Day jobs and writers (3)

“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.

About clairehennessy

Writer (mostly YA fiction), creative writing teacher, tea drinker, book junkie. View all posts by clairehennessy

6 responses to “Day jobs and writers (3)

  • Janice

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I think, perhaps, many of us live in the Land of Fairy when it comes to making money from writing – with a swish of our wand, money will fall from cotton wool clouds…

    From reading blogs I can see there’s a lot more work involved in being a published writer than just writing.

    If I never make money I’ll be ok with it. If I never have to courage to try and get published – that’s a different, um, story

    • Emerald

      I’m with Janice, despite her painful punnage. Anyone who views writing as a simple get-rich-quick scheme is tripping balls, to use the vernacular.

      But here’s what I don’t get: everyone says that to build a good reputation as a proper writer, you need to go after book contracts. Publishers and agents both run a risk by taking on new writers, and they want a reliable, long-term investment; not a one-hit-wonder. So, what sort of day job would actually suit that?

      I always thought having a day job that’s engaging, and allows you to meet a lot of new people would work great (like say, a psychologist, or cop, or lawyer). But the more I research writing, the less it seems there is a place for hobbyists, or anyone who isn’t totally dedicated to the craft.

      I guess that explains why all the writing magazines seem to be aimed at OAPs…

      • Janice

        Hey, Emerald – leave my pun alone or else I’ll swish my wand and make toads fall from the clouds 😉

      • clairehennessy

        I’ve written a little bit more about things to consider re: day jobs here:

        The publisher doesn’t care what kind of a day job you have as long as you can meet your deadlines. Which is where having an agent or at least doing some negotiating re: your contract is useful – if you’ve a crazy job, ensure that your next deadline gives you enough time to actually complete a new book.

        Depending on the kind of work it is, you figure out your schedule so that you meet that deadline. Novels are cumulative, written consistently over a long period of time rather than in one short burst, so writing regularly even if only for a couple of hours a week will lead to something substantial. You also look at things like annual leave or days off or anything else you’re entitled to at work, and use those. Most people waste parts of their time in some way, whether in or out of work – it’s almost always possible to find some extra usable time.

        As for hobbyists – well, there’s a place, but when it gets to submitting to publications etc it needs to be more than a hobby – you’re expecting to get paid or at the very least have your work acknowledged as something polished and professional. But yeah, I know what you mean – sometimes there’s the vibe that you can’t possibly be interested in anything else and if you’re not living-breathing writing 24/7 there’s no hope for you. I mean, sheesh. You can take your writing seriously and still do other things or have other priorities; and you also need to have other interests and passions so that they can feed into your writing in some way (even obliquely), otherwise you end up writing about a writer who’s obsessed with writing…

    • clairehennessy

      Yay for puns! 😉

      There is such a difference between ‘making money from writing’ and ‘making enough money to reasonably sustain yourself for the immediate future’ and then ‘making enough money on a regular basis to reasonably sustain yourself for the medium term future’ – but the impression you get from a lot of people is that the first and the third are synonymous, that publication immediately equals ‘quit the day job’. Publication is a reasonable aspiration and it’s also something a writer has some control over – they can write the best book they know how. It’s not everything but it’s something.

  • Daily Links 05/07/2010 | Irish Publishing News

    […] Day jobs and writers (3) Claire continues with the breakdown, this time talking money! Read more… […]

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