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Writing rated top job

1 October 2007

Why is it that becoming a writer has such a hold on the public imagination? As this week's Comment wittily points out, 'The modern writer's life is like a cross between that of the Venerable Bede and Naomi Campbell.'

Partly of course it's the lure of easy money, possibly easily made. But you only have to look at the statistics of those who sell in vast quantities to realise that it takes most authors a lifetime of writing to get to the top of the tree. John Grisham, for instance, had his first book rejected by almost every major publishing house. When it was eventually taken on by a small independent publisher, it was given a modest print run of 5,000 copies. Nineteen years later, over 200 million people have read his books.

The story of J K Rowling's rags-to-riches rewriting of the 'unknown author to international bestseller' story is legendary, so much so that it has sunk into aspiring writers' consciousness as something to aim for. It isn't. It's just a monumental flash in the pan.

The career of Ian McEwan is more typical and worth looking at because he is a literary, not a popular or children's, writer and currently a Man Booker contender with On Chesil Beach. His first book, First Love, Last Rites, was a literary cause celebre, but since then he's published 12 highly distinctive books. His previous novel, Atonement, (admittedly helped by a superb film) has just sold 53,357 copies, which is the highest September weekly sale of any book in the UK since the current records began.

This all shows that it takes time and effort to become a successful writer. But that hasn't stopped anyone aspiring to it. In a YouGov poll reported in the Guardian more Britons said they dreamt about becoming an author than other job, followed by sports personality, pilot, astronaut and event organizer. More women than men would like to write and those aged between 35 and 50, and those over 50, (ie most of the adult population) were the age groups which put writing as their top choice.

Now we know why it's so difficult to get published - there are just so many aspiring writers our there! Many of them will never complete a manuscript, let alone get it into publishable form, but it does show how much the popular view of writers has changed from rather eccentric people cooped up in their garrets, to international superstars. From the Venerable Bede to Naomi Campbell just about sums it up, but there's still an awful lot more of the reclusive old monk's lifestyle involved for most writers.