If anyone in the East of England hasn’t stumbled across the Norwich Writers’ Centre yet, I can only recommend checking them out – they organise fantastic workshops, talks and all manner of other usefulnesses. On Saturday 3rd October, they held a ‘Professional Development Day’ for writers in the lovely Dragon Hall. I’m reasonably new to the business of trying to trade as a writer, and keen to pick up practical advice on all aspects of it, so while my family enjoyed a day out in Caistor learning about Bernard Matthews, I sat and listened to talks on tax, applying for grants and crowd-funding.
There were a few gems on the tax liabilities of self-employed writers: if you’re fortunate enough to win prizes, you owe tax on them if you or your agent submit your work, but not if someone else enters it (I’ve been chucking this over my shoulder and thumping it on the back for a week but the logic still eludes me); every time someone in another country downloads your book you should be paying income tax in that country; it’s a bad idea to pay your tax bill with a cheque from an account that you haven’t disclosed to the taxman. And there was a brilliant talk by Melanie Gow about crowdfunding that make me want to pull on my boots and march across Northern Spain.
The day as a whole was interesting and thorough. In hindsight, though, as I grapple with the one issue that’s left a taste in my mouth as lingering as a slug trail on the carpet, I realise that I often attend workshops looking for that magic Writer’s Job Description which will tell me how to eliminate the insecurity of a career based around writing books. This is impossible, of course. The best approach seems to be to maintain diversity – write books, do events, network, tour schools, dress up as a penguin and get filmed stealing from fish counters and so on. And, of course, using social media to create an online presence and promote your work.
So during one of the talks, someone asked the question: ‘Do you have to be on all these social media platforms, Twitter and Facebook etc, in order to sell books these days?’. At which, a knot curled up tight inside my belly. Because this is my not-at-all-secret Guilty Secret: I’m really rubbish at social media. I know very well that I should put some effort into it, but every bone of my body is so disinclined to tweet the progress of my biscuit-crumb-baby-wailing-laundry-hanging-staring-into-space-filled days that I still just… haven’t got round to it yet.
And I absolutely knew that the speaker was going to tell this room full of people that yes, they do have to engage with these things in order to make a living from writing: i.e. to be a ‘professional’ writer. And he did.
This time, the knot inside me rebelled and sprung loose – that’s your opinion, I said. Not the absolute truth. What you’re doing is repeating a lazy modern ‘truism’, and scaring people.
Social media seems to be the new orthodoxy of the writing profession – a vital part of the job, as I’ve been told many times. I don’t deny that it is very useful, and I really should be trying to use it. But this is how things happened for me.
When I was a child, I wrote endless stories. Even though that was how I filled my spare hours and how I learnt to understand the world, it was my own personal crusade and my love: I didn’t ever think I would do it as a job. A job was something you went to a place and did for someone else, who paid you to do it.Now that I’m older and realise that it might be possible to indulge myself in writing for all (or most) of the days of my life, I’m very keen to know exactly how I can make it into a job – my own job. And I want to follow all the good advice of others who’ve gone there before me. But I don’t want to try and make writing into a job that I dread. So I have buried my head in the social media sand, dragged my feet through the social media mud, and tried desperately to push down the guilt about not doing it.
After I disagreed at this talk, someone trotted out the ‘formula’– you engage, you get followers, they buy your book, spread the word, it goes viral, you have a huge fan-base, more people the world over start following you and buying your book, and so on. The implied threat being that if you don’t go on Twitter or Instagram or Facebook, you won’t get followers, you will never sell your books, and you won’t be able to be a professional writer. And I just realised that while I still feel guilty about not using enough social media, I just don’t buy this line anymore.
If we allow and repeat a general orthodoxy that you must use social media in order to become a professional writer, it essentially sends out a message that no matter how good your book is,if you haven’t done your time on Twitter then the book itself is useless. And I don’t think we’ve yet reached a point where that’s true. It might be rarer these days, but it is still possible to get a publishing contract without having an internet presence at all. There are all those other event-based options, too - you can establish and maintain a presence in the physical world. It might be harder, take longer and wear down the soles of more pairs of shoes, but it’s possible.Social media is a useful tool, but it isn’t the single, vital and unique step that must be trodden upon in order to access the solid floor of a writing career.
Sitting in the ancient Dragon Hall, acutely conscious of the inspiring and unforeseen longevity of some human endeavour, I felt strongly that it is very wrong to discourage anyone from putting their all into their art on the grounds that they will never ‘make anything of themselves’ unless they are also prepared to share more aspects of their life than they want to. I’d even go so far as to say it is very bad advice. The future might prove me wrong, but if it does, I guess at least I’ll have sunk into such obscurity that nobody will know how to get in touch with me and tell me…