The worst question you can ask an author is how much we make. Oh, the question can vary slightly, but the reply is almost always the same. “Don’t expect money if you want to be a writer,” I say, my tone always on the mild side of weary. If writers were paid by the hour for all the work we put into our…well, work…we’d be paid better than your manager at work. Weirdly, when I decided as a child that I wanted to be on the shelves like my favourite authors at the bookshop and library, I never once thought about how much I’d be paid. Not once did it occur to me to check how much writers earned. I just saw Roald Dahl on Tales of the Unexpected in a grand room, feet up in front of the fireplace, and thought that was how writers lived.
Writing is the only job where the applicant doesn’t consider the pay. Worse, there’s no class at college or university that prepares you for your tax forms. Me? I had no idea about taxes and still don’t, but faithfully fill in my forms every year. GoSimpleTax was a blessing for me in those first few years, until they upped their subscription to seventy quid, making me squirm and recoil. Eventually, I fled to their rival, who helped get my finances in order. One year, I was hit with a fine because I didn’t declare that I’d earned nothing that entire year. I had to be scraped off the ceiling, because I had no idea you needed to declare you earned nothing. Guess what year that was? The one where everything closed, including all the bookshops. Luckily, I got that sorted and learned a valuable (in the literal sense of the word) lesson. Taxes are such a slog that I’m glad wee me didn’t know about it, otherwise, he might not have followed his dreams to become a novelist. I, who crawled into a depression on my sixteenth birthday at the thought of paying council tax, couldn’t have countenanced the thought of being taxed for telling stories. Stories should be free, I thought. Until they weren’t. Then I had to get serious.
Even if the writing doesn’t pull in a lot of money, the live events around the launching of a new book can be very lucrative, especially for authors who can perform well on stage, or in front of any audience. Ta-dah! That’s me. But even that isn’t enough to satisfy the nosy idler who wants to know how much you earn from writing. This brings me neatly to something else I hear often during these conversations. A name is always brought up. One of the most famous (and now infamous) names in publishing. “Look at J.K. Rowling,” they’ll say. “She’s rolling in it!” To which I always add, “don’t you mean ‘Rowling’ in it?” – but this never goes well for me. Levity, I’ve discovered, is never welcome when strangers want to discuss money.
So why do we do it? For the love of our craft? Yes, of course. Or maybe we think the next book will be the one, though it never is, not for most authors anyway. Mostly, I think people don’t realise that the big multi-book deals they read about in the press aren’t the rule, but the abnormality.
When I first started years ago, back when I wrote weirdo YA fiction, I remember being booked for school visits (which turned out to be quite lucrative) via Live Literature, only to find not all of the schools wanted to pay in the first place. “How will this benefit me?” I asked teresly. “Exposure,” said the kind teacher. My first instinct was to wail, “You can die from exposure,” – unless, of course, you wear a fur coat like me. Faux, of course. In the end, I agreed to do the gig for free, which is something I’d never advise anyone to do. You could end up having the piss taken out of you and sell no books at the end. Kids with pocket money would rather spend it on a packet of Benson & Hedges than a book, let’s be honest. I speak from experience.
In these times of neverending austerity and price rises, writing really does feel like a middle-class luxury at times, something quite seperate from the poorest in society. And that’s a shame. Working class voices need to be heard, and I’m worried they’ll be priced out of publishing. I’ve managed to get my foot in the crack of the door, and I’ve got size ten feet. Not everyone is so fortunate. I’ve had to learn along the way, gain the wisdom of other authors, literally ask for advice that I can’t get anywhere else. I also have valuable advice to share with you, the reader: don’t ask authors how much money they’ve got, because unless the answer is “not very much”, they’re probably lying – or they’re J.K. Rowling.