So you want to write for a living….

by Sam Hawksmoor

Rule One: If you ever apply for a mortgage, bank loan, car loan, insurance, NEVER admit to being a writer. There you are sitting at your desk at home happily blowing up the world and apparently these organisations think you are a higher risk than a front line army sniper behind enemy lines – much higher in fact.

Of course your bank and insurance software (let’s admit there are no people involved) knows exactly how little you earn from writing, not to mention you only seem to get a statement once a year – if you’re lucky. (I once had a publisher – now no longer in business, that had published a third book with me before I realised they never sent out statements and seemed affronted when I asked where the money went).

Statistically ‘writing for a living’ is a financial joke. There is no way to survive on writing fiction alone unless you are consistently in the top forty sellers. (Or supported by a willing forgiving partner). And then, and this is the reality of modern contracts, you are probably only getting 7.5% of whatever price Amazon paid for it (65% discount most likely) less the agent’s fee and VAT on top. For every writer who dreams of being published, getting published can be something of a let down. (Realising for example that Waterstones only bought one copy for the entire South-East region to ‘see how it goes’ and will never replace it if someone actually finds it stuffed behind a Robert Muchamore…)

"Marcus Sedgwick didn’t quit his day job until he had ten books out there."

To be honest you’re not ‘earning a living’ from writing until you have several books published (and still on the shelves) and contracts for at least three more in the bag. Marcus Sedgwick didn’t quit his day job until he had ten books out there.

So you supplement your income with a real job. It almost doesn’t matter what, but it must allow time for writing. I chose teaching, which oddly enough leaves almost no time for writing if you take your job seriously. I taught Creative Writing and I always stressed to all students that just because you are on a creative writing course it doesn’t automatically mean vast riches. In fact most of my former graduates ended up in PR or banking or teaching, once they realised the odds on success were very difficult to achieve. The course was often just a flirt with poverty and they were scared straight after the first reject slip. (Some did complete their novels and find success. Quentin Bates crime writer, published here and the USA, Hazel Marshall, children’s author, and recently Diana Bretherwick won the Good Housekeeping First Novel Award 2012 (worth £25,000) for her wonderful historical novel.) But these are rare successes and all of them have ‘real’ jobs.

"It’s not such a bad thing to be forced to concentrate in short bursts on your book in your spare time."

Of course many writers run workshops or offer their services to other writers, such as editing skills and of course some have regular gigs writing reviews for national papers. Some find other niches, such as marking papers, or reading coursework for the Open University. There are ways to ‘survive’ but all serve to distract from the main gig – writing that all important novel.

 It’s not just getting published that’s hard – it’s getting publishers to commit, get behind you, push, do publicity, ‘cause without it you are not going to have a sustained career or a ‘living’. That said, ‘marketing’ will keep a straight face and tell you to get a web site, tweet, facebook, blog and you quickly realise that that is the total extent of the publicity and you’re doing it – not them. Some like SCBWI member Teri Terry are brilliant at this and her book sales are the proof in the pudding, but what if you aren’t a great tweeter? What if you don’t want to follow, just write? I don’t actually believe kids are interested in tweets. What they are interested in is what Rhianna or Cara Delevingne are up to.

"Offer workshops. It’s fun and a good way to get your book known, perhaps the only way,"

Do school visits your editor will tell you. Offer workshops. It’s fun and a good way to get your book known, perhaps the only way, but it’s hard with this new curriculum to squeeze writers in and find the money to pay them. Writers need jobs. It’s not such a bad thing to be forced to concentrate in short bursts on your book in your spare time. I used to escape and go to France for three weeks and just write for 15 hours a day until I had a first draft. No emails, no phone, just sunshine, wine and music blasting out at the base of the Pyrenees. Couldn’t have done that without a job to go back to pay for it. Let’s face it, writing is a luxury. No one ‘needs’ what we do except you – the compulsive storyteller.

"... the best thing that can happen to you is ‘foreign rights’. This is the secret to publishing success..."

Sadly your advance won’t be as much as you think you’re worth, but the best thing that can happen to you is ‘foreign rights’. This is the secret to publishing success and with luck will help you secure another contract. I’m especially looking forward to the Brazilian version of my book this year. Cue excuse to go to Rio. Lot of readers in Brazil. Structure, planning, tax accountants, networking, pitching and redrafting are all part of the daily life. The luxury of relying on royalties alone must be nerve wrecking, but let’s face it, that’s the goal of every writer. Just don’t tell your mortgage provider.

Sam Hawksmoor has been a writer from early teens – went to film school –but ironically ended up writing radio drama - lived in USA, Canada & France but reality bit and became a University lecturer running a couple of Post-Grad Creative Writing programmes. His YA sci-fi novel ‘The Repossession’ is shortlisted for The Leeds Book Awards & The Amazing Book Award 2013. His latest novel time-travel novel ‘The Repercussions of Tomas D’ was inspired by a faded photograph of his Grandfather, barely alive, buried up to his neck in rubble after a bomb fell on his house in WW2.


  1. A very sobering and honest and thought provoking assessment of making a living as a writer. (You're trying to scare the wannabe writers off, aren't you, Sam? :-) )

  2. That's telling it like it is! I personally found it very freeing the day I decided that I didn't want to give up my day job to be a full-time writer.

  3. Not trying to scare but I think lots of people think it's all going to be great once published and to be honest that's when the hard work begins!

  4. I think that most of us write not for the money, because often that may never come! But for the love of writing, and there is value in that itself. Like any creative pursuit, if it is something that makes you happy, then the rest is just a bonus!(For me, anyway!)

  5. I can't find a link but I remember Hilary Mantel talking about her 'Wolf Hall' Booker win. I think the interviewer asked what she was going to do with the money and she said it was just earnings. I thought at the time, that to win such a major prize and for the winnings to be 'just earnings' must be deflating. Actually it's just like what Lee Wind said on the SCBWI blog we have to reassess what success looks like for us. Also, as Sam said "it's not such a bad thing to be forced to concentrate in short your spare time." I have been most productive when I am busiest at work.

  6. Finding the right sort of work that pays enough but isn't too sapping is very difficult. Especially if your work/life balance involves raising a young family. I'm not there that's for sure.
    Thanks for the honesty, Sam. We all strive to make the next step but each stage in the process brings a new set of challenges. But at least it gives us something to moan about.

  7. If you want to make money get paid to write,articles and such, if not write because you have to for you.
    Keep writing Sam I love all your books, never stop you would loose your self if you did.


  8. This is where I see most attempts at rewriting articles go wrong: through misuse of grammar and a misunderstanding of the parts of speech. 


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