Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The 8 Rules of Literary Success or Why You Will Probably Never Make A Living As An Author

Norway also has one of the best places in the world for depressed
writers to commit suicide - Trolltunga
A few years ago when I quit teaching to write full time I wondered if it was going to be a smart move financially: at that time I didn't have any statistics on how much money full time writers actually made, but now thanks to a survey from Digital Book World published in the Guardian I can appreciate just how difficult it is to make any money at all from writing, never mind making a living at the racket. Here's what Alison Flood said in the first few paragraphs of the Guardian story:

The publishing industry has never been so sharply divided. In the week when the erotica writer Sylvia Day signed a staggering eight-figure two-book deal with St Martin's Press, a survey reveals that 54% of traditionally-published authors and almost 80% of go-it-alone writers are making less than $1,000 (£600) a year.
More than 9,000 writers, from aspiring authors to seasoned pros, took part in the 2014 Digital Book World and Writer's Digest Author Survey, presented at this week's Digital Book World conference. The survey divided the 9,210 respondents into four camps: aspiring, self-published only, traditionally-published only, and hybrid (both self-published and traditionally-published). More than 65% of those who filled out the survey described themselves as aspiring authors, with 18% self-published, 8% traditionally-published and 6% saying they were pursuing hybrid careers.
Just over 77% of self-published writers make $1,000 or less a year, according to the survey, with a startlingly high 53.9% of traditionally-published authors, and 43.6% of hybrid authors, reporting their earnings are below the same threshold. A tiny proportion – 0.7% of self-published writers, 1.3% of traditionally-published, and 5.7% of hybrid writers – reported making more than $100,000 a year from their writing. The profile of the typical author in the sample was "a commercial fiction writer who might also write non-fiction and who had a project in the works that might soon be ready to publish", according to the report.
Pretty disturbing, eh? So all that stuff about how e books will liberate authors and allow them to communicate directly with the public is, basically, bollocks. In a market flooded with authors many of whom give their stuff away for free youve got no chance of getting anyone to buy your stuff. So how can you making a living as a professional novelist? 

Well, being lucky is important, if you're a very lucky person you might just get your book reviewed in an important periodical, get an important award nomination or you might be discovered by an influential person in the media, but if you're not particularly lucky, let me suggest that you try the following: (For those of you unfamiliar with the Belfast default demotic (bitter sarcasm) I should stress that these aren't to be taken completely seriously.) 
1. Be young and good looking and slightly controversial. You'll get a profile in a Sunday supplement or two and even if your book is shit you'll probably get a TV interview. If you're young, good looking and lucky you might even get picked for NBC's Today Book Club. Being the child of someone famous is also always good.
2. Move to Brooklyn. Move to Brooklyn and party with the right people. This seems to be the only way you'll ever get a review in The New York Times. 
3. If you can't move to Brooklyn move to North London. Go to the right parties for long enough and you'll get on the Booker Prize long-list. 

4. If you can't move to Brooklyn or North London move to Norway. First of all it's a beautiful country, secondly its sovereign wealth fund is enormous so it's going to weather the 21st century pretty handily and thirdly if you write crime novels you're sure to get them reviewed and they're bound to be a hit as every Nordic Noir regardless of quality is more or less a guaranteed best seller. 
5. Intern at an important media outlet and network like mad while you are there. This works really well. Just for fun you can cross reference the nominees for the National Book Award against people who have worked at The New Yorker. . .A pattern will emerge, trust me.  
6. Go to an important school or university. Ignore the classes but network, network, network and you'll go far.
7. Do an MFA at the Iowa Writers Workshop, Brown University or the University of East Anglia, etc. Here again you can do the networky thing. 
8. (the least important rule of all) Write a good book. 

30 comments:

John McFetridge said...

Maybe you could also add, "Write erotica," as that seems to be the one kind of book outside of the Brooklyn-North London-important school-intern route that sells.

Alan said...

Adrian, It may very well be that making a living as a writer is almost impossible but survival with part time other employment may make it viable.Indicia of success can be having respect from peers and public,having a fine family and two incomes.Ofcourse getting a "Norge" passport so that Olaf Mckinty may emerge is always an option.Always in your corner wishing you the best.Alan

adrian mckinty said...

John

Erotica written by a woman seems to sell if a man does it its considered creepy.

Anonymous said...

Alan

Well they are not in the EU (quite sensible of them probably) so I'm not sure how it is get this Norge passport. I'll bet its pretty tricky.

adrian mckinty said...

dont know why that said anon when it was me.

Brendan O'Leary said...

British citizens can live and work in Norway if they have a firm job offer. Or they can spend six months there looking for work. It's possible , however, that they do not have a shortage of crime novelists at the moment. The beer costs even more than in Australia.

They also have a reciprocal Working Holiday Visa arrangement with Australia. Dare I mention it, that was part of the background of J* N*sb*'s first H*rry H*le book which was set in Sydney.

Richard L. Pangburn said...

Writing scripts in Hollywood has paid well, even for those authors who have never had their scripts ultimately produced.

Seldom does a script writer move to the ranks of the career novelist, although there are exceptions. P.I. novel author Sue Grafton, for one.

Mark English said...

I was surprised the figures were not worse, e.g. that about 5% of 'hybrid' authors make more than $100,000 pa.

But my guess is that writers with more or less traditional literary values will always be at a disadvantage because they typically do not see their work in predominantly commercial terms. They are not consciously and actively responding to market demands (as many writers unencumbered with literary or artistic values do).

Even so I can't help feeling that cultural and technological changes will over time make it harder and harder to make real money out of writing and journalism of whatever kind. As Adrian suggests, we are drowning in content, much of it free.

So I think the model of the professional writer has been fatally undermined, and, while respect and appreciation may (or may not) continue to be forthcoming for good writers/writing, such respect will be progressively decoupled from financial reward. The old model, which dates back at least to the 17th century, is broken.

adrian mckinty said...

Brendan

Norway seems like the place to go. When the Euro and the Dollar go belly up the Norwegians will still be fine. And as well as the sovereign wealth fund theyve also got that seed bank.

adrian mckinty said...

Richard

I think scripts are definitely the way to go. If you sell one high concept movie you'll make more than a dozen novels.

adrian mckinty said...

Mark

And also add to the fact that reading as a past time is declining. People are reading fewer novels, memoirs, history books etc. so its a bunch of increasingly desperate writers scrambling for a declining market just at the same time as thousands of print journalists looking to making a living are getting into the market as well as joe public with thousands and thousands of free books.

I honestly dont see much hope...

adrian mckinty said...

Mark

Apart from using my sarcastic suggestions, of course.

Anne said...



Adrian
Perhaps a lot of the blame for this state of affairs Iles with the poor promotion in the media - for example, there are few book discussion programmes on British TV at the moment,
I came across your novels by being assigned one of them (Dead I Well May Be) to review for the online book recommendation site Whichbook.net. I would not otherwise have discovered you as I do not usually read crime fiction. In fact, being part of this reviewing team, I have discovered many authors I would never have considered. Whichbook selection concentrates on non-genre fiction, the books people won’t find by themselves and promotes the widest range possible. We don’t include the biggest bestsellers as everyone knows about them already.

adrian mckinty said...

Anne

Well as you detected I was trying to be light hearted but I'm actually a bit depressed about all of this...

You're right about the TV though. Almost no mainstream book programmes on the telly. Here in Australia ABC fights the good fight with a book programme with my a friend of mind on it: Jason Steger but despite Jason's charm and general brilliance its not exactly prime time viewing.

But at least in the UK there is Radio 4 and in the US there's NPR which both still take books seriously. If they ever got rid of Radio 4 and NPR I bet reading novels would die out in a generation.

Anne said...

I think you should go with the screenplay idea. Fay Weldon reckons it's half the work of writing a novel and you always have great dialogue in your books. As a further cynical (and no doubt, politically-incorrect of me to suggest it) rule for success, you could try having the main character with a lack of emotional awareness, like the current Sherlock or Saga (in The Bridge).

John McFetridge said...

Stephen Cannell also went from writing TV shows to writing novels.

Option money for scripts is nowhere near what it once was but being one of the five uncredited writers on an action movie still pays pretty well.

Of course, in the same way being a pro athlete pays well there are a lot of years of getting beaten up and not paid. You can't start in the NFL, after all...

Matt said...

Forget Brooklen, Adiran. Looks like Iceland is the place to go...

http://www.quora.com/Facts-and-Trivia/Off-the-top-of-your-head-what-is-the-most-interesting-fact-you-know

Matt said...

Argh, sorry for mispellings. Serves my right for posting from my phone on the bus

adrian mckinty said...

Matt

Wow I could get lost on that pages for hours/days!

adrian mckinty said...

Anne

Outsiders always sell dont they?

I think you're right though, sell one screenplay and youve got it made.

adrian mckinty said...

John

Or a comic book movie adaptation - once you're in on that racket you're set for life. The people who have money in their pocket seem to have an endless fascination for DC and Marvel characters much to the delight of DC and Marvel.

adrian mckinty said...

Matt

that Iceland entry:

More books are written, published and sold per person per year in Iceland than anywhere else on the planet. One in ten Icelanders will become a published author in their lifetime.

Now, isn't that something.



But why is it so? For starters, long, dark winter nights, a geographical expansiveness that makes trips to, say, the cinema more difficult, a great selection of well-stocked bookshops and a small population are handy for generating the above mentioned ranks and figures. It seems that Icelanders love books, and the tiny population's passion for books is the closest thing to a universal religion in the nation. Indeed, the annual Christmas book frenzy has to be seen to be believed. In every crisis, economic collapse or volcanic eruption, the Icelander's first instinct is to hash the matter out in book form, trusting long form text over television or film. Icelanders aren't generally intimidated by books: the Report of the Special Investigation Commission, a 2,000-plus page official document outlining the causes of the 2008 economic crisis was one of 2010's bestselling books, despite being available for free online.

Cultural factors are at play here. Unlike British/American societies, which are profoundly and deeply anti-intellectual*, erudition isn't considered a sign of elitism and snobbery in Iceland, but instead of education and intelligence.

In fact, Iceland is probably the only country where books get a primetime TV show, “Kiljan”, while movies and cinema get relegated to a radio show aired at odd hours.

John McFetridge said...

Adrian, the main excuse we use for poor movie and TV production in Canada is that so much English language material from the UK and the US (and even Australia and new Zealand) is so readily available.

Everything imported to Iceland has to be translated.

adrian mckinty said...

John

And its safe. No executive is ever going to be fired for greenlighting another comic book movie.

Alan said...

Adrian,Fascinating information on the cultural patterns of Iceland.It is strange that this pattern has not emerged elsewhere in Scandinavia. I am amazed that you link the U.K. with the U.S in deep rooted anti -intellectualism with "Oxbridge" the BBC and The Royal Shakespeare Company.You have lived in both societies ...what a pity this exists.Iceland is starting to look less chilly.Best Alan

jjnscat49 said...

Funny and Witty post. I just read the first in the Troubles trilogy and I'm hooked!

adrian mckinty said...

Alan

But the Norwegians and Icelanders know that we're really never going to move there because of the language barrier. French you can learn, Spanish you can learn, but Icelandic?

adrian mckinty said...

Jessica

Thanks for that.

Anne said...

In respect to anti-intellectualism (and recognising the delicate position this may place you in) I'm wondering what your opinion is re. Australian culture? Is there a decent reading public where you are?

adrian mckinty said...

Anne

I think its pretty similar to the UK, like R4 ABC Radio National does a good job with books but you almost never see books becoming a talk of conversation on the news or discussion programmes etc. unless its a JK Rowling story or something about "mummy porn". Iceland is probably pretty exceptional, although in Ireland they do promote their local poets it must be said...