209 Summer 2012
Balancing the books
Early career writers and financial survival
In an increasingly risk-averse publishing industry, becoming an author can seem an almost laughable dream for new writers.
In my former job as a book publicist, there was an inevitable stomach-churn that accompanied working with an ‘unknown’. Not because they weren’t good writers, mind you, but because, in a world saturated with content, opinion and information, it was difficult to make the public care about someone who wasn’t already a household name. Despite this, young writers are still rising in the wee hours to tap out their Great Australian Novel – and some of them are still getting paid.
This article looks at five professional authors, all under 35, who have had considerable success in their writing careers so far: Myke Bartlett (journalist and young adult fiction writer), Simone Ubaldi (commercial ghost-writer and arts worker), Kalinda Ashton (literary fiction author and creative writing academic), Jessica Au (literary fiction author and editor) and Michaela McGuire (non-fiction author and paralegal).
The Australia Council’s 2010 study Do You Really Expect to Get Paid? An Economic Study of Professional Artists in Australia would define them all as established professional artists, albeit at early stages of their writing careers. Only the minority have literary representation, and all have worked across both long-form (that is, they have produced full-length works of fiction or non-fiction) and short-form writing, including stories, feature articles, music journalism and poetry. Collectively, in their core creative work, they span a breadth of genres including literary fiction, non-fiction, edited essay collections, young adult fiction and ghost-written non-fiction.
Nonetheless, all are also employed in a variety of industries and professions outside their writing work. In this, they accord with the Australia Council’s assessment that most professional artists in Australia now have ‘portfolio careers’: careers that don’t follow a linear trajectory of training-to-success, but instead comprise multiple different outlets that provide financial reimbursement. While no-one I spoke to was starving, they were all working extremely hard and in most cases had made deliberate choices that might, on the one hand, compromise their capacity to write but, on the other, ensured they would be financially secure and independent. As commercial ghost-writer and full-time arts worker Simone Ubaldi noted, somewhat tongue in cheek: ‘I know people that survive as full-time writers, but that’s all they do – survive. It doesn’t interest me. I love writing, but I want to travel regularly, eat at excellent restaurants and buy nice things.’
On average, the Australia Council claims, ‘artists work a 40-hour week, about half of which is devoted to creative work … overall, they spend on average 26 hours on creative work, seven hours on arts-related work and eight hours on non-arts work.’ These interviews revealed that the workload undertaken by all of the writers was significantly higher in terms of their primary paid employment. Most worked full-time hours (a standard working week is 38 hours) and managed to cram their writing work in and around paid employment, working late nights and long weekends to complete projects by deadline. All reported pressure in trying to balance writing, career and life in general; all said that the constant juggling of paid employment and writing had caused some degree of stress on relationships or friendships.
For many, retaining a sense of humour is paramount, especially during intense deadline-driven periods. Michaela McGuire noted that she and her partner have ‘figured out how to condense a lot of quality time into forty minutes. We’ve found it’s just long enough to eat dinner with one utensil so that we can hold hands and watch an episode of Game of Thrones all at the same time.’ Similarly, Myke Bartlett explained that he often has to cut out his social life but that his ‘friends have always been pretty understanding’. As far as he knows. ‘It’s been a while since I saw them.’
Interestingly, the two whose work was most closely enmeshed with the publishing and book industries (a bookstore web and magazine editor, and an academic) found balancing their writing and working lives the most challenging.
‘I work effectively full-time,’ said editor Jessica Au, ‘but based on a four-week production cycle (so some weeks are a three day week, others six days). It is, to put it bluntly, pretty much impossible for me to write doing this … What does work best is something like a three to four day working week … Even better, a three day week at a bookshop or similar, where you can literally clock on and clock off, as so much of writing for me also involves a lot of meandering headspace, or time to just let an idea simmer.’
In the same way, the capacity for work to ‘bleed’ into writing time was noted by academic Kalinda Ashton. ‘Academia tends not to have set hours or boundaries … so it’s a job I find hard to leave at the end of the day. I’ll stay up worrying about things or be answering emails and grading in the evenings.’
There was general consensus from all the writers interviewed on the benefits of working in a field outside the publishing industry.
Michaela McGuire, a paralegal who works full-time but with flexible employment conditions, explained that ‘working in an unrelated field definitely helps my writing work, both as a way of keeping my mind fresh and not looking inward too much, as well as finding story ideas’. Similarly, Ashton said, ‘I do wonder about whether I’d enjoy a day job that exposed me to a completely different set of values, ideas and people than the writing world, and one that I could leave behind after my shift finished’.
Those with a greater degree of flexibility in their working hours (even if they worked full-time but in a freelance capacity) reported far greater general satisfaction in the relationship between their writing work, life and careers. Interestingly, most interviewees acknowledged that, perhaps because of their ‘busyness’, they were also able to achieve far more in their writing careers.
‘I work full-time in the arts, and work as a writer in my spare time,’ said Ubaldi. ‘I write a music column on the weekend and file it before work on a Monday morning. On the two occasions I was commissioned to write books, I completed the projects while on leave or outside of normal work hours. I worked long nights and weekends, around my full-time job. That’s just how I function. I like to have a lot of balls in the air, and have always treated my writing as a second job, albeit a labour of love. My primary job gives me financial security, and the writing projects give me a sense of purpose and accomplishment.’
‘I think that being busy does actually help me to get more done,’ agreed McGuire, ‘If I get up at 4am to write a column, I have it finished by the time I need to go to work. If I happen to be at home for the day, though, that same column will take me a whole day.’
There was, however, a tipping point.
‘I need to be quite busy on various tasks to be productive,’ Ashton said. ‘Too much work and I end up in undisciplined chaos, too little and I get overwhelmed.’
One of the most fraught questions surrounding creative work relates to pay. Of all those interviewed, averages on how much they earned from writing work varied significantly (particularly if they were working on a book, and whether or not that book had received an advance). Most reported earning between 10 and 30 per cent of their full-time wage through their writing, with obvious fluctuations from contract to contract; only one had experienced real financial trouble or unemployment because of their commitment to writing work. By contrast, the Australia Council reports that 28 per cent of all artists (and 24 per cent of all writers) had experienced some degree of unemployment over the survey period of 2004-09, with writers facing the longest periods of unemployment of any art-form practitioner.
Yet, despite long hours in paid employment, and being relatively consistently employed, all those interviewed were still hitting the benchmarks for producing creative work. How were they doing it?
Chiefly, ‘discipline’ and ‘focus’. Simone Ubaldi labelled herself a ‘working stiff’, Myke Bartlett noted that ‘I’ve always worked. I don’t think there’s any excuse not to, if you’re disciplined enough’, and, after a brief flirtation with unemployment, Michaela McGuire has deliberately made more time for paid work than ‘writing work, which may or may not be wise’.
But with the demise of print media and the traditional pay structures that surrounded it, how easily can one supplement paid employment with paid writing work? Anecdotally, there are a lot of writers working for promises of exposure and publicity instead of pay. But should writers ever work for free? Many interviewees had strong feelings about this.
Myke Bartlett said, ‘I’ve always been paid for my journalistic writings, with very few exceptions. I’m pretty fixed about that. You know, plumbers don’t go fixing bathrooms for free until they’ve built their reputation. If your work’s worth printing, it’s worth paying.’
By contrast, in addition to her published writing, Michaela McGuire also co-curates Women of Letters, a series of literary events that has been hugely successful since its inception. Despite the publication of an edited collection emerging from the series, she and co-curator Marieke Hardy make no money from their involvement in the event, with all fees going to animal welfare shelter Edgar’s Mission. But McGuire clarified: ‘We can’t offer performance fees to the performers [either], which means that it’s all very much done out of love.’ That ensures that contributions (and expectations) are equal for all involved.
Evident in these discussions was the advantage enjoyed by those who established their career direction, found a market and produced work accordingly, however unromantic that sounds. Prior to writing his award-winning debut print novel Fire in the Sea, for instance, Bartlett produced several novels solely for podcast, developing his own writing for the young adult market in response to online feedback. Not only did he develop a new audience, he also managed to financially recoup some of his investment; his podcasts have had over half a million downloads and ‘listeners sent [him] a surprising amount of money by way of thanks’. He wrote Fire in the Sea expressly for entry in the 2011 Text Publishing Prize, a young adult fiction award that comprises a cash prize and a publishing contract. He won, something that, he said, had changed his life. Bartlett’s deliberate positioning has been not only rewarded through a contract but has also provided additional motivation to continue his work.
With a similar view to playing the ‘long game’, creative writing academic Ashton lamented the limited opportunities for publishing literary fiction. Believing that she could ‘probably not ever’ survive as a full-time writer, ‘at least not doing the sort of writing I’m interested in’, Ashton explained that she is ‘increasingly interested in writing non-fiction (as well as fiction, not in place of it)’ because ‘there are more opportunities financially (and perhaps creatively) there, and more of an audience than in literary fiction’.
Interestingly, and perhaps in contrast with their financial occupations, few of the authors took a deliberately ‘portfolio approach’ to their creative work. Although all had published across a range of media, only McGuire was regularly pitching and writing consistently for a variety of outlets. For the most part, they preferred one primary source of income so as to concentrate on writing long-form texts in their (albeit limited) spare time, rather than patching together a living from various freelance writing projects such as corporate gigs, speechwriting or opinion articles. Many reported that it was not simply that they wanted to write; more specifically, they were determined to concentrate their free time on writing projects of their choice.
In my discussions with these very different authors, some common themes emerged.
First, the importance of understanding your own creative process. Whether you write best in the evening, early morning or whenever, make the effort to find out what makes you most productive, and set up your systems and boundaries.
Second, discipline. All the interviewees worked significant hours in their paid employment and then, generally, got home and worked some more. There are no easy options, but by focusing on the kind of writing you want to do and pursuing it, making sacrifices can be more tolerable.
Finally, pragmatism. Nobody had a romanticised view of their creative career. They had all decided on individual ways to make writing work, including settling on the compromises with which they could live.