In The Observer this weekend Robert McCrum wrote a fascinating piece entitled “From Bestseller to Bust: is this the end of an author’s life?”
Partly it is fascinating because nothing much really seems to have changed. To be financially successful as a freelancer you need to be entrepreneurial and most creative people are not. The exceptions, from Dickens to Archer, Rowling to Blyton, are blindingly obvious.
Most writers, like most designers and most musicians, need someone else to take care of business for them. Sometimes that person will be an agent, sometimes a traditional publisher, sometimes a lawyer. It might even be Amazon or a freelance publicist.
Finding the right person and being able to make it worth their while to put in the necessary hours on your behalf, has often been a matter of serendipity. If Rupert Thomson, one of the authors that McCrum cites as falling upon hard times, had had a business partner they would probably have advised him not to hire himself a work space in South London, for instance – rule number one for any freelancer must be to keep the regular outgoings down because you are never going to have regular in-comings.
Yet again, however, we are left at the end of the article not really knowing what figures we are talking about. I wanted to know exactly how much these writers have made each year of their careers. Would it be comparable to the lifetime earnings of a nurse or a doctor? A teaching assistant or a headmistress? These sorts of figures are particularly instructive when you have authors who have been working for a long time, so that blips like occasional large advances or arbitrarily cancelled projects can be ironed out. If we knew those figures we could judge better whether the rewards or the sacrifices of a writer’s life might be deemed worthwhile.