You can buy 2,104 Pukka Pads for £10,500. You can also buy 2,631 multi-packs of Bic pens. Or you could rent yourself a one bedroom flat in Manchester, and eat beans for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. £10,500 is the average amount a writer earns a year, according to a report entitled Authors’ Earnings 2018: A Survey of UK Writers the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) published. And, even taking into account writers like J.K. Rowling, who significantly increase the average, the average writer’s yearly salary is much less than the UK average across all professions, which was £26,500 in 2012.
And how much do writers have to toil for this meagre return?
Stephen King sets himself a daily goal of 2,000 words. At the average UK writing speed of 13 words a minute, you can accomplish Stephen King’s daily output in just 153 minutes! That’s just 2 hours and 33 minutes! With an average of 250 words per page and 1,138 pages in IT, you only need a spare 21,884 minutes to write a feat of Stephen King’s proportion! Easy to fit in beside your 9-5, right? Who needs to sleep anyway?
If you do have a 9-5 job to support your writing habit, you might be better off with Ernest Hemingway’s more streamlined daily goal: 500 a day. That sounds like a more reasonable goal until you do a bit of research and find out that the average 200-page novel is around 55,000 words long. Applying the above maths, and assuming you hit your word count goal every single day, that’s still about three months of your life dedicated to writing this novel. Oh, wait; there’s still editing and redrafting to worry about. Not even our friend Mr King writes everything perfectly the first time. Imagine repeating that three-month process an undetermined number of times, and suddenly even a relatively short novel is sucking years of your life away. If you enjoy writing then that probably won’t matter to you, but that doesn’t change the fact that writing any novel, especially your first, is going to take a big chunk out of your life.
At the end of the day, you’re going to have to find yourself a niche between these two figures. With so little in return for our blood, sweat, and character’s tears, there’s only one reason to write: for the love of it.
Love doesn’t pay the bills, unfortunately. Nor does it pay submission fees to writing competitions. Among the for-the-love-of-it competitions, there are, lurking around every corner of your local library, competitions that want your submission money.
Your average writing competition will set you back somewhere around £5. Those notes add up. Remember that you’ll have to enter ten of these even to be considered by publishers. And that’s assuming that yours is the winning piece every time, or at least at the very top of the shortlist. Suddenly £5 a pop starts sounding a lot more intimidating, especially on a student’s budget. And let’s not get started on the larger competitions like the Manchester Poetry Prize, which costs £20 to enter.
It all comes down to money, which is heart-breaking when we consider that novels are such passion projects for writers. But, sadly, there’s no real way around it. You can’t start with zero reputation and make the perfect deal overnight. It takes years of hope, dedication and inevitable rejection to even be in with a shot at making it into bookshops. The key is keeping that passion alive throughout all the rubbishness.
The problem is, as low as your average writer’s pay is, that’s all assuming you get anything published in the first place. Most ‘Big Six’ publishers, companies like Penguin and HarperCollins won’t even consider taking on someone’s work if they haven’t at least taken part in ten or so writing competitions, or had it published in journals or articles that many times. And even with that kind of resume, the publisher is still unlikely to look your way unless they receive your work through a reputable agent.
It takes a long time to enter the industry, and even once you meet the above requirements, you’ll get rejected nine times out of ten. I wouldn’t hesitate to say that it’s one of the toughest professions out there to get involved in, and even tougher to sustain. Most published authors spend most of their lives teaching or in some other trade.
Unless you get a lucky break like J.K. Rowling’s, you won’t be a professional author as much as you are a teacher, or journalist, or whatever another job you have, who’s side hustle is writing bits and bobs for journals and mags.
Getting a said reputable agent isn’t the cheapest thing either. The best way to find one is through The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, which is a Yellow Pages for writing agents. It costs somewhere in the region of £20 which, like the writing competitions, doesn’t sound so bad on the face of it. The problem is, it’s released annually. You can stick with the one edition, but make sure to double check the contact information of anyone you plan to send your work.
Even when you’ve finally signed a publishing deal, it’s not the end of paying for things out of your pocket. Just because you’ve got a book published doesn’t mean people are automatically going to pick it up off the shelves. How much are you willing to shell out in promotion? The effectiveness of promoting yourself is a roll of the dice and not a cheap one.
With all the hurdles to overcome to write enough, get published, and make people buy your book, you could say the writings on the wall: is not a profession, it is a vocation.
By Lexi Burgess and Isaac Rolfe