Don’t Quit Your Day Job – making a living from writing.

by - August 17th, 2010

Occasionally when I pick up a book I look at the blurb and flick through a few pages and think “I could write this.”

It seems relatively simple. Write a book. Get it published. Become the next Stephanie Meyers, only with less issues on sparkly ice-cold boyfriends. From there on in, it’s on to the sequels and movie rights and appearing at book festivals looking smug. Write a few words every day, attend parties and – to quote an actor in the Simpsons when he is asked how he sleeps at night after making $80 million for a movie of him – sleep “on top of a pile of money with many beautiful ladies.”

Or maybe I don’t even need to write a book from scratch. Perhaps I could do a Jessica Watson and cobble together something I made earlier. Her book, True Spirit, is at number one on the Australian bestseller list, according to Nielsen BookScan. It sold 10,000 copies of  sold in 10 days, and is based on the blogs she has already written when she set out at the age of 16 on her adventurous attempt become the youngest person to sail solo around the globe.

The trip from blogging to book sounds convenient. A bit of revision and re-writing and voila! Instant paycheque. And I can just send out copies to relations at Christmas instead of having to fill in everything I have been up to in the Christmas cards. (They might find the bit about sleeping with pretty ladies on piles of money a bit strange anyway.)

Sounds tempting, doesn’t it? But, looking at the news today, perhaps I should take a raincheck on giving up my regular paycheque to write my magnum opus.  Two-thirds of professional writers in Australia earned less than $4000 in 2007-08 directly from their writings and the profession remains the least financially rewarded of all artistic occupations. And other artists, such as musicians and painters, aren’t rolling in it and devoting all day to the craft either. The average artist can expect to work in at least one other job to support themselves, and 16 per cent earn less than $10,000 a year, according to What’s Your Other Job?,  an analysis of arts employment in Australia and the straight-from-the-mouth-of-your mother report titled Do You Really Expect to Get Paid?, an economic study of professional artists. On that income, you’ll be lucky to be sleeping on a bed at all, never mind with pretty people.

But it’s not all doom and gloom and selling the kids’ medicine for printer ink. According to the Sydney Morning Herald’s cheerily titled “Why you’ll never make a living as an artist” (reckon the sub-editor that came up with that title was feeling a little bitter?) artists are becoming better multi-taskers and more adaptable to working outside their chosen field.

Many more artists are beginning to see their careers in terms of a portfolio. <…> Their working life is made up of short-term engagements or projects rather than a ”traditional linear trajectory beginning with training, passing through an emerging phase, arriving at establishment and continuing with a life devoted exclusively to a core creative practice”. <…> Artists are mixing up original creative work with arts-related work, some collaborative ventures, study, travel and research.

And, as the Australian points out, “Artists don’t do it for the money” and the changing trend towards part-time artists indicates that many have made peace with making art while acknowledging the need to support themselves. “Mostly people say they want to be artists because they want to, but no matter how you look at it, the money does matter.” David Throsby, who co-authored the Do You Really Expect to Get Paid? states. “I’m not sure artists see money as a form of status but they do see it as a necessity.”

It’s said that everyone has a book in them. (I always figured mine would be Helen Fielding and Chuck Palahnuik go on a roadtrip with Bill Bryson, although if I could harness a thimble-full of their ability I would be a very happy woman.) The question is, before you quit your day job, are you willing to write it for the sheer love and the adventure of trying and work for your supper somewhere else?

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