Why do authors write? Why put themselves through long hours toiling alone, often having to scrap the whole day’s output when mature reflection on the following day tells them their words are fit only for the recycle bin? Why do they abandon ‘safe’ careers or put them on hold, compromise their financial position, truncate their social lives, just so that they can write?
Of course, the picture I’m painting here is far too bleak. Not all authors choose to make material sacrifices and few are afflicted by all the misfortunes I describe. It remains true, nevertheless, that the ‘writing bug’ bites deep. Compounded of the quest for fame and fortune and the joy of seeing one’s name in print, it’s a complex sentiment seldom motivated solely by the desire for financial gain – though there are exceptions to this rule. For example, Ian Rankin, creator of Rebus, who is single-handedly responsible for 10% of all crime fiction sales in the UK, once famously said that he became a writer in order to make enough money to marry his future wife. What astounds here is not so much his ambition as his (it turns out, justifiable) self-confidence: many writers may aspire to the creation of wealth by the pen, but few succeed. Rankin managed to pull it off and become both rich and famous, but, in common with all authors, the odds were heavily stacked against him.
Although most authors harbor secret hopes of making money from their writing, few really expect it to support them. Nevertheless, being a writer is not without its expenses: traveling to events, paying for a membership to writers’ groups – all require financial outlay. There may also be occasions when you will need to take some unpaid leave in order to fulfill a writing engagement. Added to all of these, and equally important is the immense sense of achievement that every author feels when he or she gets paid for something directly associated with his or her writing. The effect of this should not be under-estimated: often it is the vital boost that provides you with enough courage to keep going!
It is therefore not difficult to make a powerful case for the benefits derived by authors from generating income from their writing. Developing an actual strategy for financial gain can be trickier. The rest of this article is devoted to some (mainly modest) ways in which authors can make money.
Organizers of events, even though they don’t have much money to spend, are often scrupulously ethical about not expecting authors to contribute for free. Festivals take the lead here, but expect to have to work hard! Your best way of featuring on the program of a festival is probably to agree to run an authors’ surgery. This may involve being sent up to 3 chapters of prospective authors’ MSs in advance, reading them, and then meeting the authors at (typically) 15-minute slots allocated by the festival organizers. For this you will be paid a modest hourly rate for the time you put in at the festival only – so, for example, if the rate is £30 an hour and you see 12 authors, you will be paid for three hours, i.e., £90. If you’re asked to deliver a talk or workshop at the festival on some aspect of writing (typically, it will last for about an hour), you can expect a payment of, perhaps, £90 – £100. Leading a half-day or day-long workshop will pay you more, but not proportionately more: you may get £150 – £250 for a half-day, £300 – £400 for a full day. In addition to this, the festival organizers will usually also pay travel expenses and, if the festival is being held at a venue where accommodation is plentiful, such as a university campus, free accommodation. As a rule of thumb, the expenses/fees you receive will help you to break even, or do a little better than that. There are other bonuses: usually you’ll be able to attend sessions at the festival when you’re not ‘on’ yourself; you’ll get the opportunity to meet other writers and publishers; and if the festival has a bookstall, and you ask in good time, the bookseller may be happy give you a slot for a signing session and help you to publicize it.
Top tip: aside from the possible signing session, don’t forget that this is not mainly about you and your own writing: it’s about helping other writers. But you will benefit, both directly and indirectly, if you become well-known on the festival circuit.
Libraries like to host author events. Many libraries run one or more reading groups, so if you are invited to speak at an event, they will have a ready-made audience for you – though, as with securing an audience for any event, you should take nothing for granted: the more work you put in to build up the audience yourself, the more successful the event is likely to be.
You should be aware that there are now two main types of public library in the UK: those that are still maintained by the local authority and those that are now run by the local community (i.e., by a group of unpaid volunteers who have come together to keep the library open). Although all libraries are strapped for cash, those run by local authorities are more likely to have a proper budget to support events and therefore be able to offer you a fee. If the library is run by the local community, it is unlikely to be able to stretch beyond picking up travel expenses.
If the event consists simply of a talk about your latest book, perhaps followed by some readings and a signing session (most libraries are happy to allow you to bring in books to sell, or to arrange for a local bookseller to do it), you can’t really expect much in the way of payment, as essentially the library is giving you publicity to help promote your book (though some will still be prepared offer modest travel expenses). If the event is a lengthier, more organized occasion at which, for example, you’ve been asking to run a writing or reading workshop or lead a literary game, the library may then offer you a fee. As indicated, fees vary according to the library’s finances: for an afternoon or evening event lasting two hours or more you may be offered a fee in the region of £150 – £200, plus travel expenses.
Top tips: Except in the case of a talk about your book/readings, again understand that this is not about you: your focus should be on the readers, what they like to read and how they approach the books they read. If the session is a workshop, prepare it very carefully, and learn from your mistakes: take stock afterward of what worked and what didn’t work. Try to build up a rapport with the audience so that they ask to see you again. Make sure that the librarians involved know how grateful you have been for the opportunity: send them a thank-you card afterward. Remember that a huge additional perk is that libraries buy books for reading groups in sets, often of eight copies or more.
Schools often have a budget to pay authors. Usually, this is for running a half-day or whole day workshop. They may be looking for specific types of the author, however: performance poets are the most popular. Some schools are interested in creative writing workshops (and, as with festivals, they may ask you to examine students’ work in advance). Typical fees are £300 – £400 for one day, £150 – £250 for a half-day. In certain circumstances, schools may also offer you the opportunity to sell your books to students/staff. If so, it is wise to offer a discount on the cover price.
Top tips: This is one of the hardest kinds of paid work to pull off successfully. You need to carry out a significant amount of research beforehand: make sure you understand the age-range, ability, ethnic mix and interests of the groups of students you will be working with. Run the exercises and readings you’re planning past their teachers. Be prepared to make swift changes to your programme if it’s clear that something isn’t working. Make sure you work with groups that are small enough for you to be able to manage them, and for a relatively short period of time: it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to engage the concentration of a schools audience for more than one hour.
Universities and colleges that run creative writing courses may also be interested in paying you to give a talk (usually for one hour) or workshop (usually for one-and-a-half to two hours) on some aspect of writing or getting published, and may also sometimes pay travel expenses. Paradoxically, they often don’t pay as well as schools, because they have a standard hourly rate for visiting lecturers and are unlikely to want to pay you for more than an hour or two. Like schools, they may be prepared to let you sell your books to the students.
Top tip: Again, research your audience beforehand. Make sure any exercises you devise are stimulating and imaginative. The students are likely to be politer than schoolchildren if they’re not enjoying the session, but still look for the signs of ennui and be prepared to change tack if necessary.
If you find the suggestions offered so far on how to make money too daunting because they involve more audience engagement than you feel comfortable with, perhaps you are the sort of person who would do better to focus on using your writing talents to make money. It’s worth researching writing competitions and deciding upon the ones that offer the best fit for you. Some writing competitions offer as the prize only the chance to be published (either by a traditional publisher or a self-publisher) or the opportunity to have your work included in an anthology of short stories. Although this reward is not to be sniffed at – your ultimate game plan should be to gain as wide recognition as possible for your writing – other competitions also offer cash prizes, sometimes very rich ones. For example, the Sunday Times Short Story Award, the richest short story prize available for an English-language short story, is worth £30,000 to the winner, plus the opportunity to get the story published. You should note, however, that it is a requirement for this competition that all entrants have previously had at least one work published by a traditional publisher; and that, although the competition has undoubtedly been won by obscure writers, some very well-known writers will also enter every year and, frequently, it is one of them who wins.
There are many other competitions with smaller cash prizes where the bar is not set quite so high. However, you should always be prepared for disappointment. The quirkiness shown by the judges of writing competitions is well-known: they may have a particular reason for choosing a winner that isn’t directly related to the quality of the writing, for example, because his or her work is very different from the previous year’s winner’s. But writing competitions are an excellent way of honing your writing skills, with the attractive possibility that the immediate outcome may be a financial reward.
Top tips: Make sure you read the small print. Writing competitions often have very strict rules about who is eligible to enter, word limit, subject matter, etc. Some require payment of a (usually quite modest) entry fee. If you fail to comply with any of the rules, your submission will be disqualified, however good it is, and all your hard work wasted.
If your books are on topics that have a strong local interest, or you have succeeded in establishing yourself as a ‘local author’, you may be able to secure commissions for articles to be published in local and regional newspapers and glossy magazines (Yorkshire Life, Lincolnshire Life, etc.). If you’re lucky, you may even manage to secure a regular writing slot in one of them. Rates of payment vary tremendously: some of the glossies will pay quite generously for feature-length articles. Sometimes literary blogs and e-zines will also pay for articles. Book reviews may also attract payment, though it is more usual to be expected to write the review in return for a complimentary copy of the book. Again, all of these provide excellent writing practice.
Top tip: Think about the readership and adjust your style and tone accordingly: you would, for example, want to adopt quite a different approach to writing a short piece for a funky e-zine than that you would take towards crafting an extended piece in an established glossy.
If you’re eligible, you may also be able to obtain a substantial sum by applying for an author’s bursary. These have been set up for various reasons – often to promote the literature, tradition or culture of a particular geographical region, or to aid writers working in a particular genre – so it is not possible to generalise about them. Here are some examples:
It is important to emphasise that in most cases this is not just money given out in return for ‘going your own thing’ as a writer. All impose particular qualifying requirements and most expect authors to fulfil duties – sometimes substantial ones – in return for the bursary. Most bursaries are awarded for one year, but some may last for longer.
An important sub-group of bursaries are writers-in-residence appointments at universities. These are usually tenable for more than one year – often, for three years – and involve fixed duties, including delivering (perhaps six) lectures per year and mentoring an agreed number of students. However, whereas authors’ bursaries can usually be applied for by the authors themselves, it is more often the case that writers-in-residence are invited to take up the post by the university or college concerned.
Top tip: Again, read the small print and make sure that you have complied with all the requirements before applying for a bursary; and if you are lucky enough to secure one, be scrupulous about fulfilling and, if you can, trying to exceed, the terms of the contract.
All literary prizes give authors inestimable benefits: kudos, becoming better-known, clout when negotiating for contracts. Just being nominated for a literary award, without actually winning it, still brings great gain, particularly in terms of book sales. Some awards also include cash prizes, and these can be substantial. However, you usually have to be nominated for a literary award, either by your publisher or some other respected literary figure.
Top tip: Don’t try too hard for a nomination; if you do, you’re likely to make a nuisance of yourself. Wait for it to happen – and be grateful if it does!
Public Lending Right [PLR]
Public Lending Right, which was set up in the UK in 1979, recognises the right of authors to be paid for the use of their books when borrowed from public libraries. It is administered by the British Library from its offices in Stockton-on-Tees. The amount paid varies from year to year, but is at present around 7 pence per borrowing (the number of borrowings is calculated by collecting data from a group of representative libraries, which changes every year, and scaling it up to produce a notional figure for total borrowings across the country). Monies are awarded for each title registered. It’s easy to register: see https://www.bl.uk/plr/. Even little-known authors can make a few hundred pounds a year from PLR (there is an upper limit to the amount that can be earned from PLR by each author, which again varies, but is several thousand pounds). The money is paid direct into your bank account and gives you a pleasant surprise each February.
Top tip: Don’t forget to add new titles to your registered list as they come out. They need to be registered for several months before they start to generate income.
The Authors’ Licensing and Copyright Society [ALCS]
The ALCS helps authors to track use of their books, scripts, plays, poems, articles, etc. by third parties and secure any royalties they may be owed. If you’re not a very well-known author, the ALCS may not be able to help you immediately, but it’s still worth registering – it’s free of charge, and is likely to benefit you eventually. See https://www.alcs.co.uk/about-alcs
Top tip: As with PLR, don’t forget to keep on registering new work.
Crowdfunding has become a very popular way of raising money in recent years. Essentially, it is a way of raising money for personal needs by asking many people to contribute just a small amount each to your project (which in your case is to support your writing, or, more specifically, your latest book). If you have a blog – and every writer should have a blog and make the effort to post articles on it frequently, so if you don’t have one I’d advise you to set one up immediately – you can use it to ask for crowdfunding. However, by far the most effective way of publicising your crowdfunding request is to do it through one of the many dedicated crowdfunding sites that have been set up. Here are some examples:
If you use one of these to source funds, you can, of course, also put the link on your blog.
Top tips: Preparing a good pitch to ask for funding is all-important. It’s imperative that yours is well-written. Try to make it humorous and think of other ways of ensuring it stands out – perhaps by not just making it entirely about receiving on your part. For example, could you provide a prize draw of, say, six copies of your book as a thank-you? Or offer to coach a young writer free of charge?
Finally, don’t give up the day job!
You’ll have heard this before: it’s a piece of advice often given to writers, especially those who’ve enjoyed modest success and think it means that (perhaps) they can live by writing from now on. Please understand that it is highly unlikely that you’ll be able to do this. A recent survey of writers in the UK showed that those who depend on their writing for a living and are supported by no other form of paid employment earn on average less than £8,000 per year. This will include payment from some of the means discussed in this article, as well as straightforward royalties.
There are other reasons for hanging on to the day job besides the imminent prospect of penury. Foremost among these is the richness of experience it brings to you. Imagine sitting at home all day, alternately staring at and pounding away at your keyboard. This may sound like a delightful prospect, but how do you think it might feel after one, two or three years? Never standing on the bus and observing your fellow passengers. Never gossiping in the canteen at work or observing the kindling of the latest office affair. Never walking through town or city streets, glancing in shop windows, noticing subtle changes. These kinds of experience represent untold wealth to a writer: they’re the raw material on which he or she depends. Take them away and after a few years, unless you are an author with a very fertile imagination indeed, your writing will become tired and cliché-ridden; your originality will wither.
This doesn’t mean to say that every writer’s day job is as congenial as any other. You may hate your job, or it may involve taking on responsibilities which don’t leave you in control of your leisure time; or it may simply be too arduous, and wear you out so that you have nothing left when you try to write. If this is the case, you may have some difficult choices to make: the most difficult is likely to be making the decision about how much income you really need. Once you’ve done this, you can make choices about the type of job that’s right for you. Jobs that are close to writing in some way: bookselling, working for a publisher, for a newspaper or a theatre – often provide a fertile and congenial environment for authors. Think about it. It’s not so much about giving up the day job as about making the day job work for you, the author, because, first and above all other things, that is who you are.
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