Posted by: Elen C | March 11, 2011

Show Me the Money

March is such a hopeful month: daffs nod their yellow heads in the middle of roundabouts; blue-sky mornings melt the last frosts from windscreens; catkins drop onto pavements like furry chewing gum.

It all seems so spring-like and positive.

And then I remember that March is also the end of the financial year and it’s time to set my accounts in order. March is when I work out how much money I actually earned.

One of the questions an author who does school visits gets asked is ‘are you rich?’. Teachers always roll their eyes and look embarrassed. But I think it’s a perfectly legitimate question. Can you make a living as an artist? Children deciding their own futures should know. Unpublished writers always want to know. To be honest, it’s something I’d like to know too!

I’ve been a published author for three financial years. The amount I’ve earned has crept up a little every year, but still hovers shy of £10k a year. This is made up of a mixture of advances, royalties, writing-tutoring and guest appearances. I know, from Society of Authors surveys, that this is better than the mean. But it is far from riches. I usually answer the children’s question with a maths problem: say you earn 10% of the cover price of every book you sell, how many books would you need to sell in order to buy a lexus convertible? After a few minutes of arguing, they realise the answer is ‘a lot’. This, of course, assumes that you have a good royalty rate and that the books are all sold at cover price.

We all know that there are alternatives to this model: self-publishing (100% royalty rate) or ebook-only publishing (25-50% royalty rate). But my worry is that with these models, writing for children doesn’t really sell. 100% of nothing is still nothing.

I will still have to keep my day job just to be sure of paying the bills.

It is such a precarious job: the money varies wildly, you don’t always get paid on time, you never know where the next paying gig is coming from. No matter how good you are, there are no guarantees. Would I have been better off studying law rather than creative writing? Financially maybe.

But writers live in hope. We are the very essence of spring, turning bare ground into wildflowers. We imagine something that might be and we strive to create it. And every time we write, we think, maybe this is it – the perfect word, the perfect sentence, the perfect story. And like spring, that feeling of hope is priceless.



  1. Fascinating post Elen – it’s good to bring things back down to earth 🙂

    We really are in this for the love, aren’t we?

  2. Beautifully put, Elen.

  3. Kids these days are brought up in a culture obsessed with money and I do think it’s important to stress that, to some of us, it is far preferable to be relatively poor but be able to do something we enjoy every day. Nevertheless the perils of self-employment are never going to go away and are yet another example of why capitalism does not work. How much better it would be if we were employed through an arts body to spend part of our time writing and part using our skills for the benefit of the community – besides doing our share of the donkey work, of course, so others would be freed up to explore their own creative bents.

  4. Interesting the different experieces we authors have. To earn over £10000 my publisher and I would have to sell well over 30000 Jack the Station Cat books in a year. Since as author I sell most of them that’s a tall order especially as my wife and I are over 75. I write children’s books because I enjoy doing so. I have three targets: Good Read. Good Fun. Good English. I am fortunate that I do not need to write to live. I have immense respect for those who do write for children and live by their writing. Alan Cliff

  5. Lovely post, Elen. The Scholastic Book Fair is in my school this week. I noticed some of your books on the shelves this evening. I’ve tried in vain to get some of mine on there.

  6. I never managed to give up the day job, though I always hoped I would, one day. But however you manage it, writing is absolutely the best thing to do, isn’t it?

  7. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Jon – The arts funding is an interesting idea, but I do think that artists should create something that others consider valuable enough to pay for. I’ve been very taken with Simon Armitage’s walking tour, where he asked people to feed him and put him up in return for a poetry reading.

    Jack – the money doesn’t all come from book sales! I count teaching as writing income, as people only invite me to lead workshops because of my publishing history.

    Paul – Wow, I didn’t know that! Here’s hoping for some money come the next royalty statement.

  8. God, I hope you’re not proposing Simon Armitage’s tour as a model of how writers should survive, Elen! I’m not sure why you think I’ve suggested writers should not write good books, or that people should not buy them – just that such income should get ploughed back into arts funding, not go into publishers’ pockets. And the way the system works at present, many very good books do not get read because people don’t know about them – while the shops are full of fairies, vampires and whatever guarantees bulk sales.

  9. A thoughtful post, and one that every prospective writer should read. I have a demanding day job, if I wasn’t able to lose myself in writing, I would go mad. Yes, I’d like to think that one day I could write full time, but that’s unlikely to happen. Meanwhile writing is great escapism, and a constructive form of therapy.

  10. Ha!
    No, Jon, I don’t think we should be travelling mistrels! But I think it’s interesting that people will pay a ‘living’ wage to a poet in the right circumstances.
    But I don’t think I would like to be employed by an arts council to write. I think the danger woud be that lots of unreadable navel-gazing would get written.

  11. Just don’t follow this idea that if you’re employed, rather than self-employed, you will start to navel gaze – especially when the other half of your employment involves interaction with the community. The pressure to make a living is what drives so many writers towards pulp fiction. I’ve striven to avoid this myself, but 25 years as pretty much a full-time writer has inevitably meant I’ve veered towards shorter, less accomplished forms of writing in order to fulfil publishers’ briefs rather than spending six months tackling a demanding novel eg.

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