“I need a job, so I want to be a paperback writer.”
— The Beatles, ‘Paperback Writer’
Let me be clear: it’s not that I think writing for money is bad, or makes you a sell-out, or anything like that. Quite the contrary. I think it’s terrific to be paid to do something you love.
But per hour, writing is pretty badly paid. Ranging from horrifically bad to not-quite-as-bad-as-that. Unless you’re at the very-very-very-very top. And most writers, even those writing full-time, are not at the very-very-very-very top.
Let’s say a writer gets a six-figure advance. Pretty nice, right? For two books, we’ll say. Take 15% for the agent. Take away taxes. Remember that it’s probably being paid out over say, 4 years. Remember that even before the deal is done, there’ll have been, say, 2 years of working on the first book. Now, unless that six-figure advance is much much closer to a seven-figure, it suddenly dissolves into not-great pay. And that’s how things are for the six-figure people, never mind the far more frequent standard (lesser) advances.
And you don’t get anything else ‘til you earn out that advance. And a writer doesn’t actually get the entire cover price, they get a tiny percentage of it, and . . . and we know all this, don’t we?
Then there’s the way it’s spread out, so that whether it’s the lump sum as part of an advance or royalties later, you’re talking about two payments a year. This is based on novels, obviously, and things are a bit different for poetry and short fiction, if you’re lucky enough to be making anything from them. (There are better and smarter posts on this here and here, though largely from the US point-of-view.)
It’s unstable, unpredictable, and infrequent. As living and other expenses are frequent, and sometimes unpredictable, this is not always a good match.
(Mind you, it does mean that doing up budgets and accounts are something else on the ‘have to do’ list…)
So. I’d really like to see more of an emphasis on ‘what kind of day job works best for me as a writer?’ rather than so much of the ‘counting down the years ‘til I can quit the day job’ stuff. Because the latter seems to imply an awful lot of misery in one’s present life, as well as a sense of the hypothetical future as some kind of utopia, where taxes, bills, and laundry have been eradicated from the face of the planet.