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.
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.