Saturday, February 7, 2015

Money is a confusing subject for writers ...

Money is a confusing subject for writers. As I covered in my last post, the average earnings on a single title aren't the stuff luxury dreams are built on. Most of my writing income comes from book related things rather than the books themselves. I am not complaining. I love writing books. And talking about books. And writing. And I did my research - I figured out pretty quickly that I was unlikely to make my fortune this way. I knew what I was in for and I went and did it anyway. But that doesn't mean I agree with how writing is valued. And it is somewhat awkward when the normal sector of the community who head off to their 9 to 5 jobs for at least minimum wage, and then usually plus some, try to understand why you do what you do, knowing what you know, about the likely going rate. As Sara Baume explains here ( " gradually, society has made me feel foolish for devoting myself so fervently to a career so unlikely to earn me any money. " ),  often they don't get it (thank you to Maureen Crisp for this very juicy link).

And here in New Zealand, with a seriously modest population that can never drive large print runs, a tyranny of distance that strangles the most thoughtful marketing and promotional campaigns, and as publishers have tightened their belts, or upped sticks and retreated to the shores of our larger neighbour Australia, margins have become tighter than most.

Despite all this we do still have writers here who earn enough from their book sales alone to buy their own coffees. But they are a small percentage of the writing community. I read recently of an overseas study which calculated that the majority of writers (including both independently and traditionally published) had an average annual income of $500 from their books. That is a sobering result.

We work hard at what we do, whether it's writing and polishing our manuscripts, or preparing and delivering talks, workshops or readings. We often go the extra mile - dressing up for appearances, making handouts and bookmarks, giving prizes from our own resources in competitions of our own devising, or judging those devised by others. We mentor, teach and share. And underneath it all we are slowly taught that there is little money in this industry. Slowly our sense of the value of what we do is muddied or eroded. What should a manuscript be worth? Is it $6000 all up? I feel a little ill when I see million dollar advances for celebrity titles, or some hot, young debuting writer. Is their writing really 167 times (or more depending on the currency - don't talk to me about £1,000,000 advances) better than my writing? Maybe. Maybe not. How can I tell? I know publishing is a business, and advances and royalties represent what income a company anticipates making and/or actual sales. Is this the only measure of a book's value? Should we be paid by the word? Well probably not because writers take many different routes to get to the same length manuscript, whether going through twenty drafts and labouring over each individual word, or knocking out 50,000 words a month, nanowrimo style, whether we are supported by an agent or editor or doing all the writing, rewriting and editing ourselves. Should we be paid by the length of time taken, or the sweat generated while we worked? It's all a bit confusing. What ARE we worth? Are we further away from understanding what a reasonable value is, than ever before? And that's just for our writing. What are we worth for all the other writing related tasks that we do.

And if folk question our sanity for choosing a career that doesn't pay, do they then extend this to thinking that this IS what we are worth?

We have debated the difficulties of being asked to do gigs for nothing. Many organisations, schools and other institutions understand the importance of paying writers a fee for events they participate in. But there is a worrying trend for unpaid gigs. Doing jobs for free creates an unhealthy and unrealistic expectation that undermines the ability of other authors to charge. Why pay someone when you can find someone else who will do it for free? Yet we put a lot of thought and effort into our presentations. It seems fair to be remunerated. And what if writers are financially supported by family or some other form of patronage. Should they do all their gigs for free? Or not at all? Is their value different again?  For me one of the biggest arguments against doing something for free is that often the people inviting you to speak aren't working for free. They justifiably expect fair recompense for the work they perform, and it would seem only reasonable for us to expect the same. If they are voluntary workers than I am happy to be voluntary too, but that isn't always the case. I appreciate that so many organisations are strapped for cash, but they must also appreciate that that is also true of so many of the authors they are inviting to work for free. I believe part of the difficulty is that we have no real clear understanding of what we are worth, whether for our writing, or for other writing related tasks. How can we negotiate payment when we are so unsure ourselves. The waters have just been getting muddier and muddier. We are being taught to expect less. And that we can't rely on income from our writing. And the wider community seems to have a different understanding of how we work, and what and how we are paid and it seems impossible to bridge this divide of understanding. It would be a travesty if in the future the only people who could afford to write were those with independent means. Money is a confusing subject for writers.

1 comment:

Yvette Carol said...

Thoughtful post, M. Yes I've heard about the discrepancies too. A lot of writers in America, who have more than one book out, can leave their job and supplement their income with school visits, talks, etc. But the only drawback with that is you have to live in America!