January 27, 2023

Diary of a Novelist; writing and the ‘Olympic Legacy’

Snapshot of the front cover design for my novel
Snapshot of the front cover design for my novel


This is the third in a series of articles following my experience and thoughts on the journey towards publication of my debut novel – The Greater Thief. The book, I’m told, is now at the printer’s; it’s popping up on websites for preorder, and the modest marketing push of my publisher is underway. Business is happening. Out of a single document, built from words I imagined, something is being made  – a classic it may not be, but real it is. And that’s quite a shock!

Slowly I am learning about this industry – and it’s very much a business-focused place – that we call ‘publishing’. The industry part of it is a pain in the arse in many ways; writers are constantly bemoaning the lack of risk taken by publishers, the lack of opportunity for new writers (which is a justified complaint), the self-fulfilling feel of the major publishers’ acquisitions (think: Fifty Shades of Grey), the need for authors to self-publicise, the strange new beasts of e-readers and self publishing creating a fog of unknowables etc etc etc.

The flip side is that the industry is full of writers, most of whom are ambitious, thoughtful and passionate, and it’s heavy with book-lovers. The publishing and book-selling industries are made up of people who believe in books and written stories. Wherever they come on the much discussed popular/commercial to literary scale, they make their lives making stories happen.

Even better news is that people, in general, are reading, and books continue to be the subject of conversation, interest and argument. Libraries are closing (which I disagree with but haven’t time to go into here), but the internet and e-readers make literature accessible, globally, in a way it has never been before and it’s exciting to be a part of that.

I am not with a big, shiny publishing house – I’m with a small independent valiantly trying to do things differently in a particularly uncertain time for publishing (or at least, publishers think it’s uncertain, readers – I feel – continue unbothered). Still – it’s exciting to think that people anywhere from LA to Shanghai could be reading my novel by the end of the year (whether they will, in fact, find it amongst the mountain of fiction out in the next few months is another question). It is a dream for me, I can’t lie, and I’m happy and lucky that someone has taken such a significant chance on my novel. The apparent smoothness with which this has all happened, The Greater Thief being formed into something tangible, and now appearing on book-sellers websites all over the place, has been a marvel. The industry faces many challenges, but it does function, and this is one point definitely in the bag for traditional(ish) publishing, over self publishing.

Nevertheless, though we may have access to more authors than ever before, it is still just as hard to make a good living from writing (and from publishing and book selling too). In the week that Forbes publish their list of best paid authors, it is widely reported that the majority of authors outside the household names don’t make a realistic living form their books. Some make up the shortfall by writing for magaizines or papers, many have other jobs, and some benefit from grants and funding. This is not unique to writers; musicians, actors, film makers, visual artists and the whole spectrum of creative pursuits demonstrate the same trend. Of course how much classifies as ‘a living’ is very much dependent on location and personal preference, but I think it’s safe to say that creatives are not able to earn the equivalent of many other industries – despite often receiving critical acclaim – in jobs which already lack security and benefits, unless they are topping the charts.

I’ve been thinking about this recently while watching the Olympics and following the press coverage – some of which has focused on the huge difference between revenue, particularly from sponsorship, within mens sport and women’s (the men getting far, far more). I’ve watched the competitors, so dedicated and impassioned to win an event with no prize money (though I’m not so naieve as to think there won’t be financial rewards in kind for those attaining the highest success). It’s much like pursuing an artistic practice to the highest level you can – perhaps to eventually be recognised by critics, prizes, and sales, but more commonly out of the joy, the need, and the belief that it’s important.

I think it’s well overdue for us as a nation to have the conversation about how people working outside of conventional ‘business’ settings, and the work they do, are valued. For example, I have in the past spent night after night watching fantastic theatre, created and performed to the highest level by professionals – who don’t expect to be paid when all the costs are settled. This can’t be right. Some countries, such as Denmark, offer lifetime stipends to artists, others offer a range of long-term scholarships.

Those in the artistic industries are not much different to the athletes we are watching, many neglected for the past four years, who are now carrying the banner for an overwrought nation. Yes – there is experience to be gained, there are apprenticeships (formal or informal) to be served, but people need to remember that top-end athletes, writers, or artists don’t come out of a vacum. They come out of incredibly hard work – often against all the odds. It’s an interesting reflection of the culture of this country that, when questioned, many artists said they would eschew the meagre grants that are offered, if possible, preferring instead their independence (financially and intellectually).

I have been incredibly lucky, for a number of reasons, to be able to get to the point I have in my career. I have also had to work multiple jobs at any given time. I am not saying that every artist or athlete can, or should, be funded throughout their careers. What I hope, though, is that the success of our Olypians might be taken in its fullest context, and used to spark a question about how we support and value those who must invest the whole of them into a discipline before they can expect to reap any financial benefits (if indeed they ever do). The people who do this do it because they long to go faster, higher, stronger, to be better, in whatever it is they do. They do it because they cannot imagine an alternative, because they love it, and because they cannot see a way to live just making money and never making history. This, I think, is worthy of great praise, and is an example worth holding onto long after the closing ceremony curtain has fallen.

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