Paperback Writer: Do irish writers make a living?
These are tough times for publishing. It is a late but definite casualty of the recession, with falling sales, the steady rise of self-publishing and yet another crisis of identity in 'serious' literature. But what kind of effect is all of this having on the actual writers? Emily Hourican asks if it is still possible to make a living as a writer
Published 18/08/2014 | 02:30
Anyone who was in London this summer, and saw posters for Eimear McBride's debut novel, A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing plastered across the sides of buses, would have been forgiven for thinking this was the hot summer blockbuster and McBride the new EL James. A bonk-buster, perhaps; chick lit, certainly. In reality, McBride has been called Joycean, even Beckettian, by reviewers clearly struggling with conveying the substance of a book that has no formal plot. This is a work of 'serious' literature, with claims to rewriting the duties and scope of 'The Novel', but for promotional purposes, it's getting the Carrie Bradshaw treatment - the side of a bus.
It's a bit bizarre alright, but then, these are angsty times for publishing - falling sales and profits, bulk discounting, the rise of self-publishing, even a crisis of identity and aspiration in fiction. The novel, Will Self intoned in May, is dead, "and this time it's for real". Fearful publishing companies are reluctant to take chances any more, instead they are casting around for a 'sure thing', something to halt the rot.
So, what is catching their eye? Well, there is the slightly manic crossing of lines at the moment - a kind of tarts and vicars party in which serious writers masquerade as genre writers. This is not entirely new - Graham Greene wrote what he called 'entertainments', books like The Third Man and This Gun For Hire, alongside his 'serious' novels, like The Power and the Glory - but it is increasing.
John Banville came early to the idea, publishing Christine Falls, his first book under the name of Benjamin Black, six years ago, as a respite from the slow process of crafting John Banvilles, and to distract himself from the summer, which he dislikes. He also did it for money.
"I'm afraid I did invent Benjamin Black for commercial reasons," he agrees, with disarmingly cheerful candour. "He's supposed to be doing my day job for me, though I wish to goodness he'd start pulling his weight and show some tangible - ie profitable - results. My Banville books earn very little. That didn't matter in the days when I was making my living in journalism, but the freelance world is a chilly place."
Interesting that Banville, who is a Booker Prize winner for The Sea, and widely recognised as one of a small handful of great contemporary writers, still refers to his profession as "the freelance world".
So what does he make of the industry right now? "It does seem publishers, like everyone else, have had to be less ambitious and generous - some would say foolish - than they used to be," he says, "and I hear that advances have been falling. Certainly, they were too high in the boom years of the 1990s, and raised expectations beyond all reasonable limits. But then, back then, bubbles abounded."
Banville, writing as Benjamin Black, has also written a Raymond Chandler, The Black-Eyed Blonde, which is excellent and as Chandler as it gets. In doing this, he is keeping company with a range of other big-name writers who are re-imagining the classics. Just as fashion is said to favour retro designs and comforting maxi-length skirts in a recession, and heritage brands are where we go running for comfort when times get tough, publishing is currently dredging through literary estates to make something new but reassuringly old.
William Boyd is the latest, after Sebastian Faulks and Jeffery Deaver, to write a James Bond novel; published last year, it quickly out-sold Boyd's most recent own-name novel, Waiting for Sunrise. A new Agatha Christie/Hercule Poirot novel is on the way, courtesy of Sophie Hannah. Sebastian Faulks has now written a PG Wodehouse tribute, while Joanna Trollope, Alexander McCall Smith and Val McDermid have all been busy with reworkings of Jane Austen's classics. Commercially, it's a good strategy - these books sell - but creatively? Not so much.
Banville agrees that there is plenty of fear around - "book publishing was always a fear-laden business. As William Goldman said about the movies, 'nobody knows anything'" - but not that there is outright panic. "Fashions come and go," Banville says reassuringly. "At the moment, as you say, there are many writers doing follow-up or imitative books - The Black-Eyed Blonde is both - but next year it will be something else that will catch the magpie's beady eye, and we'll be off on some other fad." He will not, he says, be writing any more Chandlers; "as TS Eliot said of Finnegans Wake, one book like this is enough."
As Banville points out, the era of big advances is the same era as the big spending on bankers' lunches, Ferraris and bottles of Chateau Margaux. Roughly 1980-2007; a time of extravagance and bullish optimism that is far more a blip than a benchmark. Kingsley Amis, for example, was sickened by how much money his son Martin made compared to him at that age. "Little shit" is how he described him to Salman Rushdie, and who could blame him? Martin got £500,000 for his 1995 novel, The Information. In Kingsley's time, authors didn't make money, and now, perhaps, they don't again.
Last month, a piece in The Guardian claimed that the median income for writers in the UK now is just £11,000 a year, less than a living wage, and down by 29pc from 2005. Now, those figures are clearly problematic, because there is no such thing as a 'typical' income for a writer. It's not like the civil service, where you can calculate, probably down to the nearest decimal place, based on qualifications, grade and the number of years of employment, exactly what someone is earning. Within the supposedly 'median income,' you could quite easily have one or two authors on several million a year, and many more earning virtually nothing. Given the nature of publishing, that is actually far more likely than a steady parcelling out of sums.
"There is no thing as a 'typical' advance," Vanessa O'Loughlin agrees. Vanessa is founder of online magazine site writing.ie, a one-stop shop for authors. She is also a literary scout, who has played a part in some major deals, most recently twentysomething County Meath writer Jax Miller's six-figure signing with HarperFiction. "And royalties vary enormously too," Vanessa says. "There are hundreds of variables in a publishing contract that impact the author, all up for negotiation".
However, she does agree that, "advances have been gradually reducing since the start of the recession. Now, instead of an advance, publishers might offer enhanced royalties. They are starting to think outside the box."
To me, that just sounds like more risk-sharing. They are unwilling to take a punt any more, so they persuade the writer to share risk - and rewards - with them. Quite like drilling for oil or gas.
Because very few writers will talk about advances. Of those I tried asking, one turned me down regretfully: "Sorry, but my agent and publishers would kill me". Another charmingly-but-decisively: "I think I'd better pass". And then several more, bluntly: "Oh, god, no!". So, it is difficult to get any clear idea of whether advances are going down or not, even what is 'average' for, say, a first novel. Or a second novel after the first was moderately successful. What about a tenth novel? A two-book deal versus a three-book deal?
"I don't mind saying what I got for my first book," says Roisin Meaney, who recently published After The Wedding, her tenth book. "I got €18,000 for two books, in 2004. To me, that was a fortune." That deal was with Tivoli, the now discontinued fiction imprint of Gill & Macmillan. When Tivoli closed, Roisin moved to Hodder Headline, now Hachette, where she remains.
When I ask what she thinks of this 'median income' of £11,000 for UK authors, Roisin says that "would seem pretty low to me." Her advances, she says, have held steady over the years. "I asked recently whether they could go up a bit, and my editor told me I was lucky the figure hadn't gone down, given the climate" she laughs. "But I'm earning a bit more with each deal now, because all my books are still in print, and they all sell relatively well, so royalties bump up the pay check.
"I'm not making a fortune from it, but I make a living. I gave up the day job after the four books, and I didn't feel too much fear. I'm not married and I have no kids. My parents live up the road and I'm sure my mother would give me dinner if I needed it!" Even between themselves however, it seems writers tend not to talk money. "It's the one thing that doesn't come up when we chat," says Roisin. "It's like it's taboo. We talk royalties, translation rights, but never advances."
What is certain though, is that most of what we read about advances is unrepresentative. It's only the big figures that make headlines - £1m for Cecelia Ahern's first novel, £500,000 for Kathleen MacMahon's This Is How It Ends - and publishers sometimes leak this stuff deliberately, for marketing purposes.This is often against the instincts and inclinations of the authors, who know damn well that the news will do them no favours when review time comes - "Oh look, it's that book that got all the money. Let's see if it's any good . . . "
In any case, break down even the highest figures, and the dazzle fades a little. Advances are usually for a two-book deal, and are paid out in dribs and drabs. One payment on signing, one on delivering the first book, one on publishing the first book, one on delivering the second book and so on. So that is divided six ways, over three or four years, maybe more, and all has to be earned back from sales. Once the book goes on sale, a standard contract will offer royalties of up to 7.5pc of cover price, less what was paid upfront of course. Then, within that are many variables based on discounting. It's very convoluted. Oh, and all less agents' fees of 10-15pc.
Looking at the figures for the best-selling Irish authors of 2012, Maeve Binchy tops the list with 36,582 copies of A Week In Winter sold, to the tune of €525,926. So if the author royalties were, say, 10pc (to keep things simple, and because it's Maeve), that is €52,592, less whatever advance was paid and agents' fees, for a book that may have been two years in the writing.
Now, because it's Maeve and those figures are only for Ireland, actual earnings are going to be far higher. But, it's a start in figuring out the complex world of author earnings.
For most writers - not just in Ireland, and not just now - there has always been a 'day job,' usually teaching, or the civil service. It is far more unusual not to have another job than it is to have one.
Sarah Webb has written 11 adult novels, including The Memory Box. "I've never taken it as a given that writing fiction would be my full-time job," she says. "I worked in the book trade, so I know how inconsistent this can be. I've always had other jobs, which I like. I do school events every week, part of the Writers in Schools scheme, for which the government pays me €200 for a day's work, plus travel expenses. I am children's curator for the Mountains to Sea book festival, and a consultant for Dubray, all of which fits around the writing.
"This year, I have no books out, next year I will have three; two children's books and an adult novel." Income, she says, "depends on the year too. My advances have held steady over the years, I've been very lucky, but then, they were never in the Cecelia Ahern category! I don't have a set income, and this isn't a life that would suit everybody. You need to be dedicated to the cause. I can't not write; it's a compulsion, not a job."
Even Donal Ryan, writer of the moment and author of The Thing About December and The Spinning Heart, long-listed for the Booker Prize and winner of The Guardian First Book Award, is only on sabbatical from his job in the civil service.
"It's for security," he says candidly, when I ask why a sabbatical and not retirement from the day job. "It would have been madness to give it up completely, I have a young family. At the moment, I have enough money to keep me going for three years, but no more."
Another big change is proficiency, and how this has gone from being something slightly suspect, to a Good Thing. I remember interviewing Alexander McCall Smith, author of the mega-selling No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series about four years ago, and he said that, after the success of the first book in 1998, when he told his publishers that he would like to write one book a year, they told him absolutely not. They warned that he would flood the market, that there wouldn't be enough demand, and that he should stick to the traditional model of a book every two years. Now, of course, one a year has become standard for many writers, encouraged by publishers who worry that if the fickle public have to wait any longer, they will move on and forget. For every Donna Tartt who can keep us all fascinated for 10 years while expectation slowly mounts, there are many more who need the reinforcement of regularity.
"There is pressure to write faster now," agrees Sinead Moriarty, whose ninth novel, Mad About You, was chosen as a Richard & Judy Book Club Summer Read last year. Sinead is shortly to publish her tenth book, and has already embarked on writing the next, although she does specify that the pressure comes from the market, rather than her publishers. "Everything has got faster, people don't want to wait any more. If you like a writer, you are looking forward to more of their work and you don't want to wait long for the next one.
"There is so much more competition," Sinead says, "through self-publishing and because other writers are more prolific. It's ferocious, and there is a sense definitely that you need to keep relevant, keep working, keep producing."
So does it get easier? Sinead's books have been best-sellers from the start, here and in the UK. Surely she must reach a comfort zone, where there are enough loyal readers to generate a good swell of momentum? "No, in fact it gets harder," she says, "because there's an expectation. You want the next book to be better than the last, always. And there is more competition with every year."
But is it a viable career? Does Sinead make a decent living at it? She's not about to share figures, but says, "I can do this full-time, I don't have a second job. For any writer, that is the Holy Grail. But I never get complacent. You're only as good as your last book."
There is also, in all of this, the Caitlin Moran Effect. This is the one where everything you touch - fiction, non-fiction, Twitter, scripts, stand-up - turns to gold, where book-signings have become performances and crowds queue down the street in the rain for the chance of a few words.
Moran is a phenomenon, no less than Zadie Smith or Martin Amis, a one-off rather than the model. But publishers don't necessarily get this. "Who do we have who ticks the female, 40s, sassy box?" they think. "And why isn't she out there doing all those things and generating huge revenue . . . ?"
It's not for everyone. As Joe O'Connor said in a recent interview on Miriam Meets, the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk was so averse to human interactions that he sat down and made a list of the occupations he could do from one room without any need to meet his fellow human beings. Writer was the best he came up with. But, for the ambitious and gregarious, the Caitlin Moran model is worth thinking about.
Amanda Brunker is both those things, in spades. "There are people who are geniuses, and then there are people with a little bit of talent who know how to sell themselves. That's me. I'm like the Spice Girls," she says. Amanda has written three novels, starting with Champagne Kisses, and is determined to write more.
"Writers have to be more ingenious and business-minded now," she says. "Not that they could ever afford not to be, but now it's more than ever. Selling a book to the public doesn't just happen, you have to work at it, and I'm always amazed that people expect their publishers to do all that work. When I published my first book, even though I knew loads of people were saying, 'Oh, Amanda Brunker is going to write a stinking pile of shite.' I did book-signings all around the country. My publishers didn't do that for me. I googled book shops across the country, rang them up and said, 'Would you mind if I came down?' I got in my car, drove miles for what might only have been five people turning up, but I still felt I had to do it. And it worked, my book was number one in the first week."
Yes, but did she make any money? "For the first book I got a lovely big advance," she says. "Five figures. For the second and third books, the deal was better." Will she be more specific? The rumour has always been six figures, will she confirm or deny? "I'm not saying, but I did very well." You see, if even Amanda won't fess up . . .
However, the sailing was not plain. "I had an unlucky space there," she admits, "and now I'm having to claw my way back into the market." What happened? "After the second book deal, the publisher I worked with was made redundant, I was pushed into space. My agent then decided she wanted to quit the business, and for myself, after three books in three years, plus the day job and looking after young children, I needed to take a break. So currently I'm agent-less and publisher-less, but I have another book and it will appear next year. I love the idea that someone will swoop in and give me a lovely book deal again, but even though I've had three best-sellers, I can't expect to just walk into a deal. I still have to try and woo someone into taking me on, and if that doesn't work, I'll do it myself."
In the meantime, she has been doing her research: "You need to be more inventive now in how you bring your book to people's attention and sell it. Caitlin Moran does stage shows that are basically book-signings. Everyone gets tanked up on booze and buys loads of copies, it's become like a rock festival. That kind of thing has given me some ideas." Will she share them? "No way. Writers are just as shallow as anyone else, they'll steal them!"
Several of the writers I speak to bring up the idea of self-publishing; if an editor doesn't go for a particular book, there is now another way to get it to readers. It's kind of like a Plan B hovering away in the background, although I get the impressions it's still a last-resort kind of thing - the adult literary version of 'give me what I want or I'm running away!' Still, we've come a long way from the days when self-publishing was something a bit dirty that only the desperate and terminally bad would resort to. "The snootiness is beginning to disappear," Vanessa O'Loughlin confirms. "The Guardian and other serious papers are starting to review self-published books, and the big publishing houses are definitely keeping an eye on people doing well in the self-publishing world."
And the quality? "Not every book that is out there deserves to be published," Vanessa agrees. "But poor stuff will always drop to the bottom and the good will rise to the top. There is quality control there, and it's pretty immediate. Amazon has a review system, and material that is reviewed well will rise."
And that material will often be snapped up by traditional publishers, who are more and more using self-publishing as part of the risk-share I mentioned earlier. How to take the guesswork out of producing a book? Publish something that has already proved its appeal. Vanessa cites the example of Irish author Hazel Gaynor, who first published The Girl Who Came Home herself as an e-book after years of rejections, only for it to do well, and Harper Collins to come courting. Since, the book has been a New York Times best-seller, justifying everyone's faith, in particular Hazel's.
And even though there is money to be made in self-publishing - purchase cost of a book is far lower than traditional paper or hardbacks, but the author gets a higher percentage - the Holy Grail for the majority of self-published authors is still the glory and validation of the traditional deal. Not to mention the appeal of a team of people to take over some of the duties, such as book design, layout, subbing and so on, that otherwise the author, like the hardest-working one-man band in showbiz, must do themselves.
So can you still make a living as a writer in Ireland? Yes, if you're good. And lucky; the usual rules still apply.
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