A few thoughts on being a low-income writer

I ended 2017 with a stack of books (review copies and competition prizes), a cloth bag from the University of Edinburgh, a lifetime subscription to SciArt magazine, a print copy of an anthology with my work in, and the promise of royalties to come. All very nice but it doesn’t put Earl Grey in the caddy (except the royalties, later). It doesn’t even cover the expenses.

Despite avoiding most of the paid-for competitions (I’ve written about the barrier of fees before) I managed to spend almost £50 on eight flash fiction and short story competitions I didn’t so much as get longlisted for. All the competition successes I had in 2017 came from the ones I didn’t have to pay to enter, and I can’t decide whether or not there’s a lesson in there.

Twice, I forgot about the early-bird prices for the Bath Flash Fiction Award, meaning I missed out on saving £3. I had little runs of entering Ad Hoc Fiction hoping to win a free entry, but then I’d forget about it again after a few weeks, and I haven’t won one yet. There are some competitions that now offer a limited number of free places for low income writers, which is a great initiative. I haven’t taken any of them up because I’m in this position voluntarily, quitting a day job I was frustrated with and dragging our household income well below the UK median again (thanks to the ever-supportive OneMonkey, this has mostly been working out OK). However, anyone unburdened by feelings that it’s meant for people worse off than them can avail themselves of the opportunity.

The Penguin WriteNow insight day in Newcastle was great, and such a confidence-booster, but the train fare wasn’t cheap so I took the edge off it by using some Tesco clubcard vouchers to get credit at Red Spotted Hanky (I felt like such a pleb, like when we celebrated in Wetherspoons the day I got the WriteNow invite). When I got home I covered an old part-used notebook in sections cut out of the paper bag they kindly gave us a pile of books in, so I have a unique souvenir of the day.

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More recently, I’ve been shortlisted for a competition and invited to a prize-giving that would cost almost as much as the third prize for me to attend (and it’s a six-hour round trip). Sadly, I’ve declined (see also my previous post about the cost of winning).

As I said, I quit the day job of my own accord for my own reasons, so I can’t complain about being hard-up (and truthfully I’ve been in way more precarious and penny-pinching situations than this). I should concentrate harder on the paying markets for fiction, and learn to pitch articles to magazines, but a lot of that requires confidence I’m only slowly building up. What I can do is stop allowing other people to make money off the back of my work when I get nothing. A webzine I like is free to read and they’re not paying me – fine, they’re unpaid too. A competition gives cash prizes, I’m not a winner but I’m in the anthology which they’re selling – fine, the money’s probably ploughing back into the prize fund. A commercial organisation is selling (at a standard market rate) a magazine or anthology with my work in it and all I (and all the other contributors) get is a free copy – why haven’t I realised how unfair this is, before now? I’ll try and stop being complicit in my own exploitation, and in the meantime the search is on for a new day job.

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8 comments

  1. So true. I’ve made very little money out of my writing despite having a few books published now. It’s particularly true when travel’s involved. A few years ago I went to Scarborough, paid £60 for a B&B as it was an evening meeting in a library, had an audience of 40 who had all paid a £4 entry fee… to the library, not me… and only sold 1 book. The library paid for my travel expenses but as I only make £1.50 profit for each book, I ended up £58.50 down. Even if I’d sold 10 books I’d still have been out of pocket, but I wouldn’t have minded as I’d have been happy that people were reading my book. People told me they’d really enjoyed the event but would borrow the book from the library (who had only ordered one copy from my publisher). Honestly, you couldn’t make it up, could you? It’s like a not-very-funny sit com!

    1. That £4 entry fee is really adding insult to injury! Until you’re in the middle of this sitcom you have no idea, I assumed writers got their expenses paid by the publisher for talks and book signings and things. Also assumed they got more money per book etc. Oh well, too late now, well and truly addicted to this writing lark!

      1. LOL well it’s true we don’t do it for the money! If you have a mainstream publisher I think they do pay for travel etc but only for a limited number of events and sometimes only for the launch. Independents I think are often too hard up. Oh well. Onwards and upwards!

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