Skip to Content

Don’t give up the day job


It’s a common enough fantasy for writers: maybe now I can leave that dreary job and devote myself whole-heartedly to writing...

Perhaps you’ve even been indulging in it as you lay on the beach this summer, or more likely spent your precious holiday working on your latest novel.

But how practical is it? Is it something you can realistically aspire to, or just a distant fantasy? What are your chances of making your dream come true?

When weighing up your chances, you need to be realistic about how much income you need. Starving in a garret may seem like a romantic idea, but as many who have lost their jobs in the recession can attest, the reality is very uncomfortable and is not something you can inflict on your partner and children. If you’re still free of these obligations, it will still start to pall once the winter chill sets in and the loneliness and poverty start to get to you.

So, first work things out carefully and then compute carefully exactly how much work you would need to sell and for what kind of advance and royalties, to produce that kind of income. If this looks like a tough call, it is, because advances are diving downwards at the moment and publishers aren’t feeling any more generous about royalties either.

Most importantly though, you need to be realistic about your chances of selling your work in the current tough climate. Large swathes of the midlist have been laid waste by recessionary cuts in publishers’ lists and there’s no sign of the end in sight at present. The result is that it’s harder than ever to get an agent or publisher to take you on. For the first time I can remember, it can truly be said that it is more difficult than ever to get a publisher, unless, that is, you have produced a breakthrough and a real potential bestseller - and it’s ready to be published.

Most authors simply don’t produce a bestseller the first time around. There used to be time to learn your craft and also to build up an audience by publishing books into the midlist, but now that has pretty much gone and there’s maximum pressure right from the start.

Unfortunately many aspiring authors come to the task with very inflated expectations of publishing a blockbuster and making millions. The J K Rowling success story has influenced literally millions of writers across the globe who now hope that they too can repeat this success. The reality for most published writers is very different. Most earn an income well below the national average wage, £10,000 was the figure mentioned in a recent UK Society of Authors study. Most authors are not rich, it is only the lucky few who attain real wealth through their writing.

Self-publishing offers a route to readers but don't forget that a financial outlay is involved and the return is also likely to be small, unless you are very successful.

But there’s another reason why you shouldn’t give up the day job. Writing works well as a part or spare time activity and there’s something to be said for the benefits of staying in touch with the workplace and with other people, rather than isolating yourself with just your computer for company. If you haven’t succeeded in finding a publisher yet, or are suffering from writer’s block or even just uncertainty on how to proceed with your current manuscript, don’t even think about putting yourself under this huge additional strain.

Poets have a hard time making a living through their writing and only the best-known will find this is possible, but some of them have found a rather ingenious way of supporting themselves. Fuelled by the boom in creative writing courses, many of them teach aspiring writers.

But for other writers, do think carefully before you commit yourself to writing full-time. Make sure you’re certain you will have enough money to sustain yourself. It’s very stressful depending on the uncertain income from a writing career, so my advice would be: don’t give up the day job!

Chris HolifieldManaging director of WritersServices; spent working life in publishing,employed by everything from global corporations to start-ups; track record includes: editorial director of Sphere Books, publishing director of The Bodley Head, publishing director for start-up of upmarket book club, The Softback Preview, editorial director of Britain’s biggest book club group, BCA, and, most recently, deputy MD and publisher of Cassell & Co. She is also currently the Director of the Poetry Book Society; During all of this time aware of problems faced by writers, as publishing changed from idiosyncratic cottage industry, 'occupation for gentlemen', into corporate business of today. Writers encountered increasing difficulty in getting books edited or published. Authors create the books which are the raw material for the whole business. She believes it is time to bring them back to centre stage.


© Chris Holifield 2009