Most writers earn far more from reviewing,
teaching, adjudicating competitions, giving talks, running workshops,
and/or appearing on radio than from royalties on their publications.
Thirty years ago, some 70,000 new books were published each year in
Britain, of which 6,000 were novels. Twenty percent of these had some
claim to literary respectability. There were big-earners,
multimillionaires even, but only 300 full-time novelists made over
£8,000 p.a., with another 300 supplementing income from journalism, and
another 900 supplementing income from some other literary activity.
Figures from other countries were equally depressing (e.g. 1250, 750
and 1750 respectively for the States), and these will not have improved
Rebecca Brandywyne spoke for many when she remarked: 'the hard reality
is that the vast majority of authors cannot earn even a
comfortable-much less a luxurious-living from their writing careers,
and, unless they have access to other sources of funding (such as a
working spouse, investments and dividends, or an inheritance), are
frequently compelled to take other jobs as their primary means of
financial support.' She provided a worked example. Consider a
mass-market paperback book of 25,000 copies printed, an average return
rate of 50%, an average $6.50 cover price, and an average 6% royalty
rate. Royalties would amount to $4,875, less agent fees of $731.25,
leaving the author a before-tax profit of $4,143.75.
How long it takes to write a decent novel depends on the genre, the
quality, and what you call writing. Kerouac's 'On the Road' was dashed
off in three weeks, but Joyce's 'Ulysses' took sixteen years. The
actual typing may only require a few months, but the ideas generally
take years to gestate, and that first draft will need extensive
rewriting and sometimes a whole new storyline. Many novels never come
good, and have to be abandoned-providing valuable experience but not,
as Bernard Shaw remarked, worth quite what we've had to pay for it.
Most novelists report a year or two of actual writing. Best-selling
novelists can afford a more leisurely pace, turning out a blockbuster
every three or four years. Some novels are written in weeks, either
under inspiration or by relentless application, but that rate can't be
maintained for long. The respected UK Society of Authors found half
their members earned less than the minimum wage, and successful authors
urge newcomers to look before leaping into full-time writing.
Any large UK publisher will receive 2000 unsolicited novel manuscripts
in a year, and publish 20. The average serious first novel receives
half a dozen reviews and perhaps sells 1000 copies over two years. With
royalties around 10% at best, writers must learn to mechanically turn
out a commercial product or starve. Seventy-five per cent of serious
writers in the States earn no money at all from their work, ever.
Don't believe this? Use titlez, ranktracer and rankforest to check
sales on Amazon, or just glance at the sales ranking. A respectable
ranking of 10,000 indicates sales of 100 books per month, perhaps
earning their proud authors $1 a sale. Read an insider's view of the
publishing trade by Michael Allen, or look at matters from an
enterprising publisher's point of view. Consider the work that
internationally known poets put on their sites (we're not naming
names), and ask not why it's so indifferent but how they ever got round
to writing the pieces in the first place, given the unending schedule
of talks, signings, representation on various societies, weekly column,
and contributions to late-night shows where they must say something
kindly about the books of colleagues they haven't read and don't intend
Literature does not bring fame. Its standard-bearers were the English
departments in schools and universities, but these have been taken over
by critical theory, which often lacks humanity and the honesty of clear
exposition. Work in the small presses is very mixed, and few have a
circulation above the low hundreds. Even the habit of close attention
soon wears off, as 58% of US high school students and 42% of college
students never open a book after finishing their education.
Print on Demand companies estimate that one million manuscripts are
looking for a publisher in the States alone, of which only one per cent
will be successful. Read the book if you want to shorten the odds.