Every so often there is a burst of indignation in the media about how little serious authors earn. Figures are bandied about and ludicrous comparisons are made, such as complaining that Katie Price, (aka Jordan), makes considerably more money from the books that come out in her name than the whole Man Booker shortlist put together.
Of course she does. The owner of IKEA turns over more than the local craftsman who makes individual items from expensive raw materials, Ronald MacDonald turns over more money than Raymond Le Blanc.
The average earnings of members of the Society of Authors are often brought up to illustrate how poorly writers are rewarded, but we are all able to exercise at least some control over our earning potential eventually, simply by working harder. No one can predict a runaway success story like J.K. Rowling or Dan Brown, but it is a dead cert that someone who can write to a publishable level and who puts in a steady eight hours work a day, is not going to starve. If you just write one novel a year, having no idea until it is published whether anyone else is going to want to read it, then you are quite likely to be disappointed by your earnings for the year. If, however, you spend a couple of days a week on that novel, and put the rest of your time into writing articles, non-fiction books, press releases, speeches or any other work you can get your hands on, then I’m willing to bet you will be making a reasonable living within a few years of setting out.
It’s the same for artists. An artist could spend a week on a painting and then be able to sell it for no more than a hundred pounds, but if he or she also does some illustrating work, arranges to have prints made and sold of their most successful works, and accepts commissions to do portraits of children and pets, then they are more likely to be able to support themselves through the slow times. The great “masters” of history nearly always had busy studios filled with apprentices turning out the sort of pictures that clients wanted to pay for. An artist who spends his or her life painting pictures and then hoping to sell them individually will always have a hard time.
Great playwrights must create works that will sell tickets, journalists must cover subjects that editors believe their customers want to read about, but if any writer labours long and hard enough they will eventually create enough of a reputation to be able to influence a little the nature of the work that they are asked to produce.
The secret to getting launched as a successful freelance writer is always to have a mixed portfolio of work; some speculative, some satisfyingly creative and some purely to generate bread and butter.
There is also a considerable benefit to being forced out into the world to write about things that we might otherwise not be interested in. It gets us away from our desks, broadens our minds and gives us a greater understanding of the world, which we can then draw on for our other writings. If we were fortunate enough to be able to support ourselves just on the workings of our imaginations from the start, many of us would take the opportunity to shut out the rest of the world and would soon be reduced to writing books about writers shutting themselves away. We all need to be given a push every now and then to remind us that we have to join in with the rest of the world at least part of the time if we want to learn and understand how everything works.
The day we hand over our manuscripts to our publishers, many of us breathe sighs of relief and begin to think about the next book, assuming, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that the publishers and the general public will take over from that point on. That is never going to happen. With very few exceptions, the most successful writers are the ones who are continually promoting themselves and their products. From Lord Byron to Jacqueline Susann, Jeffrey Archer to Will Self and, of course, the ubiquitous Katie Price, the evidence is all around.
It’s easy to deride the more blatantly marketed brand names like Katie Price, but in fact her ascent to the top of the bestseller lists is a lesson to us all in being true to ourselves, refusing to take “no” for an answer and effectively marketing whatever assets we have. She had to overcome a shameful amount of snobbery and lethargy to get where she is today. Five years ago she was just a glamour model with a tabloid reputation. When she approached publishers with the idea of writing a book about her experiences of “being Jordan” she was met with sneering distaste. Only John Blake, a man famed for his open mind on such subjects, was willing to give her a chance and bought the book for about two per cent of the price Katie and her people had initially been hoping for.
The publishers who had turned her down had misjudged their customers just as surely as the people who rejected J.K. Rowling or the Beatles. By teaming up with Blake, Katie was able to appeal to the general public over the heads of the publishing elite who have traditionally set themselves up as the gatekeepers of what the public should or shouldn’t get to read about. Having got to know her on television the public responded with a resounding cheer and immediately wanted to find out more, and more and more. The success of the book meant that one of the publishers who had previously turned her away came back with a mighty enough offer to lure her away from Blake, and the next stage of her publishing career has been nothing short of a phenomenon. As well as the fiction which appears in her name and goes straight to the top of the charts in hardback as well as paperback, and the endless stream of memoirs and diaries, she also puts her name to a series of books for children about horses and riding.
Katie’s rise contains several lessons for writers. Firstly she was not put off by the fact that every publisher in London bar one refused to have anything to do with her and secondly she settled for an advance that would not make her a profit, just to get the show on the road. She did not then sit around waiting for the publisher to make her rich, she made herself an object of interest to the general public so that they would want to read more about her. The woman’s work ethic is beyond reproach and if we all put as much imagination and as many hours into our projects as she does we too would be reaping our just rewards.
Most of us, of course, would no more want to swap lives with Katie Price than we would like to trade places with Gordon Brown or Prince William, but that doesn’t mean we can’t watch and learn from their triumphs and their mistakes.
So before any of us complain about how neglected we are by the market, and how impecunious we are left as a result, we should all think very carefully about whether we have brought it on ourselves. The rewards of a writing life are out there for the taking, but it may require a little more sweat than you first imagined before you will be able to bring in the harvest.