Friday, 9 April 2010

Giving up the Day Job

We're British, so asking people how much they earn simply isn't cricket. Unless you're a writer, in which case the social niceties go out the window. I am constantly amazed at how shamelessly people ask. If you demur and say something like, enough to pay my bills or - after a couple of glasses - enough to keep me in expensive lingerie, the questioner will laugh and then say something like, so how much is that then?

The truth is that writers do not - repeat, not - earn a great deal of money. Yes, there are the few who make shedloads, but they're far and few between. It's like assuming that everyone who works in computers is as rich as Bill Gates.

Back in the real world, what do you get? When I got my first deal my agent told me (afterwards) she'd have accepted £10,000. This would have been £2,000 if it had been a literary rather than commercial novel. Not enough to give up the day job for in other words. Now, I got more than that, but that was then and times are harder now. Still, let's say you get £30,000 for your book. Yippee! You could live for a year on £30,000.

But before you break out the champagne consider this. First that's income, not a handout from the Lottery. You've got to pay tax and NI on it, after your agent has taken their 10 or 15%. That reduces it to about half. Can you live for a year on £15,000? Possibly, but now think about timing. When I sold my first book in October they wanted it to be a May launch, but it was too late for publication in May the following year. So it came out in May the year after that - 18 months later. Advances are stretched over the publication schedule - perhaps 1/3 on signing, 1/3 on hardback publication, 1/3 on paperback publication. Would £15,000 last you for 18 months?

You have no control over the publishing schedule. I was late delivering Another Woman's Husband (tut tut), so they allowed an 18 month gap for me to deliver A Single to Rome even though I produced it after a year. (It explains why Kissing Mr Wrong is coming out this May, 6 months after ASTR. I'm not working faster, just the output has caught up with the publishing schedule.)

The effect was, the advance for 2 books spread out over 3 years, again, 18 months per title. You have to be getting fairly large advances to cope with that. Yes, there are extra sources of income such as large print and audio rights, and foreign sales, but they're all unpredictable and if you're sensible you'll be tucking them away in savings accounts and pension plans. I did give up the day job, but quickly developed another in teaching creative writing and would strongly advise any writer to keep the day job going for as long as possible - or at least until the mortgage is paid off.


Lizzie said...

HI Sarah,

Yes, giving up the day job would probably be economic madness, but how hard it is to come home and then start work again – even if it is work that you would rather be doing full-time.

Oh well, only two years (I think) until the mortgage is paid off. And after the last 18 months writing at night and weekends has become second nature. Hopeless for the garden and social life, though!



Alison said...

Hi Sarah,

This sounds very familiar to my former day job as a self-employed translator. I'm now a full-time writer (whatever that is!), but I still translate and give talks, etc. about it.

I always warn people with a passion for languages that they'll never get rich translating, but they'll have an intellectually fulfilling life and earn enough to live in a flat/have a second family income.

Having said that, some translators do earn well, especially in niche areas or working in-house, but they are not the majority.

I'm obviously doomed in my choice of careers, but I have an interesting life...

Sarah Duncan said...

Lizzie - I've been lucky in that I've never been in the writing after a day's work situation, but I so admire those who manage to complete a novel in those circumstances. I hope it works out for you, both with the novel and the mortgage!

Alison - I've always been attracted to careers that don't make money unless you're one of the fortunate few, but I didn't realise that translation was one of them. I like to think it's my creative and original spirit that lures me away from the safe shores of salaryland...