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 …