Posted by: stelladuffy | September 21, 2010

in the beginning was the word …

Right then. I’m preparing for a debate at the Labour Party Conference next week, asked to be there by ALCS (Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society), part of the All Party writers Group looking into the future of publishing and … I’m confused. So many viewpoints, so little actual return for work.
Here then, are a bunch of thoughts, based on things I think might come up next week – feel free to add your own. (All contributions, of course, will be credited to their original authors. Hah.)

1. Writers earn way less than the average member of the public think they do. Writers know this, publishers know this, booksellers know this, why then, don’t the public? I think it’s something to do with the mystique of the writer, and something that we (in the book trade) have really traded on as well. An idea that the writing life can be idyllic, quiet, peaceful, a matter of sitting around and waiting for the muse … those romantic poets have a lot to answer for. It’s also part of the publishing world’s promo-bubble that has (thankfully) burst in the past couple of years. So here’s the thing, and it’s as well we acknowledge it plainly – writers are not the next rock n’ rollers. Good, that’s fine with me. I intend to keep writing until I’m well into my 80s – and Mick Jagger may intend to keep strutting until then too, but MOST rockers lay down the mic at least a few years before MOST writers!
2. Writers get the money you pay for the book. Wrong. Writers get 7% or 10% or maybe even 12.5%. Or ‘nothing’. Depending on how far along they are in paying back their advance – assuming they got an advance in the first place – from those 7 and 10 and 12 percents, to their publisher. Once you know that, it’s easy to work out how very little the writer makes when Tesco/Amazon (name your pile ’em high store of choice) then sell the product on for £2.50.
3. Writers regularly get 6-figure advances. No. I know a handful who have, one or two with 7-figure advances, too. But most writers I know, the vast majority of them (I’d say 90% of the 200-odd writers I know) receive 5 figure or 4 figure advances. And generally the five figure ones are in the low fives. So a (generous for a literary writer) £30,000 advance is great, if you’re writing one book a year, but many people don’t. Many people take eighteen months or two years or three, four, more to write their book. And get that same 30k. So not quite the high-roller you thought. (I’m talking about book writing here of course, playwrights generally get less per play, and poets even less. Of course. TV and film writers do better, but they also have to churn them out and really hope theirs is the idea/treatment/script that actually gets made. For every great tv episode you love, there are usually a dozen or more that were never made in the first place. But they too, were written by someone.)
4. Good writing will always succeed. (See also, ‘the boy in the ghetto will make his way out if he’s a good enough boxer’.) Well yes, maybe. But good writing also needs time, and nurturing, and where publishing is right now – editors cutting back by massive amounts the actual time they spend working with an author, editorial becoming more and more about contracts and deal-making and publicity and marketing, and less and less about WRITING, then those writers need to be already-good. Or their work does. I teach writing workshops occasionally, and am always surprised how many would-be writers think it’s the editor’s job to help them re-make their book and make it ‘good’. That night have been the case one day, and still is to a very limited extent, but the truth is, editors have way less time for pure editorial work than in the past (very noticeable in the mere 16 years I’ve been published) and certainly not for making a book ‘good’ that isn’t already. THEREFORE … the writers who are ‘already-good’ (in this case that will likely mean well-educated, aware of the market, aware of the business nature of publishing etc etc) are the ones who are going to do better, be noticed in the first place. Which, of course means, that those with less chances in the first place, those with less opportunity, those who are not the mainstream, will automatically be less likely to be picked up, less likely to be published, less likely to be read. Our mainstream publishing suffers more than enough from homogeneity as it is, the blanding-out of writing will only increase as it becomes, once again, the preserve of the privileged few.
5. We’re lucky to be writers, we should be grateful and just be glad anyone wants to read us at all, for free or not. Oh, I agree I’m lucky. My dad was a labourer from the age of 14 to a couple of years before he died at 67. (With a four year ‘gap’ when he was a prisoner of war in Germany during WW2.) Yes, of course I’m ‘lucky’ to do a job I (mostly, sometimes!) enjoy, but does that mean I shouldn’t be paid for it? That I should treat it as a privilege, not a job of work? I don’t think so.
6. Some people in the music industry are becoming very successful from giving away their work*. Yes, some of them are. Plenty aren’t. Quite often those who are, manage to do so because, as musicians, they are usually – first and foremost – performers. So they give their work away on the internet and then punters come along to their gigs (which generally tend not to have free entry!!) and pay ticket price entry and buy merchandise at the gig. Writers generally are not performers as well. And even those of us who are, might prefer not to be slogging our way up and down the country selling our books via book events, festivals, reading events all the time. Much as some of us love these events (I really do and fortunately they are actually a good way for me to sell books), they are not WRITING. And for every writer who tells you they can write anywhere, in any hotel room, at any desk, all they need is their laptop or pen and paper, I can show you another three who really want to be writing at their own desk, in their own life, who will assure you that while they can write anywhere, they write BETTER in their own space. And don’t we all want that? Better writing?
7. Libraries can be anywhere, in pubs or clubs or cafés. Well, for me, this one gets to the heart of the class issue. As a kid, in a home with no spare money, but with parents who loved to read and encouraged all their children to read, books were special. They were expensive (even a paperback is expensive if you have no spare money) and special. Frankly, I quite like the idea of books being special. I like the artefact of the book, the way it feels in the hand. (Just as I love the artefact that is my mac, and the one that is kindle app on my HTC.) But making the library any old place – any old place where people HAVE TO PAY MONEY to be there (a pub, a café) takes it away immediately from those who don’t have spare money, and gives it (what again??!) to those who do. The library is free, comfortable, well-lit and clean. And often quiet. But above all, it is free. With the best will in the world, the library-café will be alienating to those who do not have spare money for a double shot latte. (Which, incidentally, probably costs just a little more than the e-book they’re reading.) For many people the library is a haven, it is not their noisy family-shared home, it is not their unlovely workplace, it is a special place and it is for reading. And keeping it special is vital. The majority of us poor kids helped ourselves, not by being great boxers (see above), but by reading, educating ourselves, discovering a far bigger world through other people’s writing.
8. Which I guess brings me to – why bother? Is it worth it? Is writing doomed? I bother because I believe in story, because I believe every human culture loves and cares about story, because I believe the book, the play, the screenplay, is a good form of communication, because I want to communicate, because still, at 47, I believe we can have a better society, a better world, and that the written medium (whether on the page or performed) is a great way to do that, to share those ideas, foster those changes. Do I want to be paid for it? Yes I do. Would I do it if I wasn’t paid for it? I really don’t know. Years ago I might have said yes, after all, I’ve worked in and around theatre long enough to know the hours put in are NEVER commensurate with the income received. But now … now I see that some publishers have high-five and even six figure salaries, some internet barons have six and seven figure salaries, many tv and film executives do too, and I wonder about the people making the work they make their money on and from. Yes, it is a business, but at base, it’s a business utterly dependent on the work made by us, the writers. And I’d quite like to see us paid fairly for it. I’m not asking for those sums that mean houses with swimming pools (though I wouldn’t mind!), but fair. Fair’s good.

* yes, that’s right, I’m giving away my work here, now. Feel free to go buy one of my books once you’ve read this …


  1. The travel writer gets even less. If you write a guidebook, you get a flat fee (it’s called ‘writing for hire’). If the guidebook does well, you still only get that flat fee. If the book doesn’t do well, then again you still get the flat fee. But for writing a guidebook published by Thomas Cook, you’ll get on average £1,500 (yes – £1,500 is the average) as a flat fee. Out of that you have to get to the place you are writing about, stay for a week or so in a B&B or hotel, research other hotels and B&Bs, research restaurants (i.e. eat there), get into museums and historical sites, then spend three weeks at home writing 30,000 words about the place. And the world isn’t short of people wanting to become travel writers. They think it’s romantic. It ain’t. The one essential to be a good travel writer is to have a partner who is a high earner. Fortunately, I had one. And I’be bought one of your books, Stella, which you graciously signed.

  2. James, it seems to me that one of the wise things to have if you’re any sort of writer, is a high-earning (or at least regularly earning) partner. Shelley and I have each other (both writers) and in our twenty years together it’s been very feast or famine, but I’d say about 80% of the writers I know have a partner who can – and does – earn well to keep them and their family going during the famine times. Harder still (as always in our couples-favouring world) for the single writer.

  3. Yes indeedy. The world favours couples. I never thought about it before my wife died; but I think about it now.

    There’s a lot of food I cannot buy unless I want to eat it three times in succession for dinner.

    I have to pay a supplement everyy time I go on holiday; even, sometimes, on holidays for singles.

    When I eat out, I am sometimes refused a table because I am only going to occupy one seat, especially if the restaurant is busy.

    The economics of writing intrigue me. Writing is not a job. I sometimes think it’s not even a vocation, nor a need. It’s an itch that has to be scratched.

    And publishers know it and nowadays take advantage.

  4. Two things strike me.

    Might be worth noting that most novel writers start out not expecting to be paid (they write it for the joy of it, then submit it and go from there, unless they’re Jeffrey Archer, which makes you all a very special, driven bunch of people), but to continue – to make it a career – you HAVE to be paid and deserve to be.

    Other thing is that story is so strong in the human psyche that there will always be a need for it in some form and, as long as people are taught to read, books (kindle/whatever comes up in the future) are going to be needed as a compact, easy to move way of carrying other people’s stories/dreams/knowledge around with yours. Which matters.

  5. I was at this fringe meeting earlier today. As a small time writer of one non-fiction children’s book but also as a campaigner and politico I found the debate intriguing.
    Forgive me for digressing into sort of about LGBT territory.
    I was struck by the arguments you made. However what struck me most was your passion for your roots and (of course I’m not surprised) your willingness to be a visible gay woman. I’ve been at the conference all week and that was probably the most passionate, honest and compelling debate I have heard. Not a great indictment of the state of our ‘’progressive’’ political discourse. For me (also a gay professional woman of working class roots, first to go to university and so on) a reminder there is a frankly disgusting and persistently unyielding lack of visibility of women like us let alone a debate. I just feel we need to do something about that. It is about role models of course but it’s also about us sticking out our neck and, like Clare Balding did recently, using our relatively privileged position to campaign, mentor and speak up.
    I noticed Nick Partridge go over and talk to you afterwards and he’s a sound example of someone who showed great leadership way back in the 80/90’s when hatred of gay men/AIDs was at fever pitch. Some fifteen years ago I wrote an article on lesbian health and our invisibility from any public health strategy and I can honestly say nothing has changed. That’s just one example. Combine sexuality with the disadvantage of class, poor education etc and we’re talking about an extraordinarily isolated part of our community. So what can we do? Because I feel we have a duty to do something. How can we ensure young girls who know they’re gay and especially those that are not from middle class confident backgrounds have someone representing their voice and stable, successful, happy women to look up to?

    I’d be interested in your thoughts

  6. thanks Helen, I found it a totally unnerving and also exciting experience having never been the conference before. I didn’t know it was unusual to speak out (there) about my sexuality, but as it is in the (whole) world, I’m not surprised!!
    what can we do? well, as I’ve said from pretty much every platform I possess (and use this blog to do so too – free, heh, interestingly after today’s debate about copyright) the best thing I believe any of us can do is BE OUT. Still, after all this time, so many of us aren’t, so many of us hide, so many of us say well not everyone needs to know our business. And they’re wrong, until it’s fixed for ALL – not just a comfortable minority – then it’s up to all of us to be out, not least for those in the countries where they are beaten. abused, murdered, hanged and stoned for their sexuality.
    It’s not a big campaign, but it’s easy, it’s grassroots, and it starts with you and me …

  7. You’re absolutely right that it starts with you and me… all social revolutions start with the very basic acts of people who are prepared to be true to themselves.

    All of us have an impact – you have a more public audience that me but all of us have an immeasurable impact by speaking up. I just want to find a way to take it even further – reach and reassure the vulnerable and isolated girls and women facing very lives hat are unhappy and a lie. If this young woman

    feels like this what hope for those without her privilege and advantage? I’m not sure if you were as astonished as me with the ONS figures released last week. So only 1.5% of the British people are gay or bisexual? Really? Are you sure?? Or were 1.5% of the survey sample the ones confident or willing enough to admit to themselves and then to a third party that they are bisexual or gay? Important to clarify don’t you think? It’s like the pink list that gets published every year – I love it. I’d love it more though if it were renamed the people who happen to be OUT pink list and we could somehow have a more comprehensive and representative list of heroes that hither too are hidden away.

    I love that (very slowly) there are more and more brilliant, influential women on that list. I suppose I just want to speed up the revolution. To do that I believe you do need to take what starts off as individual acts of courage to the next level. For example, I’m part of the group Pinkstinks who are a bunch of women who came together to challenge the all embracing culture of pink that unavoidably cuts into the lives of all girls. So while I might choose to not buy pink for my daughter, my actions alone would never have achieved the successes we’ve had as a group. Persuading/forcing Sainsbury’s to remove their girl / boy tag from their fancy dress outfits is one small example. Small but significant because it will, I hope, make it slightly easier for a little girl that I will never meet to choose, like I would of, the doctor, policeman or batman outfit. Thus not feeling like a freak because she’s not a pink princess.

    I wish I knew the answer. Maybe I’m being too ambitious? I really hope not.


  8. yay Pinkstinks! brilliant.
    no, I don’t think you;re being too ambitious, but I do think it needs more than you and me … anyone else in?

  9. This is an Ellen Degeneres tweet

    I just can’t be silent about this. I hope you won’t either.

    A role model of role models

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