What Price Being A Writer?
My MA course set us the task of finding out about the lives of two of our favourite authors - do they have 'ordinary' jobs alongside their writing careers, how did they first get published etc etc. This question is something I've come across a lot in books about becoming a writer - can you actually make a career out of writing books? Obviously, in the case of success stories like J.K. Rowling's, the obvious answer is 'yes'. However, she is one of the few exceptional cases. Apparently, the average annual income of a full time writer today is approximately £20,000. To put this into context, when I started teaching in London in 2001, my starting salary was £20,001. So leaving aside the question of 'so why do it then?' (the answer to which is, 'because I have to, it's part of who I am') we find ourselves wondering if we can somehow manage to juggle the day job we have to do and the writer career we want to have. I'm in a very privileged position in that I work seasonally and from home - most of my work is condensed into a few months and the rest of the year I'm free to devote all my time to writing, but not every writer is that lucky.
Terry Pratchett, although a best-selling author multiple times over, didn't start out with the phenomenal career he ended up with. Even though he'd started earning money from his writing at the tender age of 14, he still went through jobs with a local newspaper and the Central Electricity Generating Board before his success meant that he was able to write full time. It took from his first book being published in 1971 until 1987 and the publication of 'Equal Rites' and 'Mort' for him to make this transition. 'Equal Rites' had been serialised the year before on 'Women's Hour' and been a huge success but at the time it was broadcast, Pratchett was still working as a Press Officer. To me, it seems strange that someone can have multiple books published, a widely acclaimed radio serialisation and still not be making enough money to live on, but that is the reality of life for many writers. Getting a publishing deal takes thick skin, huge strength of character and a certain element of luck. Pratchett's first published book was 'The Carpet People' and this came about as the result of an interview he did with a publisher, where he happened to mention the book he was working on. The publisher was interested, the book was published and they never looked back. It does make you wonder about how many really good books lie languishing in their writer's desk drawers, solely for the lack of that opportunistic moment.
Susan Cooper, author of one of my favourite series, 'The Dark is Rising' also started out as a journalist, working for The London Sunday Times on a column put together by Ian Fleming (yes, he of James Bond fame). In between her journalistic work, Cooper was writing on the side and contributing to a weekly feature of children's fiction. The editor of this feature alerted her to a writing competition and encouraged her to enter. She began working on what would become 'Over Sea, Under Stone' but ended up not entering the competition, as the book was subsequently published in 1965. However, before publication, Cooper had moved to America with her job and continued writing articles for the newspaper. The second book in the series, 'The Dark Is Rising' wasn't published until 1973, by which time Cooper had begun writing full time.
Other authors, like Stephen King have talked about the difficulties they have faced when trying to make a living from their writing. In 'On Writing', King talks about working as a teacher whilst simultaneously trying to juggle looking after and providing for a young family and writing his first novel.
As authors, we rarely have it easy, but it's worth it just to be able to indulge our love of writing. Any true writer will tell you that they don't do it for the money (although it helps!), they do it for the sheer love of making words work for them. It's something we have to do - to not write would be to strip away something that is the very essence of who we are.