Don’t give up the day job

3 May

I’ve just had an article accepted in principle by a history magazine. How much will I be paid for this meticulously researched piece of work (once I’ve actually written it)? Nothing, nowt, nada and nil. This isn’t as unusual as you’d think, and in this case I don’t mind because it’s on a subject related to Rambles Round Glasgow, so it counts as free advertising. But it’s another example of the complaint I increasingly find myself making: there’s no money in writing.

Before you start, yes, I am aware of J K Rowling and Stephen King and so on. But it’s still true that for the average writer, it just doesn’t pay any more. There was a time (they say) when mid-list writers could make a decent if unspectacular income, but like many things, publishing has become more stratified. Most of the money goes to a few famous writers with good name recognition on the shelf (including celebrity ‘writers’ who, in most cases, have not actually written the book), and there are only crumbs available for everyone else.

There are a few reasons for this, from the loss of local bookshops to the change towards any book over six months old being “hard sale” rather than “sale or return”. (That’s a bit technical, so I won’t go into it here, but if you really want to know, leave me a comment.) But the reason doesn’t really matter. The point is that, for most people, there is no (read: pathetically little) money in writing.

Back at the start of my writing career, when I was actually happy to write for mere exposure, I thought if I could be professionally published I would make it. Since then, I have been professionally published a few times. I have not ‘made it’. Then I heard that five books is the magic number where you become visible and build up a readership that will give you a steady income. I currently have eight books available on Amazon and I have a laughable income from writing. My latest book does have a bit of name recognition because it is by Hugh MacDonald rather than me (I annotated and introduced it). It even got some media coverage in the local press and on national radio. It has, to date, sold a painfully modest c.65 copies. And it has finally dawned on me that I am not going to ‘make it’.

Naturally, this caused a bit of an existential crisis and made me question if I even want to keep writing at all. And the conclusion is that I do – just. It’s hard to maintain any enthusiasm at all when, after thousands of hours of research and hundreds of hours of writing and receiving a painfully long list of rejections, even ‘success’ means a few scores of people read your book and you make a pitifully small amount of money. With self-publishing (which I also do), you have costs to cover, too, so ‘success’ means that your book breaks even. My books do break even, in the end, but that’s a small reward for months of work.

However… there are still reasons to write. Even though not many people read my books, it’s always wonderful when they do, and when they enjoy them and leave me lovely reviews. And then there’s the joy of creation for its own sake. I have written the first two parts of a mystery thriller trilogy, so naturally I want to complete that. And there’s a cherished idea about returning to my passion for alchemy through fiction, set in Moorish Spain and with a super-cool title – but that’s a long way in the future, if ever. And there’s this book on Glasgow’s history told through its bridges that I keep saying I’ll write, but even if I do – and it would be a huge amount of work – hardly anyone would ever read it, which makes it hard to muster the enthusiasm.

The very wise Earl Nightingale once said, “Never give up on a dream just because of the time it will take to accomplish it. The time will pass anyway.” That’s very true, but doesn’t really take into account the psychological issue of wasted effort, or how you support yourself in the meantime. I’m lucky to have a nice, flexible day job in interpreting (as least as long as the government’s punningly named Illegal Immigration Bill doesn’t go through). Interpreting is not very lucrative either, but at least no one asks you to do it for the exposure, so it pays the rent. This means I could continue writing and just regard it as a hobby, like crochet or calligraphy. But I don’t want to regard it as a hobby. Do you remember that bit in The Office, when Dawn explains how she came to accept that was a receptionist, not an illustrator? It’s heartbreaking.

I always wanted to a be a writer, and not just a hobbyist, but a ‘proper’ writer – which basically means that people read your stuff and you get paid for it. Adjusting to seeing it as more of a hobby would be painful. But continuing to see it as my ‘real’ career while accepting I’ll never be truly successful at it is painful, too. Heads you win, tails I lose. On the plus side, I have enjoyed having some more free time over the last few weeks while I’ve been wrestling with this issue, and therefore writing nothing – and my existential crisis happily coincided with the World Snooker Championship, allowing me to devote serious wodges of time to it. So it’s not all bad. Possibly, in the future, when I’m wearing Valentino at the Oscars where a film based on one of my novels is up for an award, I’ll look back on this post and laugh at the irony. But I doubt it.


2 Responses to “Don’t give up the day job”

  1. Mrs Lynne Bradey May 5, 2023 at 4:13 pm #

    Hang on in there. People love your books.

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