7.5.1 WRITING AS A CAREER: SIMON JAMES GREEN
WRITING AS A CAREER
Being able to earn a decent living by writing books is the dream. The reality is, it’s almost entirely impossible. Even if you strike a six or seven figure advance, by the time you’ve paid your agent commission, and the tax on it, the amount you’re left with won’t necessarily last as long as you think it might. It’s that unpredictability that’s part of the problem: you might have enough to last you three months, six months, a year, or a few years – but what about after that? This business comes with no security and no guarantees. The fact is you might never sell another book.
So the first tip is – don’t give up the day job. At least, not just yet. Writing is hard, but it’s even harder when you can’t pay the rent. Instead, I would encourage you to think about the process of writing as a career as a gradual thing, and I’m going to highlight some of the steps that will take you in that direction… with the caveat that it still might not work out.
Your books are obviously your basic product, but royalty rates are such that you’d need be selling an awful lot, continuously, for this to be a significant source of your income. Generally speaking, the days are gone of just writing one book and living off the proceeds forever more. Instead, think about volume. The more books you’re able to write, the more potential advances you can get, the more potential foreign sales, TV options, and, yes, royalties. I’ve always enjoyed a very open and honest relationship with my editor, and I often pick his brains about what sort of books they’re looking for and try to marry that up with the ideas I’m thinking about. I also had a conversation with him about diversifying a bit, so that as well as YA, I was writing MG and picture books. This might not suit everyone, and not every publisher would let you do it, but it’s worth having a chat about any other opportunities your publisher might be able to put your way. For example, I know authors who write their own books, but also ghost write for celebrity ‘authors’ too. People have strong feelings about this side of the industry, but it can be a nice boost to your income, and I’ve heard examples of lots of positive experiences.
Within this, establishing yourself as a brand can bring advantages. I’m not saying you’ll always want to be pigeon-holed into a certain category, but in the early stages, being known as an author who writes funny books, or thrillers, or magical adventures, can help cement your reputation, and begin the process of you being someone who immediately comes to mind when a bookseller, reviewer, or reader is looking for books of that type. Part of this is making sure that ‘brand’ then filters through everything you do – just like it would for any other business (which is what you absolutely need to think of yourself as if you’re serious about doing this as your primary living). For example, the main theme that runs through all of my books, for all ages, is that they are funny. So I always try to bring humour into any articles I write, some of my tweets, my author photo, (which is also the first thing you see on my website), even the logo on my invoices for events is funny. A lot of successful funny MG authors have websites that reflect their humour, featuring funny illustrations and copy – check out Liz Pichon’s (Tom Gates) site, for example. If you write scary thrillers for teenagers, your website colour palette probably shouldn’t be bright, primary colours. Building a brand takes time, but you only have to take a look at the ‘big brand’ authors to see it works – readers know what to expect, they gain loyal fans as a result, and the books are easy to recommend because people know exactly what sort of book it will be, even if they haven’t read it. In a market flooded with hundreds and hundreds of books, being easily recognisable and known for a certain product, can really help you.
The great thing about writing for children and teenagers is that you can develop a good side-line doing school visits. I’d recommend a separate page on your website to market these, giving an idea of your credentials, as well as the types of session you offer. You can see my website page here:
You might also pay to advertise on websites such as Contact an Author, as well as publicising your sessions on Twitter (loads of teachers and librarians are on Twitter, so it’s a great place to make then aware of what you do). Authors charge different fees, and if you don’t have much experience you might want to start at the lower end, but don’t undersell yourself. I personally find these sessions exhausting – they require prep, travel, and it’s hard work keeping kids entertained for any length of time. Fees are up to you, but most authors seem to charge somewhere between £300 – £500 for a day (up to 4 hours usually), with others charging more if they’re in high demand. Travel expenses are usually charged on top of the fee.
Your skills as a writer are potentially transferable to other areas associated with the industry. You may be able to use your skills as a copywriter, you could adapt and learn the skills of screenwriting, and you can also offer editorial work to up and coming authors, all of which can open up extra revenue streams (although all require significant extra work, and I’m not saying any of these areas are easy to get into, much less make pay).
Don’t forget to also register for Public Lending Right (PLR) as you’ll receive a small fee every time one of the your books is borrowed from a UK or Irish library; and also ALCS, who also distribute money, for example, from licensing fees for photocopying.
Writing for a living is very much a marathon, not a sprint. You will need to be adaptable and flexible. You’ll need to be resilient. You’ll need to be continually looking for opportunities to write books, sell books, and diversify your income streams. The workload can be exhausting. But anyone who has ever set up their own business will tell you the same thing, and while the risks are great, and the security is often minimal, the rewards can be extremely high. Only you can balance that equation, and decide whether it’s worth the gamble.
Simon is a Carnegie-nominated, award-winning author and screenwriter. After an eight-book deal with Scholastic, his picture book Llama Glamarama was published in June, with a Young Adult Heartbreak Boys and a Middle Grade Life of Riley: Beginner’s Luck to follow later in the year. His Noah books have also been optioned for television, and he contributed to the PROUD anthology.
Simon is also a Spark Mentor.