Can you earn money as a writer?

Without wanting to get the year off to a depressing start, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to post this link about authors’ earnings from The Times.

In summary:

  • The majority of authors aged 24 – 35 earn an average of £5000 a year from their writing.
  • The majority of all authors earn less than a third of the UK national average wage (£28,000)
  • The majority of authors have to take on extra work to make ends meet
  • It may take up to 10 years before an author starts earning significant money from their writing.


This is no surprise to those of us who’ve been scribbling away in our garrets for years, earning less than a cleaner and certainly never affording to pay one. These findings by the Society of Authors also bring our poverty into perspective:

In a recent Society of Authors survey, 61% of their members earned under £10,000 a year and 46% under £5,000. Three quarters of members earned less than the average wage, two-thirds earned less than half and half earned less than an employee on the national minimum wage. Only 6% earned more than £1,000 from salaried writing, only 12% got more than £1,000 from PLR (Public Lending Rights) and 2% got more than £1,000 from the ALCS (Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society). Only 1% received over £5,000 in grants and bursaries, only 5% received over £500 and only 2% won over £500 in prize money. ALCS: In 1998-99 they distributed £9.4 million to 21,000 rights holders, but only 17% of respondents to the Society of Authors’ questionnaire got over £100, and only 4% received over £500.

So why do we do it? Well, if you’re like me, you have to. It’s in my blood. I’ve tried working 9 – 5 in an office and was completely miserable and unable to write. I take hope from the Times article however, that after 10 years I might see a marked increase in my earnings (ie getting over the £10,000 mark). I’ve been pursuing a full-time writing career for eight years now, so wealth unimaginable may soon be over the horizon. Seriously though, I think there’s something in the 10-year watershed.

The Seven Year Itch

This last year, my seventh, saw a considerable increase in my profit margin. I don’t believe this is an accident. I put it down to:

  • After seven years I’ve learnt to deal with rejection and not let it stop me sending out more work.
  • After seven years I’ve explored most genre of writing and am finally beginning to find what I’m best at.
  • After seven years I think I’ve finally started to learn how to write! (Art is one thing, craft another …)
  • After seven years I’ve begun to realise my financial worth as a writer and am not prepared to work for peanuts.
  • After seven years I have the credentials to be able to demand more than peanuts.
  • After seven years I have an extensive portfolio to back up my credentials. (For more on building a portfolio see my posts on how to get started in feature writing and creative writing: markets and opportunities.
  • After seven years I started this blog which has given me a greater profile and access to international readers and markets. For more on how to make money from blogging, visit my technical and internet advisor’s post Blogging for Beginners 3. If you want further advice on how to set up a blog or website, contact us directly.

There’s a story in the Bible about Jacob who worked for seven years to earn the hand of his beloved Rachel. Conversely, I’ve heard that if a marriage is going to break up, it’s usually within seven years. So what’s this got to do with writing? If you’re starting out as a writer, don’t give up before seven years. By that time you should be able to see some light at the end of the tunnel, and if not, you need to decide whether to just write as a hobby or still try to sell your work.

Top Tips to help you start earning

  • Downsize to a part-time job. This will require a financial sacrifice, but will give you more time to write. I work as a writing tutor. A friend of mine is a part-time librarian. Another works in a bookshop. And I’ve heard of one man who became a postman as it gave him lots of time to think and even more time to write.
  • Make sure your partner supports you in your decision and has a full-time job. A lack of support at home is not likely to help you make it as a writer. Of course, this wouldn’t be a problem if you married a millionaire. Seriously though, particularly if you have dependants, make sure you and they have enough to live on. You may have to downsize from a BMW to a Fiesta or move to a cheaper part of town, but it can be done. If you live on your own you’ve probably got more time to write and may have no dependants to worry about. If you’re a single parent you’ll need to draw an your whole support network to help you find time to write. If you believe the PR, JK Rowling did it, so why can’t you?
  • Be prepared to take on poorly-paid writing jobs to build up your portfolio.
  • Be prepared to take on dull writing tasks. The most boring writing job I ever did was for an estate agent. Yawn. Hardly high literature, but it paid and earned me some time to pursue what I consider to be my ‘heart writing’.
  • Work on building your profile through talks, workshops and websites.
  • Try to work on a couple of projects at the same time. I know some people find it difficult to split their focus, but the more irons you have in the fire, the greater the chance of publication or production. If you really can’t do it, make sure you have a quick turnover, sending off one project then starting on another immediately.

Is there anybody out there?

Get free advice from your local Business Link or Receiver of Revenue’s office. The moment you start earning money from your writing you can and should register as self-employed. You can get tax breaks and may be eligible for certain grants. See my post on copyright, libel and finance. This was written for freelance non-fiction writers and feature writers, but the same principles of registering as self-employed apply to all forms of writing.

The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, The Writer’s Handbook and the US-based Writer’s Market all have informative sections on finance for writers.

colin-barrow-financial-management-for-the-small-businessFor advice on how to manage your own finances, check out Financial Management for the Small Business.

The following organisations can give you further advice on writing-related finance and earnings:

A productive writing and financially fruitful new year to you all!

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39 comments on “Can you earn money as a writer?

  1. Pingback: What do authors earn? | TodaysPublishing

  2. Rebecca Laffar-Smith on said:

    Fantastic article, Fiona! The statistics are rather depressing but I’m encouraged by reminding myself that most writers don’t work on building their business. For many this is a hobby and nothing more.

    Those of us who work hard and commit to building our brand, our experience, our education, leveraging our assets, and developing a client base can make a viable income. I’ve seen it done before and I’m determined to do it too.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

  3. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    Thanks Rebecca! I believe it too. Sadly, I’ve seen it too many times that writers who have far more talent than I don’t get very far because they don’t have the business mind to showcase their talent. I’m not the most gifted of writers, but couple that with the rest of the package and I’ve got something to work with. Looks like you do too.

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  5. lily grace on said:

    i really loved to be a writer.and somehow to become a professional writer..

  6. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    It requires a lot of work Lily, but if you’re prepared to invest time and energy to learning the craft, it will pay off – if you have the raw talent in the first place. It’s been said that becoming a successful writer is 90% hard work, 5% talent and 5% luck. The latter two are out of your control, but the former certainly isn’t. Use your talent to the best of your ability.

  7. Pingback: Do you want to write full time? at The Crafty Writer

  8. tarunkumar on said:

    It is a website where users can register themselves,start writing,sharing and earning with it.So,it can be good income source for new writers.

  9. What website, tarunkumar? New writers should be aware that online writing opportunities don’t always pay very much but can be useful if you want to build up a portfolio. Have a look at my post on writing for the internet http://www.thecraftywriter.com/2007/10/19/non-fiction-writing-for-the-internet/

  10. TheOne on said:

    I’m a little confused, if you’re earning less then minimum wage don’t you think that perhaps you are doing something wrong?

    7 years and still no significant income?

    I admire your dedication, but seriously if you’re unable to produce a reasonable income after 7 years it may be unrealistic to think that writing is in your blood. Am I supporting you with my hard earned tax dollar?

    furthermore it is quite difficult for me to accept your advice judging from your success (or lack there of).

  11. @TheOne: perhaps you’re missing the point of the article, which is that the majority of authors never achieve significant levels of income from their writing. This is a profession where the top couple of percent (ie JK whatshername) cream off 90% of the cash on offer.
    By the way, there’s no need to make offensive insinuations about tax. You haven’t bothered to tell us who you are, or even what your real name is!

  12. You can keep your tax dollars – I earn in pounds (and pay tax in them). This article was about what you can earn solely from writing. Like most real writers I supplement my earnings with writing-related activities such as freelance editing, copywriting, proofreading, leading workshops and teaching courses. You’ll find if you consult the Society of Authors (or your country’s equivalent)that my earnings are actually above average. Read the quote above again if you don’t believe me. By your definition then the majority of the members of the Society of Authors (ie published authors) do not have writing in their blood. The fact that you found your way to this article tells me you’re thinking about going into writing and are wondering if you can actually make money out of it. If you believe all the hype about earning your millions from writing then you’re far more of a fool than I am. Thanks for your kind words.

  13. Col B. on said:

    TheOne,

    Fiona’s article is an excellent insight into the real writing world. An informative reality check which has fuelled my determination to do the necessary to be successful.

    There’s always one and it looks like your TheOne.

  14. Baggybooks on said:

    I’ve been plugging away at this for more than seven years. If I put my ‘accountants’ hat on, I’d say give up. But I carry on because I enjoy it and because the odd success makes it worthwhile.

    The pleasure and satisfaction of having something published may not pay my mortgage, but that doesn’t make me a failure.

  15. Jay Mandal on said:

    Just think how much – or, rather, how little – books retail at. Then remember that the seller takes his cut, too. When you consider the time involved in writing a book, most authors are paid a pittance.

  16. Amanda on said:

    Life is more than money. Writing is the rambling of the innner places of our hearts. If you get paid for it then bonus!

    I’ve just started earning from my writing and i’m personally extremely pleased with my £25.00! The zeros that i would prefer on the end will come with time and application.

    But in the mean time i shall be more than happy with a little pocket money for the weeks of work i have put into one piece. Art is about time, passion and love.

    I think some people look at the classified adverts in the papers that promise 50,000 dollars/pounds/yen etc next month if you just write a few good words down! JKR hasn’t actually done writers a favour, everyone now thinks that all writers make a fortune!

  17. Tim Rowe on said:

    Well, 50,000 Yen should be achievable — write the few good words in your CV :-) But yes, for most writes, writing is something that they have to do, not something they do because they’re paid to. And remember the Society of Authors represents *all* writers, including those employed full time (staff writers, technical authors — do they represent journalists), who will skew the distribution. Freelancers will be over-represented at the below-minimum-wage end.

  18. Fiona’s article is spot on. All published and experienced writers know about this lack of earnings – especially children’s authors like myself. We write first because we love writing, care about our readers and have something to say. Very few are able to live on writing earnings alone. Even if that point is reached, there is no guarantee how long an author will maintain that position. It’s all usually a bit unsure and insecure. The vast majority of us have to do something else to pay the bills. As ColB says above, ‘an informative reality check’ – but new authors shouldn’t be discouraged. It can be all part of the fun!

  19. Well, it’s even worse for poets…

    Most poets earn diddley-squat from their writing, they earn their money from the appearances at festivals, talks etc, and the long, gruelling round of school visits.

    I’m a children’s poet, and my children’s poet friends barely have time to write, which they really enjoy, and which is why they are a writer in the first place, because of the long hours they spend on the road – not the sort of conditions needed to produce lyrical poetry!

    As well as the few poets who actually make a living by doing the above, there are many more who carry on working at another job, writing in their spare time -because it’s what they love to do.

    I am in the minority -I do not go round schools because I have health problems. I earn money only from poems I sell into anthologies, and I’m writing, writing, writing all the time to produce my own single voice collection, which I know in the current poetry climate has little chance of being published.

    However, I have served my apprenticeship, which is, as said above, about 10 years, and am taken seriously now by publishers for consideration. The most I have ever earned in one year from writing poetry is 1,700. We live on my husband’s wages.

    There are many articles out there on just this subject ‘TheOne’.
    If you are thinking becoming a writer for money, I suggest you have a look. Fiona is quite right.

  20. Forgot to say, well I should make clear, that children’s poets LOVE their school visits, it’s just very tiring, all that travelling…

  21. Having really put in a huge effort to prove I could make money from writing, I was thrilled to earn £4000 last year. Of course it’s not enough to live on, but most of us have other work. I teach courses and I work in partnership with libraries to involve the under-fives in books and reading. That all gives me more ideas to write about! Only the absolute top authors (the lucky ones!) make enough to give everything else up and just count the dosh. We all wish, but we don’t even think of stopping. Writing is indeed in the blood. Money isn’t.

  22. Well said everyone! And well done Viv on your £4000!!!!!!!!! I was on £4000 for three years then my earnings ‘suddenly’ doubled. Let’s hope it happens for you too:) Tim, yes the S of A does represent freelance journalists. You need to have had a minimum of 25 articles published and paid for. However, most journos are with either the Writers’ Guild and / or the Society of Authors. I’m with the S of A because I don’t just write journalism.

  23. I mean Writers’ Guild and / or National Union of Journalists. Sorry.

  24. TheOne on said:

    Thank you all for the input, did not mean to offend anyone.

  25. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    And respect to you for coming back and apologising. Thank you.

  26. Jane Smith on said:

    I’m not surprised that TheOne is surprised to read this: many people think that writers earn huge amounts thanks mostly to the media coverage of inflated advances and impossible earnings. I earn a reasonable living as a writer, but that’s because I’ll write just about anything for money and most writers are more picky than I am!

    Fiona, I blogged about this survey too:

    http://howpublishingreallyworks.blogspot.com/2008/06/what-writers-earn.html

    There is a far more recent survey which was carried out by the ALCS in 2005, I think. You might like to have a look at that one, too: it confirmed the SoA’s findings, and discovered that in the five years since that first survey was undertaken the averages have fallen. Not good.

  27. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    Depressing that averages have fallen even further. Try to find that survey and get back to us Jane. You’re right about the media hyping advances. Amanda made a similar point earlier – the ads claiming you can earn 30,000 +. There’s a well respected writing correspondence college that should know better that does it all the time. I’ve actually complained to them about it and they say that their ad says ‘up to £30,000′. But it still gives the wrong impression. The point that hopefully all of us can agree on (hopefully TheOne will join us in this now) is that success as a writer cannot be measured in monetary terms. The piece of writing I’m most proud of at the moment is a screenplay that’s actually been commissioned and filmed! Guess what I got paid? £1 – and I haven’t even received it :) I can now use it as a calling card to hopefully get commissions that pay a bit more ;)

  28. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    What I didn’t mention in the post The One is that the full-time job I gave up to pursue a writing career was as a professional journalist and sub-editor for a newspaper in Cape Town. I earned a good salary and someone obviously thought my writing was ‘good enough’ or they wouldn’t have employed me. But it gave me no time to pursue other creative writing projects that were burning up inside me. I made the decision to earn a lot less but be far more fulfilled. And I don’t regret it for a moment.

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  31. jose rivadulla-rey on said:

    you have an amazing story ahead of you, its people like you who give people like me more inspiration to continue, hopefully one day my words and efforts will contribute to someone elses passions, thank you very much.

  32. How very kind of you. All the best with your own writing Jose.

    Fiona

  33. p a noushad on said:

    i am p a noushad,poet,would like to earn income through online writing.

  34. p a noushad on said:

    help me to earn money through writing poems online.

  35. Tim Rowe on said:

    p a noushad:
    i am p a noushad,poet,would like to earn income through online writing.

    Me:
    Wouldn’t we all!

    I think E E Cummings pretty much covered the all-lower-case-and-unusual-spacing thing, though; I don’t think there’s much potential there nowadays.

    Seriously, poetry is probably the hardest form of writing to make money at, and the web is so swamped with really bad poetry that it’s just about impossible to get noticed. I think the traditional route of doing readings, self-publishing an anthology of what goes down well at the readings and then selling the anthology at subsequent readings is still the best chance. Although even that route just leaves most aspiring poets with a pile of unsold books and an invoice for the printing.

  36. Fiona on said:

    Hi PA. Tim’s right, earning money from poetry is very difficult. It’s also very difficult to earn money writing online in general. All of these websites and ads that promise you can earn £30,000 a year are at best misleading, at worst fraudulent! But it’s not impossible to earn some money. You have to do it yourself though, no one, particularly not me, can help you. Develop your craft, find markets, submit your work, build your portfolio … it’s simple hard graft. Realise though that online poetry will not pay. Good luck with it.

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  38. Mark S on said:

    I have just a quick question. Recently, there has been a mild obsession with wanting to write. Doesn’t matter if it is poetry, fictional work, or even a cookbook. I’m just drawn to want to write and / or read. It is an odd sensation. As a youth, I despised reading. Total waste of time. However, middle age crept up and now I can’t get enough. My question is rather simple. With no formal literary training, not to mention being late in the literary arts, are there resouces to judge one’s work? In other words, I don’t want to just fill the Internet with a bunch of poor writing. There is a desire to be good and display quality work. Knowning that I will never be as great as many of you, can you give advice to not tarnish the value of literature?

  39. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    You need to write for the love of it. Why don’t you work through my free online creative writing course and see where it takes you. After that, if you’re still keen, I provide critiques of writing (but this is obviously a paid-for service.) You don’t need formal training, just talent. Good luck with it.

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