reserve at least 20% for tax. 

Yes, that’s £8,500 before tax for a book that probably took a year to write.  

This is why most writers are poor.

Only once your book has 'paid back' your advance (sold enough copies to make this money back for the publisher) do you start to receive royalties. Most books don't earn out their advances. And the percentage an author receives for each book sold is so tiny it’s almost painful to write about (plus maths makes my brain ache, so if you want to know the specifics, there’s loads more info on this just a Google away). The upshot of all this is that for most writers with a trad deal, your advance is the only income you will receive for that book. For a long time, at least.

For me, the advances I have received for my books do not make up my core income. Instead, they are 'bonuses' that I put towards various things – savings, stuff for the house etc. I hope one day that the majority of my core income will come from writing novels, but at the moment my living wage comes from my freelance work, and a little from my rental property too. 

To throw all your financial eggs in the ‘being a full time author’ basket before your career is really established is a risky strategy.

I know very few debut writers who write full-time and have given up their day jobs. Many work part time, but most do something else as well as write. For one thing, unless your book is an instant bestseller there is the constant uncertainty of not getting another publishing deal. To throw all your financial eggs in the ‘being a full time author’ basket before your career is really established is a risky strategy.

Plus writing full time is quite lonely – but that’s a post for another day. As for me, I have the epitome of a ‘portfolio’ career. I’m also a mum of course, and Oli and I split the childcare between us and nursery. I work a lot in the evenings. Oli takes Daphne out on Sunday mornings for a couple of hours so I work on my novels then too. It’s tricky juggling being a mum, writing novels, and freelance work but I think I have a good balance at the moment, and I know I’m really lucky. I wrote my first three novels years ago while working full time in-house, and that was definitely more tiring (although I didn’t have a child then so…!).

Though authors often bemoan their lot (there was a lot of talk recently of author-incomes being at an all-time low), I do understand that publishing is a business and publishers have to make money, and publishing an unknown author is a risky and expensive business. For me, getting published has given me the validation that I really, really wanted, and has allowed me to take my creative writing seriously. I feel incredibly grateful to be doing something I love, and I intend to work really hard at it so that one day, my income from writing exceeds my other revenue streams.

Fingers crossed!

On the subject of money, THE RIVAL is currently in the Kindle Spring Sale for the bargainous price of 99p! So if you want to send some pennies my way, now would be a good time to do so. Thank you :)