Money is a critical topic for authors. But frustratingly, it’s one of the topics that’s least talked about in any meaningful way. If I want to know how to write a good synopsis or how best to structure the opening chapter of my novel, then there’s a wealth of information available. But when it comes to discussing the financial realities of life as an author, that information is less easy to come by.
I get it. Money is a touchy subject for pretty much everyone. But the fact is, money is hugely important for writers. We can’t dedicate significant time to writing if our bank accounts are empty. As I said to a friend recently, you can’t be creative if you can’t eat.
So I love hearing when published writers open up about how they make their money. Partly because I’m nosey and partly because it isn’t always obvious from the outside. Writers may well be booked and busy - school visits, festivals, panels, interviews etc. But are we actually making any money?
The short answer? Not much. And, according to this survey of UK author earnings in 2018, it’s getting worse.
In order to survive, many authors must supplement their income in other ways. As a freelancer, it makes me feel more secure to know that I have a range of income streams that I can fall back on should one fall through.
If you want to get rich, or even have a liveable income, then there are far easier ways to do that than writing. But let’s be real. If you’re dedicating time and resources to writing stories, it’s not because you’re in it for the cash. I didn’t get up to work on my novel at the crack of dawn for the windfall that’d soon come my way (reader, it did not).
I write because I can’t not write. So, while I’m at it, I may as well make the most out of the opportunities that come my way.
The good news is that publishing a book opens you up to more money-making opportunities if you have the time and energy to spare. At least that’s been the case for me in my debut year. Some of these opportunities introduced themselves to me, and other opportunities I sought out:
How I made money as an author in 2019*
School visits (87%)
Last year, the vast majority of my author income came through school visits - mostly IRL visits, but I did a few Skype calls as well. If you write for children and teens then school visits are fantastic. Not only do they generate income and sell books, but it’s also the best chance to engage with young readers and remind yourself why you write for them.
TIP: Are you an author interested in doing more school visits? I wrote a comprehensive two-part guide to school visits here.
Freelance writing commissions (6%)
This figure is quite low because I only took on a handful of freelance writing commissions (they were all for Black Ballad, a wonderful publication to work with). For me, freelance writing takes up time that I could be working on my novels. So I only take on writing commissions that I’m really excited about, such as interviewing absolute icons like Angie Thomas, Malorie Blackman and Dorothy Koomson.
TIP: If you want to take on more freelance writing, definitely check out the Freelance Writing Jobs newsletter. It goes out every week and is packed full of pitch opportunities, as well as freelance gigs in editing, social media and other writing-adjacent fields.
Panels and festivals (5%)
Some panels and festivals pay and others don’t. Sometimes they’re a fantastic opportunity to meet new readers, sell books and have interesting discussions. Sometimes they’re a waste of tube fare.
Either way, I don’t attend them for the money. Although it’s nice to be paid for my time, it feels a shame to turn down an opportunity to talk about my work in front of an audience. And you never know what opportunities might come from attending an unpaid event. The last panel I was on was attended by several librarians who have since invited me back to their school for a paid visit.
Unless you’re at a certain level in your writing career, festivals may not be a reliable source of income. But they’re so brilliant and fun otherwise, I still like to make space for them.
TIP: You don’t have to say yes to every single festival opportunity that comes your way, especially if it means sacrificing paid work to attend or is well out of your way. Before committing, double-check your journey on Google Maps and the cost of public transport. Is it still worth your time and energy?
Creative writing workshops (2%)
I was invited by the wonderful WriteMentor to conduct creative writing workshops for their virtual writing weekend. And I loved it!
As a uni dropout, I was a little apprehensive about teaching. Even though I’m a published author, I still feel like there’s a huge amount for me to learn. But I’ve accrued a good deal of knowledge that could help other aspiring authors further down the line. Plus, planning workshop content and critiquing other people's work helps make me a better writer too. So everyone wins. Fingers crossed I get to do more of them in 2020.
So, those were my main author income streams last year. And really, it's the tip of the iceberg: you can edit manuscripts, run creative writing retreats, create an online course or do private tutoring, to name a few.
If you're thinking about quitting your reliable full-time job, there are a few things you should know:
I am a primary occupation writer, meaning at least half my time is spent writing. But my income is supplemented by social media freelancing, a field I’ve worked in for over a decade.
I live at home, so my living costs are lower than the average Londoner’s.
I also don’t have a mortgage or dependents, so I can afford to take certain risks with my career.
Basically, if I had to pay real London rent or support a family, there's no way I could risk dedicating this much time to my writing career. It's simply not stable enough. I hope that doesn't discourage you, but it'd be irresponsible of me to pretend that everyone should take that risk.
Being a full-time author involves a lot of graft and uncertainty with none of the practical benefits of full-time employment (no workplace pension, no paid holidays and no maternity leave for us). If you balance your writing career around full-time work then that doesn't make you any less of an author.
Trying to achieve a balance will take me longer than a year, I think. It might well be a formula I never crack. Many authors I know are in a similar situation, and I think it can only help us all if we're honest about the anxiety that goes on behind the scenes.
Wow, that took a heavy turn. To balance it out, here's a photo of some incredible students I met at a South London school visit. This is why I write.
*The percentages account for the money I made in my writing career only. The eagle-eyed amongst you will notice that the figures don’t include the advance for my novel - that’s because the final instalment was paid the year before.