Sunday 18 August 2019

Whatever drives the writer, it ain't the money

Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

With the great book-buying season upon us, let us remember the people who write all the books, because somebody has to do that. They write books under their own names, "good books" about which nobody gives a monkey's, and they write them under the names of other people who are much more famous than them, who then go on television and pretend that they did all the writing themselves.

The famous people are chefs, or singers, or jockeys, and though they are promoting a book, it can sort of escape the attention of the viewers that they are not writers, as such. Not at all, in fact.

They may not even be readers of the book at the time of going to press, or at any other time.

Indeed, you'd expect the chat-show host to break in the odd time and banish this infantile illusion by clarifying that his guest did not, indeed, "write" this book as they are specifically claiming, but that somebody else wrote it for what would probably not amount to anything like the sort of money you would make for the equivalent number of hours (hundreds and hundreds of hours) in the lowest of the low positions in the lowest-paying branch of McDonald's in the lowest-income society on Earth.

It's a lush life under those golden arches, I tell you, next to that of the unfortunates who provide the wordage for all this celebrity merchandise, in the desperate hope that it will keep them alive for long enough to write their own, proper books, for which they will receive even less money, and which will be thrown into the most obscure corner of the shop in order to accommodate the lavish displays required by the chefs and the singers and the jockeys.

But hey, that's the market. Whatever that means.

And the writer of a good book, while he may be poor, will get more satisfaction out of it than he'd get from hosing down the latrines in a fast-food restaurant in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Personally, I cherish something that is unknown to those in better-paid positions in sanitation in general, the vision that one's work might still be enjoyed in 50 years' time. Or that it might only start to be enjoyed in 50 years' time.

Many of us are comfortable with this idea that in order to get the recognition we deserve, first we may have to die. For the true writer, this is not a frustration, but perhaps the great consolation. Because we are crazy dreamers, but we can also count.

For example, if I were so minded, I could be going around calling myself a best-selling author. One of my books reached the Top 5 in its section in the best-sellers list in the crucial Christmas market, and I assure you there are authors in this country who are calling themselves best-selling who have sold a lot less than that, and some who call themselves best-selling without selling anything at all.

But I do not judge them, I couldn't even get too excited about that best-seller of mine, because I remembered this ability that I have, to count. Which told me that since an author will receive roughly a quid or a euro or a Congolese franc for every copy sold, if you sell, say, 20,000, which is quite a hit in Ireland, over time you will make about as much money as the manager of that aforementioned McDonald's would receive in tips and bonuses for the same man-hours during the equivalent fiscal period.

Except he's going to make as much the following year, just for showing up, whereas you have to get lucky all over again just to stay in his neighbourhood.

So as regards any notion that a person might "make a living" from writing books, it happens, of course, in the same way as somebody winning a car on the Late Late Show, happens.

Though when you get down to the hard numbers, there are more people driving around Ireland in cars that they won when they answered Ryan Tubridy's call, than there are Irish authors supporting themselves solely on the proceeds of their books.

Which, when we clear away all the tragic misunderstandings, leaves us with these truths - that books are written by people of deeply spiritual leanings who are able to accept the possibility that even if they are quite successful, they'll be unable to pay the rent.

And who understand the truth of one of the oldest lines in show business - that what you have there, with your book, or your record, or your play, is just a ticket for the Sweep.

The odds are not great, but then you think of Hothouse Flowers, whose version of I Can See Clearly Now was chosen for the opening sequence of Jeremy Clarkson's new show The Grand Tour, as a result of which they are now top of the iTunes chart, whatever that is.

And whatever the chance of that happening, it is roughly the same as the chance of a writer making enough from books alone to feed himself and perhaps his dog, if neither of them eat much.

So there is a chance...

Meanwhile, we trust you enjoy your Christmas books - really, we don't want you to feel bad about that cheap-labour thing; we know you have busy lives.

Sunday Independent

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