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Separating money from art is not only class privilege, it’s a mistake

‘So…is that lucrative, writing?’‘Do you make a lot of money doing that?’

‘Why do you have a day job, if you’re so good then?’

These are just a few of the questions I’ve fielded when I’ve said I write books. Originally, due to my pride, I used to say that I made good money (hey, I survived as a freelancer on my book money for a few years, despite the fear and workaholism almost destroying me – that’s good money). Then I started saying no, but the industry had changed, and that self published authors did well. I referenced Mark Dawson, and Joanna Penn, and the autonomy and possibility of kindle.

Then I just started saying ‘no’.

As much as my university professors are likely to disagree when it comes to literature, money matters. And we authors can pretend we don’t care, that the value of our books is in writing them, and enjoying the journey, and seeing the cover, and celebrating publication day with a glass of bubbly (and all those things are wonderful, don’t get me wrong) – but we do care.

We care, because if we’re not selling, we’re not being read. I’m not here to argue about value and ebooks and 99p and what value is a book, because it’s been done, and I still don’t really know where I stand.

What I do know is that I consider my books a business. A creative business, but a business nonetheless. Why wouldn’t I? These are not days past where the arts were reserved for the upper classes who could depend on their trust funds or wealthy patrons. There is no shame in wanting your creative endeavours to pay well. We pay for movies, we pay to watch plays and operas and go to gigs. Art has value because people enjoy it – creating is to entertain others.

So when I see my royalty cheques and deflate, or see my sales, or Amazon rank, sometimes that does send you spiralling. Perhaps your little book is worthless. Perhaps, regardless of wonderful reviews, and 5 star ratings and people sending you emotional messages about how this book made them feel, the real proof is in the money. Because if it’s not selling, no one’s reading it. And I don’t care what anyone says – if you’ve gone to the trouble of writing a book and getting it published, you want people to read it.

I was taught at university that writing was this powerful, holy thing. It was reserved for genius, and anything less was worthless. And you know the one way to ruin genius? It’s to consider the baseness of money. Because you should write because the spirit tells you to, not considering saleability, or style, or genre or audience. To bring money into literature was to lower it.

I’ll reserve another blog post for those professor-authors who were guaranteed thousands of paperback copies bought by their students studying them on the syllabus each year, but I will say this – money matters. Money that allows you to eat and pay rent so you can stop your stomach growling long enough to write, matters. Money that tells you that one day perhaps you will do this full time, you are valued and this thing your writing mattered enough to a reader to spare a couple of quid to read more from you…these things matter.

It’s a completely different argument when it comes to whether to write to market or not. I fall on a spectrum, and I’m sure authors who get down off their high horse and write to market do a lot better than I do. Similarly, authors who write their authentic story and are found at the right time can do brilliantly. I’m just saying that somewhere in there, your audience needs to exist. Don’t think of them always as you’re writing, visualising them wrinkling their nose and critiquing your work, but remember your old next door neighbour, who loved her thrillers, and your best friend who turned to the same book when she was sad. Markets matter, readers matter, and yes, I’m sorry, but money matters.

Authors who say it doesn’t either have such high paying jobs that they enjoy, that it doesn’t matter (and even that seems ridiculous to me – how can not selling not matter? Isn’t it the point?) or their partners have high paying jobs and they can write without worrying. Which is fantastic, don’t get me wrong. Well jel, and all that.

But surely, even if the money is just a bonus…it’s about the sales? It’s about each click on the ‘buy’ button, each finger grasping a book at the checkout – the first choice before devouring a story? It’s about being chosen. That is where the value lies. Once you have them, you can impress, or disappoint, but the reader has to choose you.

We are forever the sad one-eyed bear sitting on the shelf. We are Woody when Buzz comes along. And so we keep writing. Keep hoping this one will be the one where it all explodes, and finally the value in the words is matched by the value in the numbers.

In a profession where people cannot help but judge you if you’re not a full time author, where they can’t stop themselves from asking what money you’re making, where they seem to mistakenly believe that if you’re not making money you’re crap, and if you are making money you’re over-rated, I’m here to tell you:

Often it seems like selling and success in the book industry is a complete fucking mystery.

And that’s okay!

We’ll still be here, writing either way.

We’ll be broken down, and sad, and working away like that cliche actress waiting for her big break, but we’ll be here.

As long as we can afford to be.

I do wonder how many authors are lost to the poverty of writing. I don’t mean just the inability to afford to write as an income stream, I mean that broken feeling of unworthiness. Bad sales, bad money, these can lead to losing publishers, losing agents, losing hope. People who were once so certain that one day their ship would come in, the ones who have had to rebrand themselves with new author names over and over, just to stay fresh and interesting, just to pique curiosity. It’s a special kind of poverty when the thing you’re best at isn’t good enough. When eventually you have to give up, because you may be 10 people’s favourite writer, but the numbers don’t add up, and seeing the latest thing you put your heart and soul into sinking is a painful place to be.

But don’t worry – we’ll still be here. We can’t stop writing. We love it. How does supply and demand work when you can’t stop supplying?

I don’t have any answers. I’ll still be here, writing my behind off, telling my stories. I’ll still have my account just for my royalties, and when they come in I’ll still buy myself something nice. At the beginning it was a new computer, a weekend away. Now it’s more a glass of wine and a bag of veggie Percy Pigs, but I still celebrate sales. Because they’re not the only thing of value, but this is a business, right? So as in every business, you have to assess what’s working and what not.

What can you do? Well, you can buy books! If you got a free copy, but you see it’s only 99p and you loved it, buy it! Or recommend it to someone else! Or leave a review!

Or maybe let the author know that the book meant something to you, because in my eyes, that’s the only thing worth more than money.

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