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.
Also 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.