Living The Dream? The Reality of Earning a Living as a Writer 

I’m 44k into my NaNoWriMo-ing and honestly my brain just won’t come up with anything to blog about, soooo, I decided to post one of my previously-published-articles (not seen on here before).

It was originally published in Writing in 2016 under the title ‘Living The Dream?’

I’ve updated some of the original stats, which were based on 2015 figures.

WARNING: it doesn’t make for very cheery reading! And by coincidence, while we’re talking about money and earnings for writers, today the folk at The People’s Friend magazine have written a post on their website about ‘Writing for the Friend’ and how “payment should be the reward, not the incentive.”

Have a read and tell me what you think!

And here’s my article:

Living The Dream? The Reality of Earning A Living As A Writer

Many people imagine that writers lead glamorous lives, working from home, (or perhaps in a trendy café, sustained by lattes), tapping away effortlessly on a laptop. And then, of course, there’s all that money.

Every so often a headline-grabbing book deal appears in the press which perpetuates the myth about how much writers can earn. Which may explain why, in a YouGov poll in 2015, 60% of the 14,000 respondents chose ‘writer’ from a list of over thirty occupations, as their preferred career. If you earn part – or all – of your living from writing, you’re the envy of many.

But in a climate where the average professional writer in the UK earns an average salary of £10,500* (well below the minimum wage), is being a writer really such a dream job?

It’s a solitary business, there’s no pay scale or pension scheme, no guaranteed income and no underlings to whom you can delegate mundane tasks (unless you’re James Patterson, the world’s highest-earning author, who churns out a dozen titles a year with the help of ‘co-authors’).

Of course, there are the lucky – and talented – few who do make millions and who skew both the figures and the general perception of what a writer earns but even best-selling author Ian Rankin has admitted it took him 14 years to earn ‘any decent money’ from writing.

In 2018, the ALCS (Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society) released a study called ‘Authors’ Earnings 2018: A Survey of UK Writers’. It looked at how much writers in the UK earn and the bad news was that earnings from writing appear to have fallen by 15 percent since 2013, when the ALCS last conducted this survey and by 42 percent since 2005.

It’s a depressing picture, attributed in part to publishers being less willing to take the risk of publishing new authors and new genres and more likely to stick with tried-and-tested writers and celebrity authors.

The old adage to would-be writers – ‘don’t give up the day job’ – has never been more true.

As a writing tutor, I want to encourage my students while ensuring that they’re under no illusions about how difficult it is to find someone willing to pay for your writing.

Alarm bells rang when a new student, who’d only been writing for one term and had sold one £100 article in that time, stated in an email to me that very soon her intention was that writing would become ‘her main source of income’ and that it was definitely ‘not a hobby’.

Her ambition was commendable but I had to voice my concerns and explain how hard it is to make a living from writing and that most successful writing careers are built over years.

Even many established and published writers supplement their income by teaching, lecturing, ghost-writing, offering critique services, or writing a column. Some pay the bills by having a completely separate income from non-writing related work.

As for ‘giving up the day job’, even if you are taken on by a publisher, you’re unlikely to be able to write full time straight away. If we ignore those headline-grabbing, exceptional six-figure advances for a moment, the reality is that an author may get an advance of £3,000 or less for a first book. Hardly the stuff of dreams.

Psychological thriller author, C L Taylor says, “It’s only now, after dozens of short story sales and competition wins and two 2-book deals, that I’ve been able to give up my day job. And I know how lucky and unusual that is.”

Being a writer is a precarious business. You can be flavour of the month one minute but dropped by your agent or publisher, if sales are disappointing, the next.

CL Taylor adds, “Once you give up your job there’s no guarantee you’ll continue to make a living as a writer. The industry is fickle and it’s always a good idea to have a back-up plan if it doesn’t work out (my ex-boss said I am welcome back any time!)”

Perhaps the message is, to write for the love of writing, rather than in the hope of fame and fortune. But if your aim is to make a living from writing, just be careful when – and how – you give up the day job.

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8 Responses to Living The Dream? The Reality of Earning a Living as a Writer 

  1. juliathorley says:

    ‘There’s no greater reward than a reader’s “thank you”’ Really?.Samuel Johnson said, ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.’ I know which view is closer to mine!

  2. Fran Hill says:

    Surely by saying the money should be the reward and not the incentive the People’s Friend are implying that writing is a hobby, not a proper work option, therefore devaluing it. This is reinforced by the fact that they pay the same for stories no matter what the word count. How odd! It’s as though they feel writers should be grateful for anything they get. I don’t write for PF but I wouldn’t even bother trying now!

  3. Alex Gazzola says:

    The back-up plan advice is worth re-iterating: don’t burn bridges and don’t put yourself above earning money through non-writing means. I fear when writers say they’re going to give it all up to make a living entirely from writing. There’s no failure in doing other things too – your old job part-time, a different part-time job (even in a shop … I have and it’s great fun), but other skills related to writing, such as proof-reading, translating, editing, all of which I’ve done too. I think the ‘freedom’ of writing appeals to many people, but you can be free from the 9-5 in lots of ways!

  4. Patsy says:

    People’s perceptions of writers are very odd. We’re either considered to be super rich best sellling novelists , or people who write as a hobby who neither expect nor deserve financial reward, with no middle ground. In reality, almost all of us are somewhere between the two.

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