On (Not) Making a Living From Writing, Part 2

When Annabel Smith received her royalty statement from her well-reviewed second novel, Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, she was devastated. She takes a deeper look at the cold climate for professional writers and questions how writers can make a living, if not from their craft - and why good writing doesn’t necessarily equate to good - or even okay - money.

Nowadays, a multitude of blog posts, webinars and online courses tout the idea that any writer can be successful provided they’re willing to put in the hard yards to market their own work. Though this may once have been true, in a market in which the number of people writing and publishing is proliferating while the number of people reading books is diminishing, even the most vigorously marketed books can flounder.

My second novel, Whisky Charlie Foxtrot (published by Fremantle Press in November 2012), is evidence of this. In the two months after it hit the shelves it sold a respectable 1200 copies. Unfortunately, in the six months that followed it sold only a further 110 copies, despite consistent social media marketing and regular speaking events. Devastated, I wrote a blog post in which I pondered how a well-reviewed book with a decent marketing push could sell so poorly.

Ryan O’Neill, author of the short story collection The Weight of a Human Heart, said he identified strongly with my post, saying that while aspiring writers dream of the day when they will receive a royalties statement, in reality they can often be a ‘kick in the teeth’. Donna Maree Hanson, a writer of speculative fiction and paranormal romance went so far as to suggest they should come with a warning: ‘seek counselling after reading’.

Kylie Ladd, whose novel Into My Arms was chosen as one of the Get Reading Campaign’s 50 Books You Can’t Put Down, admitted it has taken her more than ten years and five books to get to a place where she still has to work at least two days a week in order to make ends meet. Dawn Barker, whose debut novel Fractured was published in March this year and has so far sold 6000 copies, agreed that ‘a lucky few earn a living but not most’.

Many writers seem resigned to this harsh reality. O’Neill said he ‘gave up on the idea of making a living from writing years ago’ and accepted that ‘writing must come second to better-paid work’. He acknowledged that his low sales expectations are related to being a writer of short fiction, which traditionally sells much less than novels. He estimates his income at $18,000 in the 13 years since his first short story was published.

Gabrielle Tozer, whose debut novel The Intern will be published by Harper Collins in February 2014, works full-time as a corporate writer and editor and writes her fiction before work and on the weekends. This gives her financial security but leaves her, she admitted, exhausted.

Penni Russon, a former freelance editor and the author of seven YA and children’s works, said that earning money from writing can be a ‘mixed blessing’ because it sets up expectations that there will be more to follow, which is never guaranteed. She recently took a job for the first time in ten years because she wanted to separate writing from paid work. The downside is that her job is writing-related – something she has avoided in the past because of fears that it ‘might drain the main pool’. She believes it is easier to find the motivation for writing if your day-job is unrelated.

Some writers still entertain hopes of a ‘breakout’ book. Natasha Lester, author of two novels, including the TAG Hungerford winning What Is Left Over, After, says that though she currently makes her money from teaching and speaking, not writing, she ‘foolishly and stubbornly believes that maybe the next book will be different’.

There are obviously a range of expectations out there when it comes to making money from writing. Several writers told me I was lucky to have made $2,200 in royalties. One writer complained bitterly about earning less than $200 for his seventh book, on which he had worked for a decade. He suggested success in book sales mostly came down to luck. Tweep Mihaela Perkovi said an author with those statistics would be considered a best-seller in Croatia, where authors pay the publishing costs themselves and hardly ever see the royalties promised in their contracts.

Sales figures are undoubtedly influenced by the fact that high production costs and a much smaller market make Australian books substantially more expensive than books in the UK and US. T.D. Whittle, an American writer now living in Australia described the retail price of Australian books as ‘insane’. As a result, many people who are buying books are buying them at discounted prices from overseas websites such as Book Depository UK, which pay much lower royalties than the standard 10%. (For example, Jo Case tweeted earlier this year that when her memoir Boomer and Me is sold through Book Depository UK, she only receives 3 cents in royalties, as opposed to the $2.50 she would receive if the book was sold in Australia.) When I suggested educating readers about the impact on authors of buying books through discount websites, tweep Josh Mostafa retorted ‘When I buy books it ain’t charity’. He buys five books a month and says he can’t afford to pay full Australian retail prices.

Romance writer Jenny Schwartz expressed shock at the sales figures I quoted in my blog-post, ‘having read Annabel’s books’. This implies the oft-held but false assumption that books of a certain quality sell well. O’Neill cited the infamous example that in the last year of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life only three copies of The Great Gatsby were sold. Connor Tomas O’Brien, co-founder of Bkclb (an e-bookstore platform for independent writers and adventurous readers) and a columnist for Kill Your Darlings, pointed to the sad fact that ‘a crap book with a conversation around it is more compelling than a great book nobody is talking about’.

Why then is there not enough conversation around ‘great’ or even good books? Matthew Lamb, editor of Island magazine and Review of Australian Fiction, said ‘We need to turn our minds to the ground, and not just to the figures, of our literary ecology.’ He suggested a variety of strategies to increase the market for quality books including the idea that the Australia Council should invest in readers instead of writers, arguing ‘More readers = more writers paid to write’. Penni Russon supported this idea, saying that when she taught a Reading Australian Writing class, the students ‘got a buzz’ out of reading writers living and working locally. Sadly, the course was discontinued.

Connor Tomas O’Brien says that despite the web making it easier to create reading networks, publishers are still so busy trying to cope with Amazon and the self-publishing onslaught they haven’t yet taken advantage of the opportunities that might exist online. Nonetheless, O’Brien believes ‘book clubs are going to be much more important to publishers going forward ‘because a good reading group structure leads to a stronger conversation around titles’.

Lamb took this a step further, advocating for the creation of nationally coordinated book clubs, in partnership with publishers, indie bookshops, libraries, and writers' centres repurposed as readers' centres. However, Emmet Stinson, co-founder of the Small Press Network, was concerned that such an initiative could easily devolve into a scenario of ‘picking winners’ and Paddy O’Reilly supported this notion, agreeing that the choice is difficult and people often fall back on prize-winners – which are already getting plenty of attention.

Jennifer Mills proposed the adoption of a system used by the Norwegian government in which they subsidise publishers, libraries and therefore readers by buying 1000 copies of every book published in Norway and donating them to libraries. However, a quick calculation revealed that with 8000 books being published annually in Australia, that would set the government back $240 million. I can’t see the new government going for that.