Is earning a living writing books literary fiction?


Rumor has it that there are only 12 writers in Ireland who can make a living from their books alone.

Of course the number changes with the reveal – going to seven, or going to 20, maybe even 30 – and while trying to guess the names of those on this privileged list makes a good play, I haven’t yet. discovered the research on which this supposed statistic is based.

Indeed, it may simply be another literary fiction, an urban myth or a salutary tale to dissuade those who dream of giving up 9-5 to earn a living from their pen.

Yet like all myths, it originates in a truism that although there are many professional writers in Ireland, few can live off books alone.

The most recent Irish Authors’ Income Survey – published by the Irish Copyright Licensing Agency in 2010 – found that in 2008-09 more than half of writers consulted (58.7% ) earned less than $ 5,000 in writing-related income. Indeed, the most common answer – given by more than a quarter, or 27.9% of respondents – was that they earned less than € 500 per year.

Given the age of the study, one might expect writers’ incomes to have increased somewhat in the meantime; instead, a 2014 UK report says the financial situation of writers has deteriorated.

What Are Words Worth Now ?, by the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society, found that the percentage of professional authors who earned their income solely by writing increased from 40% in 2005 to 11.5% in 2013. Additionally, the average earnings of professional authors had fallen over the same period, from £ 12,330 (or £ 15,450 in real terms) to £ 11,000.

This despite the fact that – according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation – in 2013, a single person in the UK had to earn at least £ 16,850 before tax to achieve a minimum standard of living.

Given this reality, it is hardly surprising that the majority of Irish authors surveyed in the ICLA report – 63.1 percent – have other jobs, with almost two-thirds working full time.

Indeed, the financial pressures on writers seem to be intensifying. The amount of money from the Irish Public Lending Right Scheme, which pays authors for lending their books to libraries, has declined, and the decline in the value of the British pound following the Brexit referendum will affect the income of Irish writers published in UK.

In the absence of meaningful research, questions also arise about the impact of digital publishing on writers’ incomes.

The uncertainty has thus spawned chimes with the experiences the writers have shared in this Irish Times / Words Ireland series and in the series of meetings taking place across the country.

Ruth Hegarty is Editor-in-Chief at the Royal Irish Academy and President of Publishing Ireland, part of Words Ireland.

“What we’re hearing is that it’s clear that writers make a living from their pens, but in different ways. So they can be screenwriters, but they can also write screenplays or do a little film work or they can teach or be technical writers. They have a portfolio of things that they do.

“To most people, it doesn’t seem possible that they are just a writer and devote themselves entirely to writing – although that would be the best thing for them.”

So how much does the average Irish writer earn?

“In literary fiction, I would say that it is more normal for the advances to be in the hundreds rather than in the thousands of dollars,” Hegarty explains. “Royalty rates in Ireland are often based on net receipts rather than list price, so if you look at a book that sells for around ten dollars the author can expect to get something between 50c and 1 , 20 € for that.

“If you look at the top-selling thousand pounds in Ireland last year, you do well to sell between 1,000 and 2,000 pounds, so if you multiply that by – to simplify – a euro, you make between 1,000. € – € 2,000 for your book. If you do this, you have done well, and it is more normal than the big breakthroughs.

“But it becomes imperative that writers either be funded in some other way – because it takes years to write a novel – or that they have the opportunity to make money from their writing other than through simple sales. of books. ”

For the writers themselves, it is this increasingly rare object – the advance – that seems to make the biggest financial difference. A number of writers have agreed to share details of their progress with me on the condition that they remain anonymous.

One writer, who received a “six-figure sum” for a three-pound contract, admits that “maybe once or twice in 20 years have I received an actual royalty check, so I never got it back. the money they invested. “

Another author received a ‘healthy advance’ – again under a three book contract – while another writer, who was published in the UK, received a £ 5,000 advance. “And if I get royalties depends on what happens next”.

For most writers, the amount earned from royalties is smaller.

“Royalties from book sales are almost negligible – less than 10 percent of my income last year,” says one writer. Another admits to earning a few thousand a year by writing, but “mainly workshops and festivals”.

According to Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin, who runs writing consultancy firm Inkwell Group and writes detective novels under the name Sam Blake, “Everyone should have a head start, because no writer should write for free.”

“However, Irish advances tend to be quite small, as Irish publishers are limited in market size and they may have less financial flexibility, so you might find that an Irish advance is only € 1,000. . ”

Of course, for every rule there is always an exception.

The success of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas certainly puts John Boyne on my list of Irish authors who can make a living from their books alone.

“This is what everyone is hoping to get,” Boyne admits. “In 2005, before it was released, my foreign agents were selling so many offers in different countries that I went from being flat broke to being reasonably decent by the end of that year.”

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas has sold around seven million copies worldwide. With royalties of around a euro per pound, Boyne says, “you can figure it out from there.”

The Irish Times Writing Lives series is an initiative of Words Ireland. The Words Ireland national writers’ meeting series for creative writers and illustrators continues in Dublin, Wicklow, Cork and Limerick. Entrance is free, but reservation is essential. For more information visit

Freya McClements is a writer and arts journalist


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