The worth of a writer


There have been a number of newspaper articles published recently about how difficult it is for authors to make a living purely from the sale of their books. I hear the same story from established journalist friends, that the mainstream media pieces they are commissioned to write pay a pittance when balanced against the work required to produce them. Money to live on is earned elsewhere, with appearances in newspapers, radio and television a means of self promotion rather than significant income. High earners in these fields are the exception rather than the rule.

I do not subscribe to broadcast television, rarely listen to the radio, and read whatever news is allowed to be reported on line, for free. I still buy works of fiction, but this is mainly because I prefer the physical product to an electronic version. I find walls filled with books comforting, inspiring. I furnish my home with books, buying them to read, to share, to admire.

If I, as an ardent consumer of words in many forms, pay little for my consumption, then how can I expect to be paid for the drop in the ocean that my own output represents? Yet still I feel it has a value. It would seem that this view is not always shared by those close to me, which I see as an indictment on how our society measures worth.

When I tell people that I am a writer their first question is often about where I am published. ‘On line’, I reply. I watch the next question form before it is asked, ‘Do you get paid for that?’ When I admit that I do not they lose interest. In their eyes I am not a writer because I do not earn money from this occupation.

My on line bio explains that I am a wife, mother, hen keeper and writer, yet none of these pays me in cold, hard cash. My husband is kind enough to ensure that I am warm, clothed and fed, although in turn I am expected to cook, clean, support and organise our little household. I sell a few boxes of eggs to friends each week which helps to cover the cost of keeping my hens. They still make a monetary loss, as do most pets. Publishers send me books to review so this side of my writing habit costs little more than my time. Do you see what I did there? I consider it a bonus that such writing can be done for free, I do not expect payment.

Just as I chose to marry, have children and keep hens, so I choose to write. What interests me about recent discussions is how society values a person’s worth based on cash they earn rather than on what they are giving back. It is my view that books provide value beyond measure.

It has always been the case that some may be unable to pursue their creative talents due to their struggle to eat and pay for shelter. The recent discussions suggest that this situation is getting worse. Just as a quality education and timely healthcare are now being priced so that only the wealthy can afford them, so a career in the arts has become more difficult for those who do not have separate, financial backup. This does not make it merely a hobby though. A writer may need a day job in order to survive, but that does not make them any less of a writer.

I am sometimes asked how many people read my work, as if this will somehow make it more worthwhile. My answer to that question is, ‘Enough’. If my output went entirely unnoticed then perhaps I would give up. Whilst I dwell less now on my reader statistics than when I first started publishing my work, I do still value the feedback that I receive. Do I consider myself a writer because I produce words or because they are read? I do not know.

When I read about author incomes falling I feel sympathy for those who could once live comfortably from such earnings and now cannot. My sympathy wanes when they talk of a drop in quality if established writers are not paid more, of a dilution due to the ability of anyone to publish anything for minimal cost. I have read some fabulous works from new writers. In my experience it is not necessary to be established and known to be good, although I would guess that this helps with sales. There have always been badly written tomes, some of which sell surprisingly well. Who is to judge what makes a book good other than the reader?

I am sometimes perplexed that a little person like me claiming to be a writer can irritate those who have been successfully earning money with this pursuit for some time. I am no threat to them. I seek readers just as they do, but am content to remain in my own small corner of the internet, promoting other’s work. Of course I feel good when I receive any sort of appreciation, just as I do when my husband or children take notice of my efforts to improve our home, but I do not seek any sort of fame.

Success requires talent, hard work and luck. There are excellent writers who have produced great work yet still struggle to get noticed by the mainstream. If I can do just a little to help them with my reviews and promotions then I will feel that I have added value. I know that I am not a great writer, by definition we cannot all lay claim to such an accolade. Still though, I produce words and they are read. I will enjoy my small successes when they come, when I am shared more widely or offered some reward for my efforts. I would appreciate not being put down by those who count value only in cash.

The world is in constant flux and I see no benefit in fighting inevitable change. It is my belief that there will always be those who wish to write books, and some of these will be good. Of course I understand the frustration of those who need to earn their own living and cannot now do so from writing alone. This will not kill the written word though, writers write because they are driven to do so.

If you do not like the current situation and wish to offer support, then buy more books. Read widely, read diversely, explore new genres and authors. There are worlds out there to discover, contained within covers and pages. Why limit yourself when there is so much to learn? Support a writer in the best way possible, read their words.