Monday, 12 May 2008

The Cost of Letters

This year sees the 10th anniversary of a “lost” book that caused a small stir on its publication. The Cost of Letters – a Waterstone’s publication, and their most important publication for some years – was about setting the record straight both for consumer and potential writer, around the finances of writing. For this they plundered the opinions of writers such as Will Self, Sebastian Faulks, Jane Rogers, Fay Weldon and Melvyn Bragg, and compared them to 1948 authors such as George Orwell, Dylan Thomas and Cyril Connolly – authors that were approached in 1946 to answer a post-war questionnaire on the big issue: “How much do you think a writer needs to live on?”

The questionnaire Cyril Connolly devised in 1946 asked the following:

How much do you think a writer needs to live on?
Do you think a serious writer can earn this sum by his writing and if so, how?
If not, what do you think is a suitable second occupation for him?
Do you think literature suffers from the diversion of a writer’s energy into other employments or is enriched by it?
Do you think the state or any other institution should do more for writers?
Are you satisfied with your own solution of the problem and have you any specific advice to give young people who wish to earn their living by writing?

Connolly intended to stir debate with these questions in 1946. In 1998 Waterstone’s had a similar intention by asking:

“So why is Waterstone’s publishing this collective report? Quite simply to spark debate. The Cost of letters is published at a time of genuine concern about the funding of writing. A few high-profile advances cannot mask the changed nature of the relationship between author and publisher – quite a few authors in the modern survey, for instance, look back wistfully to a time when publishers weren’t so governed by the balance sheet and were prepared to spend a good deal of time ‘nurturing’ talent. Are we offering sufficient support for new writing?”

The paragraph above is particularly relevant to this blog, as I would say the writers assembled here are the product of one publisher’s move to make this support a reality. Even now, Macmillan New Writing remains the sole imprint in the UK from a major publisher that accept manuscripts without a gatekeeper (i.e. an agent) from new writers. But I think the Cost of Letters is also talking about financial support, and this is where everything gets a bit fuzzy, mainly because you’re looking at the dizzying world of advances (which MNW does not provide) including the ludicrous amounts some not-so bestselling writers get these days – a problem that is as much an issue now as it was ten years ago.

So that’s why I’m raising The Cost of Letters again. To spark debate. Ten years have passed, and Macmillan New Writing not withstanding, very little has changed. I’d say in some cases it has gotten worse. You have more middle-men than ever between the writer and the publisher (i.e. literary consultants as well as agents) and JK Rowling’s domination has inspired many to write for profit rather than any love for their craft believing that writing will earn you millions. And if not millions then thousands. Neither of which is realistic, yet it has flooded the unpublished marketplace with thousands and thousands of manuscripts, as though writing a book is like trying to win the lottery – but with better odds.
In reality, those odds are even smaller than getting those six numbers on a Saturday night.

I think Connolly’s questions from 1946 are as important now as they were then, especially in a world of blogs where aspiring authors gather at the doors of agents and publishers frantically waving their manuscripts in the air in the vain hope that someone will lift them from obscurity into riches. Because even if you are lucky, and those golden gates swing open for you, a writer needs to manage expectation about what lies ahead, which is usually a modicum of disappointment and lots of hard work to counterbalance the joy of being in print and yes, a little bit of spending money.

Even though some us Macmillan New Writers have only been in this game for a year or two at best, I reckon as new writers it wouldn’t be a bad thing to answer Connolly’s questions on this blog.
So how about it?

(For the record, I’ve posted my answers to the questionnaire on my own blog here... You might not agree with all the answers; it’s just one view from the page.)

Update: Thanks to those who have taken the challenge either on here, or on their respective blogs:- (Len Tyler , David Isaak, Tim Stretton and Alis Hawkins)


Len Tyler said...
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Len Tyler said...

Matt has raised a very good question, but I am not sure there is a very precise answer to it.

Basically a writer needs as much money as anyone else. Arguably a full-time writer can manage on a bit less than average because he or she does not need to buy a season ticket, can write in jeans and a T-shirt and does not need to live in the centre of London. But, that said, a writer’s child costs the same as any other child to bring up and supermarkets charge a writer the same amount for a pint of milk as they charge a professional footballer. And the writer’s wife/partner/girlfriend (or indeed all three) may not wish to live in Caithness just because the houses are cheap there.

The question surely is not what a writer needs but what a writer is worth. Though deep down I have a sneaking suspicion that all state subsidies are misguided, nevertheless, making up a writer's income to what he or she is worth does seem as good a use of taxpayers’ money as (say) invading Iraq.

Anyway, state subsidies for writers have a long pedigree. Richard II awarded Chaucer a tun (250 gallons approx) of wine a year, and what is good enough for Chaucer is good enough for me.

Which career we might follow is parallel is a relevant consideration for most of us. Again, it is a myth that in the old days everyone could afford to write full time. Chaucer worked for the Customs, Trollope worked for the Post Office, Jane Austen stacked shelves at Sainsbury’s. (Actually, one of those examples may be a lie.) Brian has probably got it right by teaching English – which is eminently compatible with writing English. The further you stray from the arts and academia (e.g. me) the more your writing will be regarded by your employer as (at best) a strange eccentricity. I sometimes think the best parallel career would however be something where you are left a lot of the time to your own thoughts – a long distance lorry driver, say, or a grave digger.

But (and this answers the final part of the question) few of us follow Samuel Johnson’s advice. Most of us would write even if no money were forthcoming. Like amateur actors and amateur musicians we would do it for the applause alone, for the pleasure we give others and for the pleasure we derive from it. If that were not the case, why would I be sitting here at eleven o’clock in the evening writing this?

Doug Worgul said...

What he just said.

Alis said...

Very interesting post - I'm following Matt's lead and answering the same questions over on my blog, here:

Tim Stretton said...

My own views at

Len's response is both amusing and bang on the money...