An article in the Arts Times 2 section by James Marriott on Friday 29th June makes for thought-provoking reading ? and the title alone is alarming for a lot of us writers who are never going to be discovered as a young fresh voice.? Evidently, it claims, the only way to make books pay is to Be Young, Be Zeitgeisty, sell the rights. Well, that means most of us might as well abandon the keyboard, the early morning and late night hammering away at it as well as the dreams of ever abandoning the day job instantly.? Even if we manage to identify what the particular Zeitgeist of the moment is and produce a work swiftly enough before it has moved on to something else, we are never going to be able to pull back the years and Be Young again.
And if novel writing is insufficiently sustaining financially and needs to be supplemented by freelance reviews and articles, the picture remains bleak. James Marriott presents us with sobering figures: if you have the fortune to acquire yourself a column in the i newspaper, you will find yourself rewarded with a fee of ?120 a time: a book review for the esteemed Literary Review will garner you all of ?40:? Private Eye is a little more generous with ?100.
How times have changed!? In the 1980s I was regularly publishing short stories with Women?s Magazines (Woman?s Realm, Woman?s Own, Woman?s Weekly, Bella, Fiction Feast et al) and the fee was anything between ?150 and ?450 per story for First British Serial Rights.? Frequently, that same story would sell for Scandinavian, Australian or South African rights and earn me another ?100 – ?250.? I thought at the time that the money was reasonable, but by no means excessive.? Looking back I realise I was living in some sort of writers? financial paradise in comparison with today!
People?s attitudes to buying books are also curious.? At a recent Writers? Festival, I was selling copies of my second novel Counting the Ways alongside two other established independent writers promoting their books. ?A few ? very few conference attendees ? were interested enough to stop and talk, even fewer to buy (between us we sold 7 books over 2 days?.) We seemed to be regarded as sort of social pariahs that were at best embarrassing slick salesmen, at worst, pathetic, desperate souls and so vital to avoid.? Yet these festival attendees were fascinated by the stall next to us selling mugs, tote bags, flowery notebooks and similar gift shop produce with ?cute? writerly sayings and quotes emblazoned on them.? Business at this stall was brisk, lucrative, we could see, credit cards readily produced from wallets, wads of notes handed over in exchange for some amusing fridge magnets, an overpriced ?writers? journal.?
Still.? As all writers know, if we could stop ourselves from writing we would.? We know it?s an insane way of wasting endless amounts of our precious time, inventing characters that haunt our waking and sleeping hours and insist on going off and do things that were simply not in the original plan we had for them.? (A bit like our children, really, who have minds and wills of their own that are so often in conflict with what we had intended for them, what we know is better for them ?)
But we go on writing, believing (well ? some of the time) in our story, our need to tell it and trying to defy- or at least ignore – the odds on anyone else actually ever reading it.
Let alone paying us for the privilege??.