An article ‘revealed’ this week what writers, I’m sure, have always known. Most of us earn very little. If you want to put an exact figure on it, the average yearly salary for an author was quoted at around the £11,000 mark. The cited research indicated a drop in the number of full-time authors but did, however, offer some hope by way of self-publishing as an up-and-coming ‘tidy little earner’ for those striving to live ‘by the pen’.
This, at least is good, but it puts me in mind of a book I read a year or so ago (and mentioned in one of my very first blog posts) called New Grub Street (by George Gissing). Great book. Look a little closer and you may well ask if anything much has changed for writers struggling to earn a living… On the surface, yes, but dig deeper and decide that for yourself.
I spoke with London-based author Cherry Smyth recently, whose novel Hold Still, presents a snapshot of the art scene during the 1800s, namely through the eyes of James Whistler, Gustave Coubert and their artistic muse, Joanna (Jo) Hiffernan. Cherry told me that writing the novel also gave her a chance to highlight the parallels between the art world and women’s place in it then and now – and to show how little things have really changed. For me, New Grub Street, does the same for writers.
However, in my own forays into writing I know, of course, that opportunity abounds, as it does with any craft, if you look for it, chase after it and, well persist. And, as I mentioned before in reference to self-publishing, it’s true that success looks different for everyone. Not all writers write for money, nor feel they ought to. Most realistic writers also know that authorship is always destined to be something they do ‘on the side’ of a more regular job. You don’t have to look far in history to see that lots, if not all, of ‘the greats’ wrote in and around their day-to-day post. Writers have generally always had to expect little in financial return for their work.
On a personal note, I’m delighted to report that I am the recipient, this year, of a great opportunity for writers in Northern Ireland, as I have been awarded a National Lottery-funded grant on behalf of the Arts Council NI as part of their Support for Individual Artists Programme. The grant will support me in writing a collection of short stories and poetry and, given what we know about writers’ earnings, it’s very gratefully received.
Those who are trying to earn a living by the pen may rightly feel frustrated at the way in which words are so easily dismissed when it comes to valuing their worth in hard cash, but thankfully for us all, there are organisations like arts councils and the like who understand the effort involved, appreciate the output and are prepared to support writers in their work.
It sprinkles a little gold dust on those quills and reminds us that our words have worth…