The weekly herding: it doesn’t pay to be a writer

Four books to his name plus a contract for three more still doesn’t allow Donal Ryan the luxury of being a full-time writer

It’s no secret that it is difficult to earn a living as a writer. But it is particularly disheartening to hear that even established writers struggle to make ends meet, despite their seeming success. The Independent website today featured an interview with Man Booker Prize longlisted author Donal Ryan, who revealed that he has had no choice but to return to his day job in the civil service.

Despite being the author of three critically acclaimed novels and a short story collection, Ryan is unable to live off the fruit of his labours. He explains that he receives about 40 cent from every book sale, and in a market as small as Ireland’s, where healthy weekly book sales are in the hundreds rather than thousands, it simply isn’t sufficient to meet his young family’s financial needs.

The picture he paints as an example of Ireland’s top writing talent is a grim one:

“I have just signed a contract for three more books and my advances are really good but, still, I have to look at the long term and the fact that I have 20 more years of a mortgage, so you would need to sell a lot to earn a living from that alone.”

And, of course, he’s not alone. The majority of authors have to supplement their income with teaching and feature writing gigs, if not completely separate sources of employment altogether. This subject was touched upon a couple of weeks ago in an interesting article by children’s writer and publisher Siobhán Parkinson for The Irish Times. In it, she noted:

‘We live in a market economy, which rewards certain kinds of success, but the rewards for writers may bear very little relation either to a writer’s talent or to their contribution to the literary life of the culture.’

As a result, writers don’t have the traditional progression of a career, she says. Besides the difficulty of really growing in your craft when you have to fit it around a job that pays the bills, getting published doesn’t necessarily become any easier with experience and a track record, nor are there any guarantees of income as one becomes more established. Donal Ryan’s story is a case in point.

Nonetheless, she feels there can be an upside to this lack of financial ties:

‘…needing to find other sources of income not only requires a writer to engage with society in ways that can enrich their writing but can also bring a writer a perhaps unexpected freedom. A friend of mine who has published several novels over the years continues to work in the mainstream workforce. This means that his writing eats up most of his spare time, but it also gives him the freedom to write what he likes: having a secure income means he doesn’t have to take on writing commissions with tight deadlines and demanding schedules.’

All in all, it’s a pretty depressing picture for anyone whose dream it is to be a writer when they grow up (which I aim to do some day – grow up, that is). Becoming a bona fide writer and saying adios to the soul-destroying day job looks like a pipe dream unless you happen to stumble across a brilliant concept about a boy wizard or a creepy fetishistic billionaire. What’s left then is the desire to write for the love of it, the need to write. Anything after that has to be considered icing on the cake.


Short story competitions

For anyone not disheartened by all of the above, the Francis MacManus Short Story Competition is currently open for entries from writers born in or resident in Ireland. This is a great competition, which sees the 25 shortlisted stories recorded for RTE Radio 1. There’s a first prize of €3,000, second prize of €2,000 and third prize of €1,000. Entries should be between 1,800 and 2,000 words and the competition is free to enter. The closing date is March 31. If you need a bit of inspiration, all of last year’s stories are available to listen to here.

admin_1-asset-5797861b831f5Also free to enter is the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook Short Story Competition. You don’t have to live in the UK to enter, but as the prize is a place on an Arvon Foundation course (to the value of £1,000), you might want to be within reasonable flying distance. The top three stories will be published on the website, though there is no mention of a prize for the runners-up. Stories should be a maximum of 2,000 words and there is no theme. The closing date for entries is February 13.


3 thoughts on “The weekly herding: it doesn’t pay to be a writer

  1. It’s a depressing thought it doesn’t pay to be writer! It’s something I realised a few years back when I first started a blog and looked into the possibility of publishing a book… and it slowly dawned… this isn’t necessarily a good career move. 😟 Although, I’m sure for some it has been… the very lucky ones. I’m sure a lot of writers to a large extent have always struggled as have artists. Perhaps it’s a lot worse today with so much written work to read for free online.

    I don’t know what the true statistics on earnings for writers are compared to 50 years ago or more. But if it is worse today than yesterday, then maybe publishers could give some serious thought to paying writers a much larger percentage than they have been paying… or they may find they have no writers at all. The book stores also could take a serious cut in profits to support the writers. I know they’re essential to book sales, but the amount they take per book and the money they must spend on those luxury stores is ridiculous and out of touch with reality. Book shops used to be small curious places where people who really wanted to buy books actually went and bought books. Now they have become more of a meeting place for coffee and perhaps there is less money to spend on books after so much coffee and cake has been consumed? 😉

    I’ve talked myself into just enjoying writing as a hobby and if something more comes from it, or a new way of earning in the future comes from all the writing… great. But if not, it’s better to have shared the creative person you are for free than have kept it all inside and nobody ever saw it or shared your thoughts and feelings on life.

    I hope this changes one day Anne, I really do. Writers put their heart and soul, and many hours of precious time are sacrificed for the writing of their books, they really deserve a lot more. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t feel that writers are automatically owed a living because they choose to write, but it does seem unfair that quality writers don’t seem to be able to scrape a decent living from their award-winning, critically acclaimed work while there are authors out there writing absolute tripe and raking it in – you know who they are! Will future generations study those books in school? Eh, no. I suppose you can’t blame writers for writing to a formula if it guarantees them that ker’ching, it’s just a shame as it results in soulless, predictable books, which I do think we’re seeing more and more of. Meanwhile, the genuine talent is not being nurtured enough by arts councils.

      In Ireland, paperbacks cost upwards of €12, hardbacks €18-€20, and I would be genuinely interested in seeing the breakdown of costs that leave an author with a 40c share of that. Incidentally, this issue has really blown up in the Irish media in the last week and Donal Ryan has clarified some of his comments (, to say that his new contract for the next three books is on much better terms. Just not enough to allow him to focus solely on what he does remarkably well.

      Thanks for the lengthy response, Suzy, it’s obviously an issue you’ve given much thought to. You have the right attitude in writing for the love of it – I expect a shout out when you’re making your Man Booker Prize speech someday 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Haha… you’ll be in for a long wait Anne!! I might get that novel out one of these days.. but I’m not interested in prizes, not sure why, it just never appeals much… the Oscars included… all of that world. It’s lovely to have recognition, but I think it’s better to receive it from ordinary people, those who bought your book and loved it. But I love your humour… gave me the laugh of the day!! 😄

        Liked by 1 person

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