How writers survive

How writers survive

One year ago I launched my fourth psychological thriller, One Year Later. It was a gloriously sunny day, and we celebrated in the village pub, The Swan Inn, toasting my novel and each other with prosecco and chocolate brownies. I was hopeful for the future: it was the last book in a four-book deal with my publisher, Corvus Books, and I was working on a new thriller, that I hoped to offer in the spring of the following year. Fast forward to 2020. No one I know has been untouched by the pandemic, and although my family and I are certainly luckier than most, I spent the first lockdown homeschooling my daughter, rather than writing or doing any of the other jobs that earn me an income in between the unpredictability of book advances and the vagaries of royalties. Homeschool swiftly segued into the summer holidays with no childcare, and while I fully recognise that I’m privileged enough not to be working on the frontline as a key worker, I felt it would have been fairly barbaric to let my daughter play on her own for three months while I cracked on with my novel.

I’m not the only writer to have struggled both to write and to earn: according to the latest Society of Authors’ (SoA) Authors in the Health Crisis report (October 2020) two-thirds of writers, illustrators and literary translators have suffered a loss of income; nearly half say the loss is more than a quarter of their income. Of those authors who have been offered an advance on their book since lockdown, just under half say the amount is less than they’d received for previous books. And all this comes at a time when the average professional writer was, pre-pandemic, earning less than £10,500, according to a 2018 ALCS survey - well below the figure that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation believe is necessary for a socially acceptable standard of living (£19,200 a year; or £18,700 each for a couple with two children).

Now that we are into the second phase of lockdown, many businesses have learned to operate within the  restrictions. Writers, of course, already have the skillset and disposition to be able to work from home (although I pine for the days when I could take my laptop to a café and speak to a human being I’m not related to). However, six months on from the first lockdown, SoA data shows a worrying trend, with authors continuing to suffer from financial losses following the cancellation of events.

Royal Literary Fund (RLF) Consultant Fellow and novelist, Sheena Wilkinson’s story is typical of that of many writers: "Most of my income normally comes from teaching workshops in schools, prisons - all sorts of places. Every single thing in my diary was cancelled." Sheena, who writes YA fiction, had a novel out in March, Hope Against Hope, and a full schedule of events to promote it, mainly in schools. She says, "Everything was cancelled: unlike, for example, festivals, these kinds of events aren't easy to transfer online. Newspaper articles were killed because of the greater news of the pandemic. Obviously there was a negative impact on sales too. The book has been shortlisted for the An Post Irish Book Awards, which is lovely, but I think any attention for that will be too little too late."

Sheena has, so far, been able to use savings to tide her over, but not every writer has had enough put by to see them through such a long, lean spell. Elanor Dymott, the author of three literary novels, and an RLF Consultant Fellow, had applied to the Arts Council for a grant to fund her whilst she worked on her fourth novel, Singapore Sins. Unfortunately, the scheme was frozen at the start of the pandemic, and she was unable to benefit from the government’s Self-Employment Income Support Scheme. She’s not alone: almost a third of authors, translators and illustrators are ineligible, according to the SoA.

Elanor’s freelance work - one-to-one creative writing mentoring, as well as teaching in universities - was cancelled. She was forced to take out a credit card simply to pay for basic utility bills and food. Elanor turned to the RLF and SoA for support. The SoA currently administers an emergency hardship fund, which includes donations from the RLF and Create Scotland. So far over a million has been paid out to writers. The RLF also awards both grants and pensions to authors or playwrights who are in financial straits and have had at least two works published or performed.

Elanor received a grant both from the SoA’s emergency fund, as well as from the RLF. She says, "The grants enabled me to carry on writing my current novel. Without them, I don’t know what else I would have done. They saved me."

Eileen Gunn, the RLF’s Chief Executive, says she has noticed an increase in writers applying for the charity’s hardship grant: "Many writers have been affected by losing work which supplements their literary earnings." The charity, which was founded in 1790, has supported literary greats, from James Joyce to Bram Stoker to Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Eileen adds, "We have been continuously helping writers since our inception. Through two world wars without stopping. This period is no exception. We are helping writers the way we always have."

It is, perhaps, a modicum of comfort, that we, with our words and our poverty, are in such illustrious company. In the coming months, we will need to pivot: like many others, I’ve revised my workshops and delivered them digitally; I’ve been a panelist at online literary festivals in a fancy top and slippers, a mug of tea at my elbow. It is, of course, no substitute to engaging with students and readers face to face, but we are nothing if not adaptable and may simply need to re-think how we find alternative sources of revenue.

But what is crucial to hold on to, for the sake of our self-esteem, as well as society, is that we and our writing are vital. In a time when we’re witnessing a global decline in mental health and our ability to travel has been severely curtailed, it is writers and their stories who have and will transport us all into other realms and other worlds, and help us forget, even for a few moments, our everyday woes.

Dr Sanjida O’Connell is the author of eight novels, under the pen name Sanjida Kay, and four works of non-fiction. She’s been shortlisted for the BBC Asia Awards, the Betty Trask Award, the Daily Telegraph Science writer's award, Asian Woman of the Year and was highly commended for BBC Wildlife magazine's award for nature writing.