News room: How to make a living as a writer

How to make a living as a writer by Jessica Barrah

Being an author is apparently the most desired job in Britain, with 60% of people wanting to make a living from writing, according to a recent YouGov poll. However, in the last few weeks there’s been a lot in the news about writers being paid below minimum wage, for example in these articles in the Telegraph, Independent, and the Guardian.

It seems that the gap between the amount earned by authors at the top and authors at the bottom is widening. Whilst you wait for the luck, talent and hard work to pay off until you reach the heights of J.K Rowling, you need strategies to earn a living doing what you love best.

Here’s what authors, agents, and publishers were saying about the topic at the New Writing South Publishing Industry Day on 25 April.

The facts about traditional publishing

You’ve found an agent. You’ve sold your book. You’ve got an advance of £20,000.
You’re living the dream, aren’t you? Well, sort of. Because, as Aardvark Bureau’s Scott Pack explained in his talk, ‘The Mathematics of Publishing’, first of all, you won’t get all that advance at once. You’ll more likely get £5,000 when you sign the contract, £5,000 on delivery and acceptance of the book, £5,000 when it’s printed in hardback, and another £5,000 when the paperback is printed. All this could take a good few years. After that, you won’t get any royalties until your book breaks even – and most authors don’t ever get royalties (meaning that most books never break even!)

Scott showed how with a book priced at £7.50, best selling author Caitlin Moran would get around 60p for every book sold – and with these figures, selling around 19,000 copies in a week, would make her around £11,400 a week. However, lower down on the Sunday Times Best Seller List, the numbers drop significantly. Average sales on this list are around 500 to 1000 books per week, and the books will be stocked in bookshops for just 1-2 years. (And that’s just looking at the books that make it onto the Bestseller lists.)

This is where another source of income can be really important to a writer. After all, even Ian Rankin said that it took him 14 years to make a ‘decent’ living.

Jobs to boost your income

The internet is a fantastic tool for finding opportunities for writers. There are all kinds of freelance and permanent jobs, awards, bursaries and competitions for you to take advantage of.

Here are a few useful links to get you started:

Self-Publishing to boost your income

Although a self-funded author will pay more to create their book (editing fees, design consultations, distribution help etc), the royalty rates are often much higher. Take CompletelyNovel for example – or authors retain 100% of book royalties, and instead subsidise distribution with a flat subscription fee of £7.99/$11.99 per month. And, as you can get your book out much more quickly, you can capitalise on that moment when your book’s topic is hot news.

Of course, you won’t get any five figure advances. Self-publishing takes a lot of dedication and hard work, and it certainly isn’t for everyone (although it is worth keeping in mind that nowadays traditional publishers also expect their authors to be proactive in promoting their own work.)

Making use of ALL the opportunities that come your way

What came through most clearly from the Publishing Industry Day was that diversifying is the future of publishing. That could mean authors publishing some books traditionally, but self-publishing others. Consider writing in different genres – for example, a non-fiction or ‘how to’ book as well as fiction, putting on live events, running courses and book related consultations – even setting up your own boutique publishing house.

CompletelyNovel author Tom Evans is great example of an author who makes the most out of every opportunity, with a carefully worked out strategy offering different products and services at a range of prices. He gives freebies such as ebooks to those who want to try before they buy. He then has a mixture of ebooks and print, priced from anything from 99p to £9.99. He also runs online self-study courses, 1-2-1 mentored services and personal transformation programmes.

And they all lived happily ever after…

Making a living as a writer is no fairytale. It’s hard work, and requires creativity not only in the writing process, but in maximising your earning potential. However, with imagination and dedication you can enjoy a varied and interesting working life far from the typical office 9-5. Go for it!

More advice on your writing career:

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Written by
Jessica Barrah
Published on
Career and Money and funding