The title of this article owes a debt to Andrew Simonet’s brilliant guide: Making Your Life as An Artist, essential reading for artists of all disciplines.
At a recent literature conference in Corfu, a Greek student asked a panel of Greek and Irish novelists whether they earned a living from their writing. Everyone on the panel had at least two novels published and over 15 years’ experience as a published fiction writer. Yet only one – Greek author Panos Karnezis – said he relied just on book sales and royalties for income, and even he spoke about it as a process of ‘diminishing returns’. Deirdre Madden, published by Faber and shortlisted twice for the Orange Prize, teaches on Trinity’s MPhil in Creative Writing, and is currently acting Head of the programme. Another Irish panel member, novelist Katy Hayes, has multiple identities as a film and theatre critic, playwright and librettist, as well as Writing Fellow at UCD, where she teaches creative writing. Meanwhile the writer of this article – also on the panel – has earned income from all the writing-related sources listed at the end of this piece as well as working as a scriptwriter for digital and broadcast media, drama facilitator, voice coach, media and theatre line producer, actor and life model.
Which is a roundabout way of saying that if you’re not (yet) earning a salary-level income from book sales, royalties or other subsidiary rights, you’re not alone.
Most people working in the creative arts have experienced a paradoxical process of putting in time at work to acquire time to work, something that is expected from few, if any other, professions in Western capitalist economies. Therefore it’s not surprising that the most important thing to acknowledge when it comes to the writing life is the preciousness of time. You need time – and good quality time – to write. You also need time to chase up publication opportunities, negotiate with editors and agents, promote your work once it’s ‘out there’, and recover your energy after publication so you can get on with making new work. Time is a resource and a currency. Your time, like everyone else’s, is not infinite. And as we’ve seen from the examples above, you, like many writers, will probably spend at least some of your precious time doing work other than writing, publishing or promoting your own work, in order to stay alive.
So how can you organise your life so there’s a balance between the time you spend earning money to live and the time required to make your work well?
There’s no single right answer to this question, though you, like many other writers, have probably heard lots of not so useful suggestions. For example:
- Write more books
- Write better books
- Write books that sell
- Write shorter/bigger/sexier/more literary/pacier/genre books
- Stop writing poetry/drama/weird stuff
- Get your book made into a movie
- Get a real job
- Change your agent
- Change your publisher
- Pretend to be a man
- Just do it as a hobby/for the love of it
- Forget about earning money from writing
- Get a bigger Twitter following
- Work part-time at something else
- Work as a writing tutor
- Et cetera.
Some of these answers might carry some truth for you, if the person answering understands the context you’re working in and your creative, practical and career ambitions. But delivered out of context, they’re missing the key point, which is:
- You always have a choice, and that choice always has consequences.
Understanding choice is one of the most empowering things a writer can do. It will help you stop and, before you say Yes, look more carefully into any opportunity that presents itself – whether that’s a writing-related job, a publishing deal or an event to promote your work. It will guide you to discriminate between the opportunities that most support your practice and those that don’t. More importantly, it will allow you to say No to opportunities that at any given moment cost you, or your writing, more than they give.
Currencies & Trade-off’s
In the world we live in, there’s often so much emphasis on money that it’s easy to forget other currencies which are part of the writing life. As a writer, in making your work and building your practice, you usually spend not just money but two other currencies:
· Energy (creative, physical, emotional, intellectual)
In return you hope to be rewarded not just monetarily, but by some or all of the following: creative fulfilment, skills, experience & expertise, reputational currency (how the world sees you and your writing), status, prestige & visibility and audience/readers. This cluster can be loosely grouped into two camps which, when added to financial reward, gives three forms of payment:
Artists particularly can be exploited through non-financial currencies, usually by being offered opportunities which can turn out to be very time- or energy-costly. A prominent member of Visual Arts Ireland has been quoted as saying: ‘if I get any more exposure, I’ll die of it.’ In acting circles there’s an unspoken rule that you should only do a job if it pays you in at least two of either money, exposure or experience.
When it comes to being rewarded for your own writing, the earlier you are in your professional career, the more likely you’ll be working for exposure and/or experience. The further along you are, the more likely you are to expect money – through royalties, sales of subsidiary rights, commission fees and so on – to be part of the pay-off. Given the amount of time you will voluntarily put into your own writing, you should only accept writing-related opportunities from other sources (e.g., teaching, readings, reviews) that include money as part of the deal. Unless, of course you are completely inexperienced in the line of work you are being offered and wish to pursue that opportunity as a form of training.
If you know where you stand professionally, you can be clearer about your expectations and this can help you negotiate more powerfully when it comes to opportunities. But this begs another question: how can you identify what your professional status as a writer is?
There’s a certain haziness in the world at large about professional creative practice. This is informed by, and can give rise to, value judgements on artists – both by people who aren’t artists, and by artists themselves. For example:
- you’re doing it because you love it
- sure you don’t need money
- it’s not really a profession, is it?
- it’s a vocation
- everyone can be an artist
Let’s get something straight here. While every human being has the right and the ability to be creative, not everyone can become a practising professional artist. One of the reasons for the haziness around professional arts practice is because unlike other professions, virtually all artists – writers included – start off as amateurs, something that brain surgeons never do. At this stage, yes, you’re writing because you love it or you’re curious or you need to express yourself.
However at some point, some writers (NB: not all) will find themselves transitioning into a realm often described as ‘emerging’. This is where you, the writer, realise that you and others are becoming serious about your writing. You’re thinking about it as work, not as a hobby or pleasant past-time or therapy or ‘just’ self-expression. You would like it to reach audiences and you would probably like to be paid for it. Emergence is like apprenticeship, but there’s an element of public recognition for the emerging writer which apprentices normally don’t experience. Emergence can happen at all ages and can last months, years or even decades. How long it lasts is down to many factors, including luck, the wider socio-economic context, your own attitude and the time you have available for your work.
Sooner or later many (NB: but not all) emerging writers find that they are starting to be recognised as ‘established’. Within this bracket, there are different phases: early mid-career, mid-career and late career.
If you’re applying for grants, residencies and teaching roles it’s vital to know what stage you’re at. Claiming you’re mid-career when you’ve only just emerged can read as hubris, or lead to unrealistic expectations on the part of a funder/hiring organisation. But your sense of where you stand can be further complicated by the fact that, even when you’re recognised as a professional writer, other people – critics, funding bodies, award panels, bookshops, fellow-writers, people you meet at parties – will still judge your status using a myriad of often contradictory measures. For example:
- how many publications you have on your CV
- who your publishers are
- which papers or blogs have reviewed you
- how big your audience is
- how many grants or awards you’ve received
- the size of your Twitter following
- how much income you earn directly from sales or royalties
- whether you’ve been on The Late Late Show
- and so on.
We’re not dismissing any of these outer markers of achievement; they can be important. But perhaps it’s more empowering to think about being established in terms of time and development. A more established writer has usually spent a lot more time practising as a writer: building skills, honing craft and clarifying their artistic intentions. Bearing this in mind will help you manage the self-doubt that often goes with the profession, while tempering any tendencies to over-reach yourself.
It’s worth saying at this point: try, whenever possible, not to compare yourself with other writers, particularly in terms of their outer badges of achievement. As Andrew Simonet says, artists are often judged like sportspeople (successful if they’re winners) whereas in fact, we’re more like scientists: standing on the shoulders of giants, succeeding through discovery. And creative discovery, as most of us know, is all about learning through experimentation and, more often than not, failure.
Commerce and Art
Another factor which can cloud your perceptions of your practice is the relationship between commercial and artistic value systems.
In Making Your Life as An Artist, Simonet portrays ‘art’ and ‘commerce’ not as mutually exclusive systems, but as intersecting sets. According to this model, every artist belongs to at least one set; those who belong in both are often referred to as ‘crossover’. Simonet’s graphic is a great tool, and will help you get an instant, instinctive handle on where you stand. Try it, using a dot to represent your own practice and without doing too much thinking. Are you on the fringe of the avant-garde, somewhere in crossover or at the leading edge of the commercial market? Knowing your current location vis-à-vis art and commerce can help you in framing proposals for grants. It can facilitate you to make clearer choices in your work, especially in discussions with publishers and agents. It can give you greater authority in interviews and public events. And it can help to conserve your precious time and energy by giving you less reasons to complain about all the things you thought were ‘wrong’ about your practice, whether that’s modest audiences, intrusive media coverage, gruelling book deadlines or critics who still haven’t compared you to Joyce.
How to Work as a Writer
So now you know where you’re at, how do you make your living, and life, as a writer?
There are six basic income models for writers:
There are six basic income models for writers:
- The Job: Work full-time at a job other than writing; write in ‘leisure’ time.
- Part-time: Work part-time at a job other than writing; write in remaining hours of the week and possibly also ‘leisure’ time.
- Freelance: Work freelance at a job other than writing; write in the time between freelance jobs, and possibly also in ‘leisure’ time
- Freelance/portfolio writer: Work freelance between a portfolio of writing-related jobs and/or grants; write as part of, or in addition to, these opportunities, and possibly also in ‘leisure’ time
- Combo: Work at a combination of Job/Part-time/Freelance and Freelance/portfolio; write as part of, or in addition to, these opportunities, and possibly also in ‘leisure’ time
- Self-sustaining: Work as a commercially successful writer, earning a living through sales, royalties, commissions, public appearances etc.
None of these models are any ‘better’ than any of the others, or will make you any more of a writer. Each comes with costs and benefits – which you can measure in terms of the currencies outlined earlier: time, energy, money, exposure and experience. However, the trade-offs will vary from writer to writer. How much any model will suit you at any time depends on lots of factors in addition to your professional status and your relationship to art/commerce – for example, your background, expectations, family set-up, work methods, health, age and even physiology.
For some writers, full-time or part-time employment can offer occupational and financial security, predictable work patterns, possibly a pension, interaction with others, paid leisure-time and a certain amount of status. It will nearly always demand time. There’s a chance you might not like the job, or the people you work with. There’s also a chance that sooner or later, your time and energy may feel so torn between the employment and your writing practice that one will have to give. Part-time work generally gives you more ‘free’ time in which to write. However, to take advantage of this, you’ll need to organise yourself by keeping a clear eye on your time, artistic goals/intentions and work habits.
Freelancing at non-writing work can offer more flexibility than a full- or part-time job. In principle, you can say no whenever you need more time to write. The freelance structure gives you more control of who you work with and how long you commit yourself to a job. It also allows you, depending on the sector, manage your rates so you’re paid well. And it can prepare you for a sustainable writing practice by acquainting you with tax, contracts and business negotiations. In practice, however, freelancers find it very hard to say no as each job might be their last. Most self-employed people work weekends and late at night and have very little financial security, next to no pension, poor social welfare entitlements, terrible holidays and are the first category of workers to suffer in a recession. On top of this you may not like the freelance work you do, the clients you work for, or again might feel a conflict between it and your writing practice. On top of this, you will need to be super-organised at managing time and money.
Being a freelance/portfolio writer comes with many of the costs and benefits of other freelancing. There are some important differences. Writing, like all creative practices, is generally much lower-paid than other professions, so it can be harder to bump up your rates. It’s also an exceptionally competitive sector and the rules for entry are much less clear. Doing writing-related work is also not the same thing as writing your own work, so, over time, there can still be a pull on your energy and time between your own writing and work which uses your skills/experience as a writer. On the plus side, you are more likely to be recognised as a writer, to do work that feels meaningful and relevant to your practice, and be offered opportunities that directly benefit your own writing projects.
Going the combination route will probably give you some of the costs and some of the benefits of the other four models – but you’ll need to keep a constant eye on the trade-offs. It will require a lot of juggling mentally, practically and creatively.
Reaching self-sustainability as a writer is probably the goal of most people reading this article. Allowing you to identify solely as a writer, it can read less as a choice and more as something that ‘happens to’ you – although there is a debate in therapeutic circles about the extent to which unconscious psychological choice influences practical outcomes. Like all the other models, it too comes with benefits, challenges and trade-off’s, particularly around visibility, time, promotion, public ‘brand’, artistic/commercial identity and long-term financial sustainability.
While life-cycle and art/commerce can influence your income model, this relationship is not a rigid one. A writer with a highly avant-garde sensibility could rapidly enter the crossover intersection after emerging and become very quickly self-sustaining – think Eimear MacBride. Conversely, a critically respected late-mid-career writer (you probably know at least one yourself) may choose to hold down a full-time or part-time job until retirement.
Making a Living from Your Writing
Let’s assume now that you’ve either chosen to work as a freelance/portfolio writer (full-time or in combination with other work) or this is something you’re considering doing in the future. If you’re starting out, your first question will probably be:
- What choices are available to me?
One of the clichés writers often hear is how hard it is to make money from writing. In reality, there are so many different potential sources for earning through writing-related skills that the options can seem overwhelming. To simplify, these income sources are arranged here into four categories. All of them will pay you at least some money, but will vary in terms of how much exposure and experience they offer. They also vary around how much of your time and energy they require.
(Note that book sales, sales of subsidiary rights or other royalties are not included in this mix. Understanding and managing these incomes is a vital part of a writer’s life but is a complex subject and needs an article in its own right.)
The four freelance writing income groups are:
- Making your own work
Grants, commissions, retreat-style residencies
- Promoting your own work
Public readings, articles in journals/other media, moderating events
- Writing for other people
Journalism, broadcast/educational/specialist scriptwriting, reviews, pitch-writing
- Facilitating other people’s writing
Teaching, mentoring, editing, moderating.
There is a basic sliding-scale. At the top of the list, Making sources allow you to directly buy time to develop your own work (costing your practice least), while Facilitation sources pay you to work with others so you can borrow other chunks of time to make your own work (costing your practice more).
There is some overlap. Someone who identifies as a journalist and a novelist (e.g., Katy Hayes, mentioned at the start of this piece) might see writing newspaper articles as making their own work, but to someone who identifies only as a novelist, writing an article may feel like writing for other people. Similarly, reviewing, while technically writing for others, might, at a crucial moment, help you promote a book or play of your own. A funded residency might appear at first glance like direct patronage, but could turn out to be more about teaching or event management. Similarly a writing commission in your chosen artform could mean bending your creative purpose to somebody else’s requirements.
So how do you make the ‘right’ choice for you and your practice?
Nobody, of course, can tell you this. But in a related article, a table is provided where, at a glance, you can see examples of the four types of freelance writing/writing-related income streams and the ways in which they might cost or benefit you. This is not an infallible analysis; you’ll have your own instincts, preconceptions and experience and you will need to let these feed into your choices. But hopefully it will be a useful starting-point. Links are included so you can begin researching any opportunities that spark your interest.
Please do take the time, every occasion an opportunity comes up, to research what exactly it will give and cost you before saying yes. Sometimes ads or blurbs for writing-related opportunities are coated in language which can be hard to decipher; others can hide the client’s real expectations under a flurry of fabulous-sounding promises. Inquire about anything in a brief, funding application or event request that isn’t clear to you, and keep asking until you are clear. Finally, with another nod to Simonet, you should try to get into the habit of logging, to the closest minute, the time you spend doing any work that is not your own writing. This will help you gain a clearer understanding of what your choices are costing your practice, and will inform you in making your next decision.
A table which details the types of work that writers make money from as well as the examples, costs, benefits and helpful links can be viewed here.
Mia Gallagher was born in Dublin, where she lives and works. Her debut novel, HellFire, was widely acclaimed and received the Irish Tatler Women of the Year Literature Award in 2007, while her award-winning short fiction has been widely published and anthologised. Mia has received several Literature Bursaries from the Arts Council of Ireland and has been writer-in-residence in many different environments, both at home and abroad. In a parallel universe, Mia works as a professional actor, performing in theatre, radio and occasionally film. Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland (New Island 2017 & Head of Zeus 2018) is her second novel.