Balancing the books: how to survive as a writer in Ireland today

The Irish Times Writing Lives Series: The hope is that by enabling writers to share their experiences, it will spark a national debate on literature resourcing and funding

Eight weeks ago I quit a full-time job as a journalist to become a writer.

“You’re living the dream,” people told me with a mixture of incredulity and envy, no doubt picturing me at a desk in a garret, gazing into the middle distance while waiting for words to come dropping slow.

And yes, there are days like that – though the best are filled with typing rather than gazing – but rare is the writer who can live on literature alone.

The reality is that, like the vast majority of Irish writers, I must take on other work (at least until I write that bestseller).


So when I say I’m a writer, what I really mean is that I’m a writer, journalist, lecturer, documentary-maker, workshop facilitator, PR consultant and just about anything else that keeps the metaphorical wolf from the door and still leaves me enough time to write.

The resultant balancing act – and how to maintain it – is the focus of a series of nationwide public meetings hosted by Words Ireland which begins tomorrow in Co Leitrim.

Aimed at anyone who earns, or aspires to earn, some of their income from writing, a panel of professional writers will explain how they sustain their careers – and ask those attending to suggest new ideas and opportunities for practical improvements in the literature sector.

The hope is that by allowing writers to come together and share their experiences, it will spark a national debate on the future of literature resourcing and funding in Ireland.

“It’s about giving writers a chance to share good ideas, to voice their opinions, to say what has worked well in the past and what’s lacking in terms of resources in their region,” explains the chairman of Words Ireland, Michael McLoughlin.

“It’s also about creating opportunities to form new, self-sustaining networks of writers that can report back to Words Ireland with issues or ideas for new initiatives.”

The meetings will be supported by a series of articles in the Irish Times in which writers talk frankly about the reality of making a living as a professional writer.

“You’ve got to do a bit of ducking and diving,” says novelist, screenwriter, playwright and schools speaker Colin Bateman. “There’s a presumption that because your face is in the paper or your books are in the shops that you’re earning a tremendous wage and it’s not necessarily true.

“If it becomes your job, and you’ve got to pay the bills and the mortgage, that means saying yes to things you don’t necessarily want to do. It means marketing yourself. It means being a bit of a businessman.”

For some, that might mean taking on library visits, or residencies, or festival appearances, or, in Galway writer Mike McCormack’s case, lecturing and teaching.

“Normally, at about this time of year, I’d be up to my knees in essays and manuscripts – and a time used to come when I could not find my own work in my office. Incredible exhaustion sets in – I’m 51 now – so you begin to get worried, your health becomes an issue and, frankly, the part of you that’s going around trying to get money is exactly the part of you that should be going around trying to write great art.”

Some are able to combine successful writing careers with full-time work in other professions, while a lucky few are able to make a living solely from writing.

John Boyne “went from flat broke to a reasonably decent position” on the strength of foreign publication deals the year before The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas came out.

While he acknowledges that such success is “what everybody hopes to get”, he explains that “you can then use the legitimacy of publication to help make yourself some money and give yourself the time to be able to write the next book.”

Yet once that next book is written, it may no longer receive an advance. Many writers are concerned that advances have declined in recent years – or disappeared entirely – and royalty payments make up a smaller and smaller percentage of a writer’s income.

The recent controversy over the decision by Liberties Press to charge un-agented writers €100 to submit a manuscript for consideration, and the publisher’s subsequent admission that it owed money to many of its authors and former staff, has thrown into sharp relief the challenges faced by both publishers and writers – and the tight margins within which both are operating.

“It’s all very well to say we need to be properly paid and of course we do, but it’s a bit of a vicious circle,” says Sheena Wilkinson, who is on the panel for the Belfast meeting.

“If you’re dealing with organisations who are also depending on public funding, and their funding’s been cut, what do you do?”

Fellow Co Down writer Moyra Donaldson agrees. “When you’re working for organisations that you know are under pressure financially themselves because of cutbacks, you feel they’re probably paying you as much as they can anyway,” though she admits that “to some extent artists are propping up the system by doing that”.

Many feel that it comes down to the fundamental question of how the arts are regarded in society as a whole.

“I don’t think it’s regarded as a highly-paid job and I think there’s an expectation that fees are low,” says Donaldson.

“I have arguments with people who say everything should be profitable, and that the arts shouldn’t need subsidies,” adds Wilkinson. “They just don’t understand that you can’t measure every outcome in pounds, shillings and pence.”

The Arts Councils – north and south – provide valuable support for struggling writers – but most feel that the governments on both sides of the border should do more to support those trying to make a living within the arts sector.

Among the organisations funded by the Arts Council of Ireland is, of course, Words Ireland, whose stated objective is to ensure that writers and illustrators are not just fairly treated and properly paid, but also receive appropriate support and recognition for the vital role they play in society.

“It’s about seeing the value of their contribution to Ireland and internationally,” says Valerie Bistany, the director of the Irish Writers Centre and a member of the board of Words Ireland. “The words of Irish writers matter.”

Ultimately it is these words that lie at the heart of a writer’s life. As Boyne puts it, “writing is not about money. It’s about the words on the page. The only thing that matters is just having enough to write the next book, and devoting yourself to that.”

For most of us, that would be a dream come true.

The Irish Times Writing Lives series is an initiative of Words Ireland.
The Words Ireland Writers Series of nationwide meetings for creative writers and illustrators begins in Leitrim on October 22nd and will visit Galway, Kilkenny, Belfast, Wicklow, Cork, Dublin and Limerick. Admission is free but booking is essential. For more information visit
Freya McClements is, among other things, a writer and arts journalist