Reality writes

Reality writes

Writing doesn’t pay. According to a report released last year by the Royal Society for Literature and the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society, most writers earn below the minimum wage. The numbers are stark: two thirds of writers earn between £100 and £10,000. Only 5% of writers can expect to earn over £30,000 a year. The average income from writing has shrunk from an equivalent of £18,013 in 2006 to £10,497, and on average it’s lower for disabled and BAME writers. Only 10% of authors now derive their income solely from writing.

Talking about finances for writers remains taboo, despite a literary landscape that pays lip service to being savvier in examining its role in systems of exclusivity and privilege. Publishing remains one of the few industries where salaries are not routinely disclosed on job adverts; it’s a sector where unpaid internships and minimum wage starting roles are still viewed as acceptable, if not essential. It’s no wonder that this culture of exclusivity bleeds into all areas of the literary environment. Despite the supposedly democratising effect of social media, the agents, editors and writers on these platforms still sell the myth that writing is a leisure activity reserved for the upper middle classes, an affectation that Nathalie Olah typifies as a “twee picture [...] a lifestyle choice” in her book Steal As Much As You Can.

Surrounded by photos of writing retreats, of softly lit lunches with agents in Soho restaurants, of rent-free stays with relatives in New York or London, of writers’ lavish fridges and homes, it feels increasingly like the tastemakers of the literary world don’t want to talk about money. When I spoke to Sophie*, a poet who’s sold her first novel to a large independent publisher, she talked about this exclusion: “There's a lot of hidden money in the lit scene. Wealthy partners, rich parents making rent for their writer kids... even just having a flat big and peaceful enough to write in... I've never even had a desk. I write at the kitchen table after my flat mates have gone to bed.”

One of the most secretive parts of professional writing is advances, often a secret known only by the publisher, the agent and the author. Even when you’re outwardly successful - you’ve sold your book to a publisher - the money you get from this is still probably not enough to live on. I spoke to Josh*, a cookery writer with one book already published by an independent house and a second to be released shortly, whose advance for both books was £9,000, paid in three instalments. Contrary to the experience of some other writers I spoke to, he was paid on time.

Sophie’s experience is similar, with her novel sold as a partial manuscript for an advance of £10,000 in three instalments. “My advance allowed me to take unpaid leave to actually finish [the novel]”, but she says she “never made enough from [from writing] to even consider leaving or reducing hours of full-time work”. The advances given for poetry are even smaller, with Sophie making £1000 for her first collection, which she notes was “unusually big for poetry - it's publication was connected with an award”. For the second she made £150. Despite the disparity between payments for novels and poetry collections, she finds the latter “far less monocultural than novel-writing. Perhaps because poetry is much more amenable to being produced in small bursts, around other responsibilities.”

Unsurprisingly, rent is the biggest financial concern for both writers I spoke to. Sophie lives in a shared house in London, where she estimates her monthly living costs are around £700. She admits that being in the capital “can be a struggle financially. But I actually grew up here, it's where a large part of my remaining family are. It's my home”. She also identifies the advantages to living in London as a writer: “Most opportunities are based in London, and most other writers as well. It's definitely 'enhanced my career' living here.”

Josh currently pays £500 in bills in Margate, where he moved “to keep rent as low as I could”, and saved money by living and working in Sicily whilst writing his second book. Both outlined the initial cash outlay that is often demanded of writers, from websites to rail tickets (Sophie notes that with larger institutions such as universities it can take a while to process your expenses). Josh acknowledges that his publisher has been generous with reimbursing him for costs, but adds that he had to pay for his own book launch.

Neither of the authors I spoke to are able to make a living solely off their writing. Sophie has a full-time non-writing job as a producer at a global media company, where she earns £28,000 pre-tax. She tends to write “on stolen time, mostly - in bursts in the evenings, when I can. On my phone while commuting”, but found when writing her novel that this wasn’t sustainable - “coming home from work, eating, showering, then spending the rest of the evening hunched over a laptop” - until the advance made it possible to take unpaid leave from her job. Josh felt the same, and now writes “two or three days a week” after deciding to go freelance as a chef and writer after having worked fulltime in a restaurant: “Though I can and have written after evening service at night, in breaks etc., I didn’t feel I was giving my best to either book or work.”

It's clear from speaking to Sophie and Josh that writing is still a profession that rewards the monied. Money, after all, buys free time, buys piece of mind, buys a light-filled office to work in. And the situation seems to be getting worse: profits and advances dwindle whilst rents and the cost of living climb higher and higher. Grants from the Arts Council are no substitution for real income; benefits aren’t enough to live on. Publishing output is still overwhelmingly upper middle class in character and in content.

But writers still write, in the ways you’ll never see in glossy weekend supplements or Instagram stories: scraps of sentences thumbed into the Notes app on the Tube, paragraphs typed furiously in communal living rooms late at night, weekends spent indoors on the laptop as the sun streams through the window. They're struggling, but they're surviving. They need more money, more space and more time. But until that happens, we can acknowledge that this is the reality of being an author for everybody but a privileged few.

*Names have been changed