I’m the author. Fly me.

In terms of setting expectations for an authorly career, Patricia Cornwell has a lot to answer for as a celebrated crime novelist, not least the circumstances of her private life which recently came out during a court hearing concerning alleged fraud on the part of her literary agent. Such titbits as the fact she spent $5 million on private jets and a personal helicopter as well as keeping a Bentley Continental and a Ferrari, even though she supposedly was also paying $1000 a day to a high end chauffeur service. Her many and numerous massive estates are said to rival JK Rowling’s private castle for opulence and grandeur. But then everyone knows that authors are rich and famous. Just look at Rick Castle. He has so much money he can bribe the mayor to allow him to solve crimes with his squeeze Detective Beckett, with nary a day off to do anything as mundane as putting pen to paper.

This, sadly, is the life that most people think you are talking about if the fact that you are working as an author ever slips into a conversation. Let me disabuse you of such an outlandish notion straightaway, and as an author, I shall do it by way of the story. And this tale has the benefit of being true, so I won’t even need to bring my imagination to bear on the story.

Late last year I went for drinks in London with an old friend who was visiting from Australia. Most the people who attended the shindig were acquaintances of my chum who I’ve bumped into every few years – usually when my mate is visiting over from down under. One of these acquaintances happens to be a professional writer the same as me. I won’t give their name (or even their gender), because I don’t possess their contact details to ask their permission to recount this tale in public, and I am not sure they would want me to. But in a certain sense, their name is irrelevant, because their story is the story of all professional authors in the last few years. Well, perhaps not Patricia Cornwall, Terry Pratchett and a few others at the top of the game. But it is the story of most of us. The rest of us, you might say.

Being a professional writer at home is a rather lonely and uncertain profession. You usually only get to meet other professional writers at conferences where you are an invited guest, and your conversations are often prescribed by the fact that agents, editors, and professional gossips are frequently in tow… so, what I’m trying to say, is that we rarely get to talk honestly or frankly with much candour. So it was great to be able to get to sit down in private with a fellow comrade fighting in the muddy word trenches, knowing we could chew the fat without judgement. The last time I had met this particular person, they had been working on producing various authorized biographies of celebrities… football stars, TV personalities, actors and actresses and sometimes just those famous for being famous. They’ve been doing this job for over a decade. The writer, like myself (and incidentally like Patricia Cornwall) had worked in newspaper and magazine publishing before drifting into the world of books.

‘So’, I asked, ‘what book are you working on right now?’

‘Haven’t you heard?’ they replied. ‘When it comes to advances, ten is the new fifty.’

I had an inkling of what they meant here, but asked them to spell it out just for the sake of clarity.

‘Well,’ said my fellow writer, ‘publishers used to give you £50,000 to write a biography for them. I mean, it would take a year to create one – six months to research, six months to write. So £50,000 a year seemed like a decent fee. But now there isn’t a biography publisher in London willing to pay more than £10,000 for a book.’

‘Oh,’ I said. Although, to be fair, what I was actually thinking was Publishers were willing to pay £50,000 a year for a biography? Nobody I know ever got that much for writing a flipping fiction novel.

‘So then, if that’s the situation, what did you do?’ I queried.

‘Well, who can afford to live on £10,000 a year, especially in London? I stopped writing. I had a look at getting back into journalism; but you might as well be trying to get work as a saddle stitcher in the 1920s, standing in the shadow of a Ford model T. factory. The Internet has killed off that gig. Then, I saw an advert for international cabin crew for an airline. I applied and got the job and for the last 12 months I have been flying to various long-haul destinations. It’s great. I love it. No stress, no deadlines, no agents taking a cut of my wages, no editors on my back, and no more having to pander to the egos of the famous. ‘

Now, for anyone who knows anything about publishing, or has eyes to see, you can walk into a WH Smith or a Tesco supermarket and its top 20 books will be dominated by celebrity biographies. It’s about as profitable as publishing gets, unless you sign an accident like Fifty Shades. And you can’t even make a living wage as a writer of that stuff?

In fiction, there will always be an endless slush-pile furnished by writers of science fiction, fantasy, crime and other genres, writers willing to accept pretty much any lowball offer to be published, regardless of the financial strings or contractual obligations. All for the dubious imprimatur of printed respectability. But in the celebrity biographies sector, I guess they are fewer people intelligent enough to be able to write a decent product, while also willing to spend six months hanging around in nightclubs with some vacuous C-lister, before devoting another six months of your limited lifespan to immortalize said cleb’s glorious existence.

So next time you hear about New York court cases involving multimillionaire authors and you go green at the gills about their lifestyles, give a thought to the rest of us. Because the life of a professional writer these days is very rarely deciding whether you will be driving your Ferrari or allowing the SAS-trained driver from your chauffeur company to pick you up this morning. It’s more likely to be asking the family in aisle six if they want the vegetarian option on the flight, and, on a good day, topping up your tan at the backend in Marrakesh before bounce back.

I’m the author. Fly me.

The life of Patricia Cornwell... Do I take the Bentley Continental or the Ferrari out today?

The life of Patricia Cornwell… Do I take the Bentley Continental or the Ferrari out today?

Here’s a sad song to go along with Sunday’s true story. Mr Writer from the Stereophonics. It’s the anthem for all writers these days, ‘cept for Patricia Cornwell. And even she’s been having a few bad days lately.

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7 Responses to “I’m the author. Fly me.”

  1. Zy
    February 24, 2013 at 7:57 pm #

    “The Internet has killed off that gig”. Too true. I still enjoy writing the odd item but the word rates have fallen to less than half of what I could expect twenty years ago, before you even think about factoring in two decades of inflation. Not to mention that all contracts now demand universal rights, ruling out reprint fees and royalties when the same content appears in print, web and tablet in several languages. I edited a bookazine for a contract publisher not so long ago and was embarrassed by the meagre budget I had to offer my freelancers, even after confirming that it was the going rate for the field.

    I’d seen the paltry sums made by first-time novelists and have no doubt I did rather better when co-authoring official videogame strategy guides. The translators made more money from my copy than I did, but they ensured that we sold hundreds of thousands of books in at least half a dozen territories despite the terrible margins on glossy colour hardbacks and softbacks.

    The outlook for editorial is so bleak that I’m struggling to keep up with friends, colleagues and publishers as they head off to try their hand at pretty much anything and everything else. The Internet has made writers and publishers of us all, for good and ill. It hasn’t stopped a yearly influx of media graduates, all desperately working for free in the mistaken belief that there’s a well-paid 20th-century career awaiting them at the end of it.

  2. Stephen
    February 24, 2013 at 8:26 pm #

    Sad, but true, Zy.

    Lots of friends I worked with on the national press in the UK have switched to such esoteric career choices as carpenter, escort, black cab driver and fisherman (all jobs you can’t out-source over the web or get for free online).

    Most of the people I know in the content industries: music; games; publishing; films and TV, are finding it hard to cope in a world where most prices are driven towards free and your competition is anyone globally with an internet connection and a PC.

    As in all gold-rushes, it’s the people charging for shovels and picks who are the only ones really making money.

    Stephen

  3. MudCrab
    February 25, 2013 at 6:32 am #

    Two points I would like to make.

    First up, the photo of Ms Cornwell here. I know a lot of people didn’t like the costume, but I always throught she played a great Green Goblin in the fist Spiderman movie… :)

    Second, and as an open question, why do we write?

    I think we can agree that out of all the people who ‘write’, about 1% will make any regular sort of money out of it, and of those, 1% will ever get ‘comfortable’ (let alone ‘RICH’) just from writing.

    So since we have established that none of us are realistically ‘in it for the money’, then why are we still here?

    For myself in answer to my own question, I think I write for three reasons. First, when it works, it is a lot of fun. Second, I still live for the dream where I can be somewhere completely random and run into someone reading one of my books (just to clarify, I am not published so this currently VERY rarely happens…), so I can then engage them in conversation and without revealing myself as the author, tell them that I always hated the characters in that story (just to clarify, this strangely happens rather a lot and may explain why I never get invited to the cool parties these days…)

    Lastly I just want to be ‘famous’ enough to be invited on panels at World Cons :D

    (oh, and for the girls. I met George RRRRRRRRRRR Martin at the Melbourne World Con. He was three deep in 20 year old women the entire weekend. George = Chick Magnet!! :D )

  4. February 25, 2013 at 6:16 pm #

    Okay, I hear you. And three years ago, I was exactly where you are now. But then I decided to investigate the option that too many authors are unwilling to consider: self-publishing.

    How has that worked out for me? Check it out:

    http://pjmedia.com/lifestyle/2012/05/29/10-reasons-you-should-skip-the-traditional-publishers-and-self-publish-ebooks-instead/

    It is ironic to me that so many struggling writers, often abused by their publishers and agents, still belittle self-publishing as “vanity publishing.” What could be greater evidence of vanity, however, to settle for a pittance and mistreatment from traditional publishers, merely to get the “validation” of their glorious imprimatur on the spine of a book that doesn’t sell?

  5. March 1, 2013 at 11:43 am #

    What Mr Bidinotto said.

    Ebooks are replacing paperbacks. Amazon pays up to 70% royalty on ebooks. A publisher will pay you 25%, less your agent’s commission and VAT thereon.

    A print book gets very limited exposure in bookshops before it’s returned, and anyway has to compete with bestsellers whose publishers pay for the prime spots (table by the door, face-out rather than spine-out, etc.) An ebook remains available indefinitely.

    If you want to go on writing professionally, dump your publisher ASAP.

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