Thursday, 5 March 2015

So You Want to be a Writer... by Savita Kalhan

In a recent YouGov poll, a respectably large sample of 14, 294 people in Britain were polled as to what professions they would choose to pursue out of an array of 31 professions. These included standard middle-class professions such as doctor, lawyer and accountant, well-paid jobs such as investment banker, aspirational jobs such as TV presenter, Formula 1 driver, Olympic athlete, astronaut (!), and Hollywood movie star, as well as standard jobs such as estate agent, taxi driver and flight attendant.  

Surprisingly, being an author was the number one most desired job in Britain, with 60% of the sample choosing to be an author! Perhaps even more surprisingly, given that libraries are being closed left, right and centre, being a librarian was the second most desired job, with 54% of the sample choosing to be a librarian. I’m not sure there are enough libraries left for the number of people wanting to be librarians, if the survey is to be believed! Still, with the expansion of tertiary education in recent years, Briton's third favourite choice of profession (50% of the YouGov sample) is perhaps a more sensible choice for Britain's apparent majority of bookish types.

Can it really be true, that Britain, once derided as a nation of shopkeepers, then dismissed as a nation of parasitic bankers, investment bankers and real estate agents, has now evolved into a nation of would-be authors and librarians? As YouGov puts it: "Instead of actors and musicians, it seems that an aura of prestige still surrounds the quiet, intellectual life enjoyed by authors, librarians and academics."

I have to say that, notwithstanding YouGov's "quiet intellectual life" rationale, I am somewhat puzzled and bemused by the results of the YouGov poll, particularly in relation to authors and librarians. More popular than being investment bankers or MPs - yes, I can see that, given recent history, notwithsanding the pay and perks; but more popular than Hollywood movie stars?

Is it really possible that being an author is seen as a glamorous profession? Is it perhaps still seen by the general public  as a high-earning profession? Or do people think that a book can be thrown together relatively quickly, without having to get out of your pyjamas and then perhaps the rest of the day can be spent in quiet contemplation, leisurely long walks and reading? Or is it perhaps because of the increased ease of self-publishing, the growth of epublishing via Amazon and other forums and the very occasional success story associated with self-publishing.

Based on the average annual earnings of a writer of about £11,000/yr, that means that should those 60% decide to give a writing career a go, they would, in all likelihood, be living below the poverty line. Some writers don’t even manage to scrape a living from writing: according to a US-based survey of 1,879 published authors carried out by Digital Book World earlier this year, almost a third of published authors make less than $500 (£350) a year from their writing. Only a tiny and, to borrow YouGov's terminology, statistically insignificant minority earn the big bucks. Read the full article here.

Of course, none of it can be achieved without a huge amount of discipline and hard graft, no matter how fast the story comes to you. And once the story is written – you have to sell it, which is another story entirely.

So while I absolutely love what I do, I don’t see it through rose-tinted glasses. It’s a tough business and getting tougher by the minute. But it’s good to know that the process of writing, being an author and being in and around libraries are still valued and held in such high regard.

Despite the public support for libraries, libraries are still closing. The recent #SaveBarnetLibraries campaign lost in the farcical council vote on Tuesday evening where the Mayor accidently voted FOR saving libraries and then ran away, before returning and changing the vote he had cast to AGAINST to chants calling for his resignation. Save Barnet Libraries Facebook page

Today is World Book Day and there are lots of events happening across ‘Bookish Britain.’ Look out for the online Teen Festival, which you can follow on Twitter, @WBDTeenFest, Facebook and Google. Here’s the link to the webpage

I’m off to talk about organising teen reading groups in Barnet libraries. Let’s see if we can’t still save a few more libraries!

On a final and very sad note, I wanted to add my voice to all those who are mourning the loss of Mal Peet, a great writer whose work touched many kids and adults. Mal Peet's first novel, Keeper, won the Branford Boase Award and the Bronze Nestle Children's Book Award; Tamar won the Carnegie Medal; and Exposure was the 2009 winner of the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize. Life: An Exploded Diagram, published in 2011, is an amazing book. The Murdstone Trilogy was published in November last year, and is his last book. It makes me unutterably sad that there will be no more books by him.   

Savita's website



Nick Green said...

Interesting that 'actor' is not on the list. 'Hollywood movie star', yes, but not simply 'actor'. I think this gives an indication of what sort of 'author' people want to be. The mega-bestselling kind. Well, who wouldn't?

Savita Kalhan said...

Absolutely, Nick!

Katherine Roberts said...

Yes, it should really say "bestselling author", as I think that's what most non-authors consider the job to be? That £11,000 average income you mention might even be unrealistically high because of the mega-earners at the top... looking at my average earnings for my 15 years so far in the business, I think "bestselling author" would be top of my list of dream jobs too!

Savita Kalhan said...

Top of my list too, Katherine! Interesting that librarian and academic came second and third though, and they're not known to be high paying jobs.

Susan Price said...

Judging by conversations I've had with my acquaintance, I'm not sure that the people in this opinion poll wanted to be best-selling authors - though I think there is a clue in that they didn't want to be film-stars.

I think many people have an idea of an author as someone who - as Savita says - never get out of their jammies, and write in bed. They never have to stand at a cold bus-stop in the rain, cold and dark. They never have to have nasty conversations with their boss, or arguments with customers.

In other words, I think many people see authors as something like hobbits, living cosy, stress-free, comfortable lives making up fun little stories. And getting paid!