How to Make A Living as a Writer!

Apologies to all my US, NZ and Aussie writer friends, this post is very UK based so won’t apply to most of you, but feel free pick up ideas. 😀

On Wednesday 24th May 2017, I attended my first Society of Authors (SoA) event in Bristol, at the Arnolfini Gallery, a place I used to visit all the time when I was a struggling art student some twenty years ago! In fact, I first saw a young Damien Hirst exhibit his work there before he made it huge with his pickled sharks, and I marvelled at the huge architectural spiders of artist Louise Bourgeois (a thing of fear for an arachnophobe like me!). The Arnolfini itself is perched on the banks of the River Frome in the heart of Bristol and although it has changed a bit (more sleeker than I remember), thankfully it was still recognisable with it’s impressive exhibition spaces and relaxed bohemian vibe. If you’ve never visited it’s well worth a look. In fact the whole of the Bristol Docks/Quayside area is a lovely place to spend some time especially in the summer, very arty with almost an Amsterdam feel to the place with all the boats, barges and canal ferries going up and down the water, the smell of street food wafting through the air, acoustic guitar strumming in the background, cafes and restaurants spilling onto the cobbled streets, now pedestrianised, and of course the Watershed Arts & Media Centre one side of the river and the Arnolfini Gallery the other, linked by the stunning architectural Pero’s Bridge.

The SoA event was a very topical one – ‘How to Make a Living as a Writer’ – something every writer I know would like to do! As most SoA events are centralised in London, a criticism made by one of the members there, I was absolutely determined to attend this rare outside of London event. As usual my body had other ideas…as I had dared to go to a last minute Grimbold Books work/social on the Monday evening which was fab but left me exhausted the following day, I ended up paying for it on the Wednesday. Annoyingly I went to bed on the Tuesday with a migraine, woke up on the Wednesday with a terrible migraine and one that decided to get progressively worse through the day with my usual vertigo and sickness, to the extent that I was then unable to drive and had to ask for a lift in. 😦

The event was upstairs in one of the gallery ‘Reading Rooms’ and one with very little air conditioning on one of the hottest days of the year! I was shocked and delighted that the whole thing kicked off with the chair reading a quote from Gareth L. Powell, a brilliant Bristol based writer who I happen to know and who wanted to be there but the tickets had sold out! How weird and wonderful is that?

“There are two kinds of courage. There’s the kind you get from knowing that what you’re doing is right. And there’s the kind you get from knowing its hopeless and wrong, and just not giving a damn.”  ― Gareth L. Powell, The Last Reef

It began with an interesting Q&A session chaired by Sarah Baxter who advises SoA members on publishing contracts and issues, handles literary estates, including print permissions and amateur stage licences. She also administers grants for writers in need including the Authors Contingency Fund, PD James Memorial Fund and Authors Foundation grants. The SoA’s newest contracts advisor, Theo Jones, who used to work for Oxford University Press, also joined her and I had a rather nice chat to him during the break.
During the Q&A various topics were raised including issues about competing titles, the new Amazon buy button (which is worrying a lot of people), the difficulty of earning a living through writing, the rise of celebrity authors and I mentioned the problem of author signings in chains like Waterstones. To my delight I wasn’t the only person who had found a problem trying to get Waterstones to stock books from smaller authors and small presses, as well as indies and how once James Daunt took over Waterstones, their policy changed towards signing events – where now most shops only hold signing events for big celebrity names. Yet another door/opportunity closed to struggling writers. The discussion around celebrity authors was very pertinent and how even well established authors are finding themselves squeezed off the shelves in both bookshops and libraries and are finding it harder to get publishing contracts because celebrities are swamping the market. I myself mentioned the whole Miranda Hart problem I had encountered where I’ve had to completely re-write my entire picture book along with illustrations because her upcoming first foray into children’s fiction is almost exactly the same as my concept. Years of work wasted. Grrrrr. 😦
I kept taking notes and trying to listen as I battled the migraine which was now pounding away behind my eyes with a regular persistence and tried to ignore the rising temptation to vomit. No-one likes throwing up, but vomiting in public is one of my fears. We had a break for refreshments and after a brief chat to Theo Jones I scuttled off to the toilets in the hope of being sick so I’d feel better after. No go. I came back and found myself cornered by an overly enthusiastic writer putting the world to rights. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, although I’m not naturally very social, I can go into my ‘social façade mode’ and chat with the best of them. The problem here though, was that apart from my sweating profusely through a mixture of meds and unbearable heat, this particular woman was actually shouting. Obviously she had a problem hearing above the general chit chat, but shouting in an animated fashion only inches away from my banging migraine was something akin to torture! 😦

We returned to our seats for the meat of the matter – a one hour panel discussion on ‘How to Make a Living as a Writer’. Sarah Baxter was joined by Helen Chaloner (CEO of Literature Works*). Helen worked in publishing PR for over nine years, at Penguin Books, Macdonald Publishing and, latterly, at Faber & Faber. She was the National Director of the Arvon Foundation and Chief Executive of Farms for City Children. She is a lover of fiction and principal short story reader for the Bridport Prize. The panel was rounded off by writer and fellow SoA member, Patricia Ferguson, who has published seven novels and a volume of short stories so far, teaches Creative Writing for the University of Bristol, and was Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Reading University for three years.

*I admit I’d never heard of Literature Works before – a strategic literature development charity for South West England who are a National Portfolio Organisation of the Arts Council England. Literature Works’ role is to fundraise for the Literature Works Annual Fund, a support and grant scheme providing small awards for literature activity across the region, and where possible securing funding for larger regional projects with delivery partners, advice, advocacy and partnership. There mission is to support, understand and advocate regional literature in all its contexts, for everyone, for all ages, etc.

Sarah Baxter mentioned the South West Writers Directory (Literature Works) and that we should all get ourselves listed on there (something I have done this afternoon). Write Now was also mentioned as an initiative being piloted in Birmingham and Bristol – a scheme to find, mentor and publish new writers with different stories to tell and is in correlation with the BBC Writer’s Room. Writers from communities under-represented on the nation’s bookshelves. It is sponsored by Penguin Random House and I must say, anything that promotes greater diversity on our bookshelves is very welcomed by me.

I’d love to say some magic wands were discussed, some instant thing we can all do to suddenly become full time writers who can pay their bills exclusively through just writing, but if it was discussed, then those were the bits I missed…

Annoyingly, during this most crucial part of the event, I was desperately ill, teeth clenched, mouth clamped shut fighting the urge to barf, and so embarrassingly twice I had to leave in front of everyone. The second time I only just made it to the Arnolfini toilets before projectile vomiting everywhere. The only good thing is that it was with such force that I had no disgusting sick on me, it was like some comedy water canon being switched on. Apologies to the cleaners, I tried my best. 😦

Dear dear…you can imagine the state I was in, trying to concentrate and put on a professional front and write down copious notes for myself and friends while struggling with a howling migraine and nausea. Ugh. NOT my finest hour. I later made my apologies to Sarah Baxter and Poppy Rosenberg who were running the event and they were lovely. Then, exiting as quickly as I could, I found a bench overlooking the harbour, under the dappled shade of a sycamore tree and waited for my ride to pick me up as my head pulsated and swirled as if it were trying to copy Michael Ironside’s exploding cranium in horror film, Scanners.

So, what can I tell you about the outcome of all this?

Well, apart from the fact that you are not alone in struggling to make a living solely from writing, there really were no instant answers.

A few helpful hints were given though to raise your profile, perhaps get financial help and get paying writing work, so I’ll pop them here in no particular order (apologies for any obvious ones):

  • Literature Works – have resources, advice and help for writers.
  • South West Writer’s Directory – its free, get yourself on there! (sorry west country only)
  • Bid writing – Using your transferable skills ie. professional writing expertise in writing for companies, charities and organisations needing a more comprehensive and literate approach to their communications, fundraising and marketing.
  • Join a local writer’s group, not only as a means of fine tuning your own writing but as a networking tool.
  • Royal Literary Fund – The Royal Literary Fund is a UK charity that has been helping authors since 1790. It provides grants and pensions to writers in financial difficulty; it also places writers in universities to help students develop their writing.
  • National Writing Day (June 21st) – get involved with libraries and schools to celebrate this day.
  • Arvon – Was discussed a great deal and the grants and support.
  • Caroline Summerfield was mentioned and The Eugenie Summerfield Children’s Book Prize.
  • The Bath Novel Award was mentioned as well.
  • Mailing lists were discussed as a good way of building your fanbase.
  • It was discussed that as authors we needed to find a way of incentivising publishers to sign authors who are not celebrities, of finding a way to break that repeating cycle which is not only detrimental to professional authors whose sole income is writing, but also in some cases, floods the market with yet more substandard writing!
  • The organisers were very keen to start up a Bristol SoA chapter, as currently, despite there being apparently 481 SoA authors in and around Bristol, there is no Bristol group. I’d certainly be up for joining one, especially if there was a speculative fiction based one (Gareth?). Unfortunately a lot of this discussion and networking no doubt happened in the networking/socialising with drinks portion of the event, held afterwards in the Watershed bar and which I had to leave due to illness. 😦
  • Apparently the average earnings of a writer had now dropped from 18K a year to 11K. I must confess, my earnings from writing is nowhere near this. My illustration work with HarperCollins is the money maker for me, not my writing.
  • Promote your local connections through local libraries, bookshops, schools and writing groups – local radio is a resource as well as newspapers, use them.
  • Put yourself forward to teach creative writing courses at festivals etc. huge amounts of experience are not needed, it can be done with just a single published book under your belt.
  • Podcasting – as a visual means of raising your profile and getting more of your content out there on channels such as YouTube.

There, that seemed to be the majority of what was discussed. 😀

For me, a very handy contact gained, was meeting Judith Gunn who runs the Gloucestershire & Neighbouring Counties SoA group. I explained that unfortunately I’ve never been able to attend any of the meetings and events as they are always held during the day usually on Monday or Tuesday when I’m working. Judith said she had been discussing possibly opening up the group to hold an evening session every so often, so keen members like me who work day jobs, can attend. I certainly think that would be hugely beneficial not only to me, but other SoA writers I know, like lovely fellow fantasy writer, Jules Ironside who was working on Wednesday so couldn’t attend. Watch this space!

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