This year marks a very significant anniversary for me. In November 1987 I went freelance as a writer of children’s books, so I’ve now been making a living in our business for 25 years. At the time I was two months away from my 34th birthday, the father of three young children, and our family’s main breadwinner. I had wanted to be a writer since my early teens, and by that I meant one thing – I wanted to write books. I was already working as a journalist and a reviewer, and I knew I’d always be happy to carry on doing those things as part of my freelance career, but writing books was what really mattered to me.
That quarter of a century has, of course, vanished in the blink of an eye, mostly because it’s been packed with all the events and incidents of work and family. But the world has certainly changed. I bought my first computer in October 1987, an Amstrad with one of those clattering daisy-wheel printers, the whole thing seeming like some kind of Blakes’ 7 version of a typewriter. I didn’t communicate by email, and wrote physical letters and printed out my manuscripts to send in the post. I didn’t have a mobile phone, either, just a big old clunky white plastic receiver connected to the BT landline network.
Publishing itself was very different then. The great age of mergers was only just getting under way, and there were lots of small publishers and lists. There was a thriving library market for children’s books too, although anyone who remembers the 80s will know that libraries (and many other things!) were threatened by budget cuts then too. It was a time long before Harry Potter, when several editors told me that children’s fiction was an endangered species, and that in particular no one was interested in historical novels or fantasy. Picture books ruled, partly because of the rise of the co-edition market, but also because of Sebastian Walker and the brilliantly innovative company he created.
The publishers I worked for were bought and sold, editors came and went, I switched agents, governments changed, recessions happened, and through it all I seemed to get by, even though in some respects our business has changed beyond recognition – it’s certainly a tougher, much less cosy world than the one I first encountered. I produced picture book texts, collections of poetry, fiction for 5-8s, edited anthologies, reviewed, and visited hundreds of schools. My kids grew up and left home and started having kids of their own, which was very useful (my grandchildren have given me ideas for quite a few books!).
So what have I learned in my 25 years of being a freelance writer? That’s the question I asked myself when I sat down this morning to write my first ABBA blog post. Well, the main thing in the early years was that I should have been careful what I wished for. Making a living out of being a children’s writer turned out to be no picnic, and it never gets any easier. Unless you’re lucky enough to have a private income, a wealthy partner, or manage to write a bestseller early in your career, you’re always going to have periods of struggle. I’m proud of everything I’ve done, but I’ve often had to put aside a story I wanted to write in favour of a commission that would pay the bills. Getting the balance right between artistic satisfaction and making a living is always hard.
I also learned the truth of the quote I had pinned up over my desk for years (I forget who said it) – ‘A professional is a man who can always do his job, even when he doesn’t feel like it.’ (Apologies for the sexism – but I’ve always assumed it to apply equally to female professionals!) I am a professional, and writing is what I do. So however grumpy I might get about low advances, slow contracts and the fact that I’m not getting a nationwide publicity tour to promote my new book and Stephen Spielberg still hasn’t called, I sit at my desk every day and do the best job I can for the best readers a writer could have – children.
As I write, I’m three months away from my 59th birthday, so I’m not sure I’ll be writing 25 years from now. But I like the idea that I might still be getting to my desk in the morning, turning on my laptop (or whatever incredible piece of kit might be available) and staring at the screen until I work out what to write. And you never know, I might have produced that elusive bestseller by then...