Sunday, 17 July 2011

Harry Potter and the Huge Pile of Dosh

Gratuitous? Moi?

 There's a fabulous scene at the beginning of the new Harry Potter film where the intrepid friends are in a vault at Gringotts, and the treasure starts to multiply. As they struggle not to be crushed by the pulsating pile of bling, it's tempting to see it as a metaphor for the stunning financial success achieved by JK Rowling.  From a typically small advance for a first novel, she's grown a multi-million pound fortune -  and one which looks set to grow even further, now that she's split with her agent, cut free from her publishers and launched her own Pottermore website through which she will sell her e-books excusively.
'You'll be the next J K Rowling!' is what everyone (believe me, everyone) says to children's authors, and it's as irritating as it is false. Even JK herself went through years of low or no income before her books took off.  The week's Bookseller has a depressing story about the financial pain being suffered by children's authors in the current climate. Agent Caroline Sheldon estimated that fewer than half of the children's authors who previously made a living from writing five or 10 years ago are now doing so. She said: "The big things are getting bigger and the middle area is getting squeezed."  Authors are getting fewer chances and less time to prove themselves, royalties are lower because children's books are cheaper than adult ones, commissions for children's non-fiction have been hard-hit by competition from the internet.
It is difficult to make a living from writing. I haven't cracked it yet, although I can see my income growing as I get more interest from foreign publishers and -  crucially -  manage to keep on producing books. If I compare it, though, to my career in journalism, I'm quite happy. Although I could earn considerably more with a staff job on a national newspaper (and they aren't any easier to come by than getting a book deal), my salary would be pretty much my limit. Whereas a book..well, anything could happen. It's possible for a book to earn for you again and again - a foreign sale here, a film deal there - while you're working on other stuff.
Once you're a published author, other sources of income open up to you. I earn money from school visits, and occasionally from selling my own books myself. I could possibly earn more if I critiqued manuscripts and ran creative writing workshops. If I developed this blog (or another) into something with loads of readers, I might sell advertising space. If I could think of clever things to sell associated with this blog (Lia's red shoes? handbags?) then I could do that too.
I love watching The Apprentice, and I can't wait to see who wins the final tonight (my money's on lovely but bumbling Tom, although it ought to be super-competent and equally lovely Helen). This year the contestants are competing for moneya nd backing to start their own businesses, rather than a job. Writing a book is a little bit like starting a business, to be honest. Gone is the security of a regular salary (but who has that security now?), the benefits, the chances of promotion. Instead you get a load of risk and hardship - but you've got more control and you're potentially playing for higher stakes. Hard work, tenacity, a good agent, and a willingness to do some self-promotion all help.  After all, someone's got to be the next JK!


  1. Yes, the 'you'll be as rich as JK Rowling' thing is supremely annoying -- I got it just yesterday. But however we feel about her books, from the point of view of the general public we're all in orbit around Planet Potter now. I even got accused of copying because my main character has lost a parent. Most kid-lit archetypes have been appropriated by HP over the last decade or so, even those that preceded it by generations. But that's a good thing if it pushes us off somewhere new.

  2. Writing a book IS starting a business, a risky business at that. You get so caught up in your ideas and characters and 'being creative' that it's easy to forget there's a whole different side to this. Harsh as it is, I'd recommend keeping up the day job while you start your business and see how it goes. Probably not what most fledgling writers want to hear...but I've been published for four years now and I've still got my other job too, albeit part-time.

  3. I'm waiting for your big break into films - then I can say I knew you before Hollywood went to your head ;)

  4. Very good post - I think you might just be the next JK Rowling.

  5. Haha Midlife...

    I find it impossible to combine news-editing - which is my favourite job in journalism - and writing. It's annoying, but I have to chose between the two. I can manage to do some freelance writing, and I'd like to increase the amount that I do. But juggling everything with family life - that's difficult.

  6. Interesting post Keren. It is amazing how many writers forget that they are (as Rachel said) starting a business. Having been self employed most of my working life it was not such a leap for me.
    But I am often amazed at how few writers understand that it is not the same as having a normal job. You can't, especially in the present climate, just sit back and wait for other people to make it all happen for you.

    Much as we would all love to think we could hand a book over to the publishers and then settle down to writing the next one while waiting for the dosh to come rolling in. That is a pipe dream and about as likely for most writers as winning the lottery.
    As children's writers we are lucky that we can write different kinds of books, for different ages, and also earn from doing school visits and if we wish, creative writing workshops, which are all ways to enable us to make a living out of being a writer.
    But in these days of social networking - bookshops disappearing from the high streets and the way technology is changing the publishing landscape, we need to be much more entrepreneurial in our thinking - getting involved, exploring new ways to get ourselves known and our books recognised, as well as looking for ways to use the skills we have to create new income streams.
    Saying that, we still need to find enough time and peace of mind to write, and finding that balance is something we will all need to work at.
    No one said it would be easy but because of our passion for words and books, our readers and our writing, we are in a great place to make it happen

  7. Lots of good points here. I find the hardest thing is managing other people's expectations of a writer's success. The reality can be daunting and exciting if you are willing to put the work in to make it viable.