I’ll never forget the conversation I had with a work colleague the day I sold my short story The Trinket. I was in a fairly ebullient mood, of course – it was my first professional sale in years – but when she congratulated me on being able to quit my day job, I realised my excitement may have been misinterpreted.
Curious, I asked her how much money she thought I’d made from the sale. She took a moment to consider. ‘Five hundred pounds,’ she said.
When I shook my head, she started rounding up until I finally interjected. ‘I got forty five pounds,’ I said, feeling slightly inadequate.
‘Why didn’t you ask for more?’ she said. I then spent ten minutes trying to convince her that this was about average for a short story in the indie press and that most successful writers hold part-time jobs, earning less than £15,000 a year from their royalties.
‘So you see,’ I said, ‘I’m never going to get rich from writing.’
She looked at me with something approaching horror. ‘Then why on earth do you do it?’ she asked.
Writers are supposed to be rich. It’s a strange but common misconception, and has even caused me some problems in the past as people assume that I’m pursuing writing as some sort of get-rich-quick scheme – if you can’t be bothered working for a living, just bang out a novel and collect your cheque. Easy.
I believed something similar until my late teens. Until then, writers had been the mysterious, quasi-mystical beings through whom literature entered the world, like manna from Heaven. Writing wasn’t a job, it was an Art, practiced in secret and always very far away from my life in suburban Newport.
Then, one weekday evening in 1998, the library at the bottom of my road held a reading for two local first-time authors. The first was a retired taxi driver who had written a perfectly enjoyable comic fantasy and, as far as I know, never saw publication again. The second was a local council administrator by the name of Tim Lebbon who had written a horror novel in his lunch breaks and now needed to drum up some interest for it.
There were about twenty of us in attendance that night and Tim wasn’t even headlining. Today, he’s on the New York Times bestseller list with more than 30 novels to his name and a major TV series in development with the ABC network in the States. His career is what most writers (including this one) aspire to. Does he spend his spare time doing the backstroke in a Scrooge McDuck-style money bin? Unlikely.
Headline names like Rowling and Pratchett tend to skew the numbers – Rowling in particular being almost as big a phenomenon as her books – but I suspect the problem stems from the ’70s and ’80s, when publishers threw big money at writers like King and Follett to make them household names.
Now times have changed, advances have shrunk and writing seems more like a jobbing profession again. You’ve got to write good stuff and plenty of it, if you want to earn your keep. And that’s precisely what I’m setting out to do.
Earlier this year, I dropped half my working hours so I could spend more time at home looking after my son, who’s still a few months from his second birthday. That meant a 50 per cent drop in my monthly income but more flexible time at home. My plan is to make up this missing income through my writing within the next two years.
It’s an ambitious target, but watching people like Tim Lebbon has given me some hope that it’s achievable. And if you haven’t read it yet, Kieran’s latest post is refreshingly honest about the subject of writing as a viable commercial venture.
I’ve got one novel nearing completion, a clutch of short stories waiting to be written and planning for the next two novels is already underway.
That should be enough to keep me busy for two years.