Warning: Explicit Content (Look away now if you wish to preserve dreams of rich and successful authorhood)
You know that romantic notion of the impoverished artist in a garret? Turns out it’s pretty close to the truth. And far from romantic.
Perth writer/reviewer Ian Nichols has done some number crunching, with help from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and the results paint a depressing, if not unexpected, picture of writing incomes.
Here are some stark figures. In 2000-01:
- 56% of writers earned less than $10,000 a year from their writing;
- More than 60% of writers lived at or below the poverty line.
Yes, those last words were ‘poverty’ and ‘line’. The way Nichols tells it, even the modest aim of earning the average wage through writing is a pipe dream for all but a lucky few.
Presenting the paper Filthy Lucre: Writers and Money at Swancon 36/Natcon 50, Nichols said he wanted to know what JK Rowling had going for her that he didn’t – aside from a wand-wielding kid with a scar – so he did some research.
“The glowing examples mount before us: JK Rowling, the first literary billionaire; John Grisham, Tom Clancy; Dan Brown. A single breakthrough novel may be all it takes,” Nichols said. “Well, the dream may not be quite in accord with reality.
“I feel we can say with some degree of accuracy that writers don’t make much money. Short story writers make even less and poets have probably the highest word rate and the lowest income.”
He cited the ABS report Don’t Give Up Your Day Job (2001), which concluded that:
…only about one-fifth of all artists are likely to be able to meet their minimum income needs from their creative work alone, with only a little over one-third able to earn this amount from all arts work. Equally noteworthy is that around 40 per cent of artists are unable to meet their minimum income needs from all of the work they do both within and outside the arts.
So, out of those who supplemented their paltry earnings from writing with income from a ‘day job’, 40 per cent were still unable to pay their bills. Alarmingly – unless there’s been a massive turnaround in the last decade and anecdotal evidence suggests there hasn’t – the ABS revealed the trend was negative.
Over the long term, it is apparent that in financial terms the relative disadvantage of artists compared to other occupations has worsened rather than improved over the last 15 years.
“While most people would acknowledge that they cannot walk up to a bassoon and produce music, or create a finished, competent painting when confronted by a blank canvas, oil paints and brushes, there seems to be a belief that writing is a skill that is wholly natural and that anyone can write,” Nichols said.
“This may be the reason that writers are so poorly paid and why there are so few job ads that demand skill at creative writing, although there are a few.
“When one considers that the (ABS) report indicates that writers spend more on supporting their writing habit than they make from it, one might wonder why they write at all.”
Nichols said there were some glimmers of financial hope. Tim Winton seemed to be doing well, as were a few other Australian writers. “Sally Morgan sold more than a quarter of a million copies of My Place and, at 10 per cent royalties, that is a nice piece of change,” he said.
But such success was rare. Here’s what Nichols worked out a writer had to do to earn less than the average wage for 2008, estimated by the ABS to be $60,000.
“As dedicated artists, we can’t really expect to make the average wage, so $50,000 as a yearly income seems fine. In fact, it’s the level at which the Australia Council has set Writers’ Fellowships,” he said.
“At 5c a word, professional rates, that’s 1,000,000 words to be sold, 200 short stories at 5000 words each. Roughly a story every two days, sold to a professional publication.”
Or, if you’re writing novels:
“Publishers don’t like to talk about how much they advance writers, but anecdotal evidence suggests that $5000 is a very good advance on royalties,” Nichols said. “That’s 10 novels a year.
“If the novelist relies on sales, they would have to sell just over 15,000 copies of their novel in a year. There are few Australian novelists who do this.”
Brace yourself for more depressing figures.
“Suppose one does have a book that becomes a best seller,” Nichols said. “In Australia, a book that sells 5000 copies would bring a smile to any publisher’s face, so let us, for argument’s sake, double that figure to 10,000 copies sold at a price of $32.95, which is typical for trade paperbacks.
“Ten per cent of $32.95 is $3.29.5. For 10,000 sales, that comes to $32,950 in royalties. If you could produce two of those a year, and there are some writers who do, you would be on a salary that is less than that of a classroom teacher.
“It is also rare for books to become best sellers. Again, it is difficult to obtain exact figures from publishers, but sales of less than 3000 are far more common than those of more than 3000. Some of our more well-known literary writers have never sold more than 5000 copies.”
So is it impossible for most writers to make a living from their chosen craft? Nichols was not devoid of hope. But it was clear that success required a lot of hard graft.
“Apart from the Rowling solution, there are a few things which seem to be useful,” Nichols said. It was important to realise that writing was business that involved marketing, finding support, diversification and production.
“Writers are notoriously poor at marketing, which is why they employ agents,” Nichols said. “The jury is out on whether this is an effective strategy for all but established writers but it is a starting point.
“There are many websites and publications for writers which can tell you where to send your work for it to have the best chance of being accepted, what the payment rates are, response times etc. A little common sense is necessary as well. Women’s Weekly rarely accept horror stories.”
“Finding support means finding grants and applying for them,” Nichols said. “It may take time away from your primary creative work, but it may also give you the means to engage in that same work without worrying about money for a couple of years.”
Grants were available from the Australia Council and WA Arts Council, among others. They were difficult to get but “you can’t win lotto if you don’t buy a ticket”.
“Don’t limit yourself to a single form of writing or market,” Nichols said. “It’s quite easy to write a few hundred words about a trip you took and that can be marketed to newspapers, travel magazines etc. A review or article can be sold the same way. It’s a question of just doing what writers do, writing.”
“Most of the successful writers I have known have treated it as a business and written constantly,” Nichols said. “Fred Pohl, for instance, one of the world’s most successful SF writers, writes every day without fail.” Self-publishing was an increasingly viable option.
“Finally, it is sometimes necessary to swallow one’s pride and write for the market that exists,” he said. “Paul Newman, in the 1963 film The Prize, played a writer who was about to be awarded the Nobel Prize. He admitted, in the film, that he had made his living for the last 10 years by writing mysteries for the paperback market. Our own George Johnston, author of My Brother Jack, was the best-selling crime novelist in Greece.”
At the end of his dispiriting presentation, Nichols urged writers to “take heart”. It was possible, even with low sales, low income and not earning out one’s advance, to make a profit for the publisher that, while meagre, was just enough to convince them to publish another of your works.
Ah, living the dream…