‘Look at JK Rowling!’ The line guaranteed to make a children’s author weep
For every David Walliams or Jeff Kinney, there are 1,000 authors for young people scraping a living and double jobbing, but for many it is a passion and a vocation
Writing may have made JK Rowling rich, but some of Ireland’s most respected and acclaimed authors for young people depend on other sources to pay their bills. Photograph: Samir Hussein/WireImage/Getty
“When are you going to write a proper book?” is a question every children’s author has heard, so much so that it inspired the title of an event earlier this month in Dún Laoghaire’s Lexicon. On the same day, Donal Ryan trended on Twitter when an interview with the bestselling author revealed he was returning to his job in the civil service to benefit from the financial security typically lacking in creative careers.
Literary writers often note their precarious financial situations; Sara Baume has been impressively candid about how prize money, which one might assume means champagne cocktails on a luxury yacht, goes towards mundane everyday expenses. But those children’s writers are surely raking it in! After all, the books must be easier to write (they’re shorter, and kids will read anything, right?) and look at JK Rowling!
“Look at JK Rowling!”: the line guaranteed to make a children’s or young adult author weep. The writer who almost single-handedly exploded the idea that there was no money in children’s books is often cited but remains as much of an anomaly as ever. While children’s and young adult fiction is a significant sector of the market (making up 31.1 per cent of the Irish market in 2016, according to Nielsen Bookscan), most writers are not bestsellers. David Walliams and Jeff Kinney (author of the Wimpy Kid series) may have no complaints, but there are a lot of other names on those bookshelves.
Some of Ireland’s most respected and acclaimed authors for young people note that they depend on other sources to pay the bills. Sheena Wilkinson, whose new novel Street Song is forthcoming with Black & White Publishing in April, notes that her advances have fallen within the €500-€2,000 range. “I would estimate that, on average, income from books – advances and royalties – constitutes about a tenth of my income.” Juliette Saumande, who mainly works with French publishers, cites similar advance figures for her picture books and non-fiction books.
An advance, for the uninitiated, refers to money paid to an author before their book actually goes on sale – an amount which must be “earned out” before an author is paid royalties, or a small percentage of the book’s cover price or the publisher’s net receipts. Gráinne Clear, publishing manager and art director at Little Island, notes that – although Little Island’s policy is to offer the same advance to all their writers – “most publishers base advances on a formula, based on projected sales” and cautions against making assumptions about what is “standard”. Despite figures provided by the Bookseller and the Society of Authors, which suggest the UK “standard” is between £1,000-£2,000, Clear points out that in reality “it’s quite variable and hard to pin down a figure”.
In theory, these smaller advances should mean that an author moves into receiving royalties, as they’ll need fewer sales to earn out. In practice, a big advance ensures that a publisher is committed to making the book a bestseller, and is likely to invest more in marketing and publicising it. However, fiction publishing is more art than science. Word of mouth is a variable that cannot be paid for.
So the large advance – those much-publicised six-figure deals – may jeopardise an author’s future career if not earned out. The small advance, however, may mean a title is considered less of a priority, with less of an impetus to reach high sales that will help their future career. (Saumande notes that titles for the school market, however, have been her most financially rewarding long-term; these may have very poor advances but continue to sell regularly long after initial publication.) And the length of time it takes until royalties actually make it to the author – these are calculated twice annually, and paid within three months – mean that most authors would prefer a higher, if not necessarily astronomical, advance.
Even this chunk of money isn’t handed over in one go. Publishers may divide it into two or three instalments, with payments being made on signing of the contact, on delivery of the manuscript (this usually refers to when a manuscript has gone through revisions, rather than when a first draft is submitted), and/or on publication of the book. Multi-book contracts stretch this time out even more, and 15-20 per cent will go to a writer’s agent, if they have one.
It’s no wonder that writers aren’t automatically full-time creatives. Wilkinson gave up a teaching job to focus on her writing, but admits that “I earn, in a VERY good year, about half of what I earned as a teacher. I love what I do and ask only that I can keep on doing it, but yes, I do worry about the future.”
She spends, on average, three days a week taking on other related work, including school visits and her Royal Literary Fund fellowship. School visits are a particularly popular sideline for children’s and YA writers, with many taking place here via Poetry Ireland’s Writers in Schools scheme. The fee of €200 plus travel expenses for a two or 2.5 hour session may seem overly generous to some of the curmudgeons out there, but usually reflects at least a day away from the desk for preparation and travel time, if not more.
Deirdre Sullivan, whose Tangleweed & Brine is forthcoming from Little Island in September, works full-time as a teacher, pointsout: “Writing would in no way pay my bills. My advances have typically been three figures, and royalties are sporadic and unpredictable, though the statements are a little higher now that I have a few books out in the world.”
She doesn’t think of teaching as her day job, though, and finds it both “demanding and extremely fun. I get to have two passions. And sometimes they compete, but more often they complement each other.”
Author of a YA trilogy which recently concluded with A Darkness at the End, Ruth Frances Long agrees: “I’m a librarian as well as an author and I’ve always worked. I love my jobs (both of them). The reliability of a regular salary helps; I need stability to write and unfortunately writing alone doesn’t offer that.” She does admit that it’s “a balancing act”, especially with a certain amount of “chauffeuring children” to fit in.
With full-time work, the capacity to do school visits is limited, as these – obviously – take place during the typical work day, but Sullivan notes the benefit of summer holidays if one is a teacher, even though there is still paperwork and preparation to do. Financial assistance for authors may also come from a bursary from the Arts Council or a local authority. For writers, these are typically designed to simply buy time, with a minimum of strings attached. Arts Council bursaries may be awarded to an amount of up to €15,000 in one year, although in practice tend to be smaller. Children’s and YA authors to have received bursaries in recent years include Louise O’Neill, Oisin McGann, Kieran Crowley, Debbie Thomas and Sheena Dempsey.
Still, it remains, as author Caroline Busher, puts it, a career which is “precarious and paved with uncertainty”. Busher completed her MA in Creative Writing in 2015, completing her now-published first novel, The Ghosts of Magnificent Children. She considers her year of study “time well spent”, despite the “few financial rewards” in publishing. “I am motivated by a desire to create a worthwhile and engaging piece of work. It is a choice I have made and for me it’s the right one.”
Claire Hennessy is a writer, editor, creative writing facilitator and book reviewer (and now you know why…)