How do you become a successful writer? There’s enough advice out there on the subject to fill Tony Blair’s property portfolio, so I thought I’d kick off my new blog by tackling a different question: whether you should bother at all.
Clearly, a lot of people are considering it. In a YouGov poll last year that asked 14,000 people what job they would most like to do, author finished top by some distance, beating out Hollywood movie star, Formula One driver and astronaut. Fully 60% of those surveyed said that they would like to spend the bulk of their adult years alone, stuck behind a desk, torturing themselves for falling short of their 1,000-word target.
The literary life seems to me to have three main attractions. First, the bar to entry is low – no special training is required, and all you need to get started is a laptop and some fingers, which you probably had anyway. Second, the potential rewards are enormous. Even now, whenever I read the word “writer”, the image that springs to mind is of JK Rowling or John Grisham, rising momentarily from from their throne of cash to flick a duster over their bulging awards cabinet. And third, the lifestyle is appealing: satisfying work, you get to be your own boss, work where you want, etc.
The trouble, as I have realised after half a lifetime slaving over a hot keyboard, is that all these attractions are illusory.
(I’m aware that there are many different kinds of writing, but for the purposes of this post I’m going to focus on two of the most popular, which happen to be the ones I know the most about: book publishing and journalism.)
Firstly, while the bar to entry for writing is low, the bar to success is stratospheric. And there’s one reason for that: the competition. Because, as we’ve seen, you’re not the only one who wants to make a living from the pen. Reliable statistics aren’t easy to come by, and some of the calculations below would probably disgrace the back of a fag packet, but they should give you a flavour.
Last year, according to the Office for National Statistics, the number of people in the UK employed as authors, writers or translators was 77,000 (half of whom worked part-time). Strip out the translators, screenwriters, playwrights, speechwriters, technical writers, video game writers, the fashion bloggers, food bloggers and mummy bloggers, and that leaves you with 25,000 Brits tops earning their crust from writing fiction and nonfiction books.
Now, how many people are fighting for those spots? It’s going to be a tad less than the 60% of the population revealed in the YouGov survey, because most of them will never put pen to paper. For my first attempt at ballpark figure, I looked to the blogosphere. It’s safe to say that few bloggers would turn up their noses at the prospect of earning a living from writing, and if they’re organised enough to set up an online presence, they’ve probably got the wherewithal to finish a book.
Most estimates of the number of blogs in the world are near the 200 million mark, of which 7% are UK-based, which would give us 14 million Britblogs. That strikes me as a little high, although someone put the figure at 2.5 million way back in July 2005. Let’s err on the low side, then, and assume 5 million bloggers; 5 million people vying with you for literary glory. Given that there are 25,000 places in the pantheon, that puts your chances of success at 1 in 200. This is broadly in keeping with the stats from most publishers, whose estimates of the odds of a first manuscript being published range from 100-1 to 1,000-1.
And then there’s my experience. In my first grown-up job, as an editorial assistant at a small fiction imprint, one of my duties was to plough through the “slush pile”, the unsolicited manuscripts from first-time authors. We received an average of two submissions per working day, and I was there for two years, meaning a total of about 500 MS. And of those 500 submissions, not a single one was of publishable standard. In short, then, you’ve got more chance of being born with an extra finger than you have of seeing that novel on the shelf at Waterstones.
Meanwhile, the number of journalists in the UK last year, according to the ONS, stood at 64,000. If you assume a 40-year career, that means around 1,600 journalists retiring per year. Yet the number of young ’uns signing up for full-time journalism degrees every year is 3,200. Add in those studying it part-time, those doing postgrad courses instead, and the significant number who enter the profession with a different degree (or none), and suddenly, even though you’re shelling out £27,000 for a degree in the subject, your chances of landing a job in the sector are in the region of 25%. A sector that, as all those within it will attest, is basically dying.
While writing might be a walk in the park, then, getting people to read what you’ve written is more like a marathon against 500 people armed with machetes. But what about the rewards? If all these people so desperately want to write, surely there’s one heckuva pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?
For a fortunate few, writerly life may well be all battered Moleskines in bijou cafes, self-deprecating quips at the Hay festival and enough royalty cheques to wallpaper the billiard room. But these people are so exceptional that, to all intents and purposes, they don’t exist. Forget them. They’re a myth.
To work out how much you can realistically expect to earn, let’s return to the fag packet. Around 310 million books are sold in the UK each year, with a total value of £2.2bn. About 10% of the cover price goes to the author, so that’s £220m to share out between everyone. (I know you can also sell books abroad; but remember, foreign writers sell books here too, and I’m assuming the numbers roughly cancel each other out.) If we go with that earlier figure, and suppose 25,000 UK authors, that works out as £8,800 per head. That’s barely enough to cover your rent.
The fag packet’s probably not too far off the mark here, because a survey by Queen Mary, University of London last year found that the median income for writers (of all stripes) in the UK was £11,000.
But of course, the pot isn’t evenly split. The lion’s share of it goes to your Rowlings and your Grishams and your estates of Stieg Larsson. Of the authors featured in the QMU survey, 5% gobbled up 42.3% of all the available income.
Another poll in 2014 was scarier still: it found that 54% of traditionally published authors and almost 80% of self-published ones had earned less than £600 in the previous year. 17% of them hadn’t banked a penny.
And it’s not as if things are improving. In 2010, 40% of writers made their living from writing alone; by last year, that figure had fallen to 11.5%. Journalists’ salaries, meanwhile, have fallen or remained stagnant since about 2008, and they weren’t bank-breaking then.
So, let’s recap.
If you have decided to write a book, if you have got your shit together sufficiently to finish it, and if you’re happy enough with it to submit it to the judgment of your peers, then you have about a 1 in 500 chance of it getting published (unless you self-publish, of course, but then you’ve got about a 1 in 1,000 chance of anyone reading it).
But that’s not the end of the ifs. Even if you get published, there’s only a 12% chance that you will make enough to survive on; so you have a 1 in 4,000 chance of ever packing in that day job. And your chances of doing a Rowling … well, forget about it.
By way of addressing the last illusion – the lifestyle – I’ll field another question that might have crossed your lips. “Why should we care what you think about writing, Bodle? You’re not a published author! You’re not a columnist in a national newspaper! You haven’t even written much for TV – just a couple of episodes of a US cable sitcom and a few questions for Only Connect! Who are you to butcher our dreams? You’re a fucking subeditor! We want to hear from Dan Brown!”
All true. By many people’s standards – certainly by my own – I am a failure as a writer. I’ve earned maybe £100,000 in about 25 years of wordsmithery, which puts me below the median. But that’s precisely why I’m qualified to talk about the pitfalls. Because whoever you are, if you are reading this, poised to launch your writing career, it’s immensely unlikely, laughably unlikely, that you are going to become the next JK Rowling. What’s infinitely more likely is that you are going to become the next me. And as the outgoing me, I am uniquely qualified to explain what that’s like.
It’s miserable. It’s lonely. You’ll probably never be able to afford your own house. And rejection becomes so routine, you start to wonder whether the Jehovah’s Witnesses will have you. If I could step back in time and have a word with myself about one thing, it would be my ambition to write. “Put the pen down, son. Mug’s game. Go and play football like a normal kid.”
When you spend years writing things, things you’re really proud of, and you have desperate near miss after desperate near miss, the pain, eventually, fades to numbness. But when you hit your late 40s, and you feel the marrow draining from your bones, and it’s too late to entertain any new ambitions, and you suddenly realise that even if you do make it big you’re too old now to really appreciate the benefits, and that your entire time on this planet has, basically, been wasted … That’s a ton of particularly pointy bricks.
That’s basically why I’ve set up this website; not so much as a showcase for my writings as a mausoleum. I will put up some new stuff, from time to time, when I can be fucked, but mostly it’s a warning to future explorers: all hope abandon, ye who enter here.
But enough about me. Writing about myself is even more depressing than being myself, if that’s possible. Back to you, and the positive bit! Because writing does, of course, have a fourth attraction: some people just love doing it. If you’re one of those people, then this number crunch will have done nothing to dampen your ardour. So in my next post, which will appear when I goddamn feel like it, I’ll talk about what you can do to maximise your chances of trouncing the competition.