Or, is there any money in writing?

A selection of books and a pot plant on a wooden shelf

Content warning: facts and figures follow.

I’ll start with a statistic that amazed me: a poll in America found that 55 percent of respondents thought their own life was worthy of becoming a book or movie. This quote from Samuel Johnson then seems apt:

''There lurks, perhaps, in every human heart, a desire of distinction, which inclines every man to hope, and then to believe, that nature has given himself something peculiar to himself.''

It’s also said that 81 percent of people want to write a book. Well, good on them. The problem is that they are unlikely to make any money from it.

From what I can tell, the business of being an author is a lowly paid one. Unless, of course, your work resides on the best-seller lists. Here are Australia’s top sellers in 2021:

  • Liane Moriarty – Apples Never Fall – almost 200,000 copies
  • Eddie Jaku – The Happiest Man on Earth – 126,500 copies
  • Andie Griffiths – The 143-Storey Treehouse– 108,970 copies
  • Scott Pape – The Barefoot Investor – 108,320 copies
  • Pip Williams – The Dictionary of Lost Words– 92,880 copies.

These numbers are rare though. In Australia, the sale of 1,000 copies is considered a reasonable expectation. Last time I checked, the prize-winning book Dropbear by Evelyn Araluen had sold over 15,000 copies. So, in Australian terms, it’s a runaway success. And it includes poetry! Outstanding.

Recently there have been some intense conversations across social media about the number of books that actually sell per year in America. An antitrust trial around the merger of Penguin and Random House revealed some interesting statistics:

  • Only 0.4% – or 163 books – sold 100,000 copies or more
  • 21.6% – or 9,863 books – sold between 1,000-4,999 copies
  • 51.4% – or 23,419 books – sold between 12-999 copies
  • 14.7% – or 6,701 books – sold under 12 copies

It’s important to note that these figures are from a 12-month period. So a book may have sold more or fewer copies the year before. And any of these books may have been published years ago. So a book may have sold under 12 copies because it’s 20 years old. But it’s still quite astounding that, in a market as big as America, over 50 percent of books sell less than 1,000 copies per year.

What I want to know is how this translates into earnings. The thread below on Twitter gave us some enormous insight into what people are actually earning. One author was receiving 65p per book. And a successful and prolific writer, Claire Allen, is struggling to make £30k per year from her writing, as the following tweet shows:

To add to these depressing circumstances, William Boyd, the world-renowned author of 26 books, told The Guardian that the publishing world is just getting tougher:

“The 1980s was a kind of boom period but the challenge for a literary novelist now is to just keep the show on the road. It used to be you could write a novel every couple of years or so and have a perfectly nice bourgeois life. Now the mid-list has gone. The brutal fact is you either sell or you don’t. Friends of mine who’ve written 12 novels can’t get published or their advances have dropped by 80%. It’s a much tougher world.”

So where does this leave the wannabe novelist? From what I can tell, in a state of panic. There seems to be a whole industry built up around the debut and emerging writer’s fear of either missing out or not doing it properly.

You can buy editing time, self-publishing guides, pitching courses and training in how to write. Part of me feels glad that all these resources exist. Firstly because they help the wannabes become more professional. And also because they give authors who aren’t earning very much the opportunity to create a side-hustle in helping others learn how to get published.

But, as a wannabe myself, I’ve been overcome with self-doubt. I find myself weighing up just how much I should spend to become a published author. How could I possibly cover my costs if – should I ever be published – I might earn a couple of dollars per book sold, and can realistically only hope to sell about 1,000 copies? The investment in the process just doesn’t add up.

So I feel like the bride who is planning her wedding. Which cake should I buy? Which shoes can I afford? Can I live without a fancy floral arbour behind us at the ceremony, or is that a must-have? And I feel like both industries thrive on a similar brand of FOMO. The wedding industry makes us feel nervous that we might not have the best day of our lives if we don’t buy everything. And the publishing industry? Well, it makes us feel like we’re not good enough to be published unless we have our manuscripts scrutinised by 70 people before we dare to submit them.

I often think of Jane Austen, who was mightily progressive when she said:

“I can always live by my pen.”

I’d love to live by my pen. I’m so excited to have some wonderful freelance copywriting opportunities at the moment that pay me for my words. But I won’t hold out hope for my novel.

Jeanette Winterson wrote some brilliant, succinct tips on writing, as featured in the Marginalian. Point number 8 on the list makes sense in the context of there being so little financial reward in this game:

“Be ambitious for the work and not for the reward.”

Let us just assume then that, in the life of the writer, the reward must be in the work itself, in honouring and serving the craft. From the perspective of this former businesswoman, there’s not much else in it.

Text saying Much love, Lyndall with decorative elements including a love heart, flowers and a leaf