Donal Ryan’s literary success story is one that most up-and-coming Irish authors – and many established ones – would love to emulate. How sobering it must be then for them to learn that the author is having to return to his full-time civil service job at the Workplace Relations Commission to pay his mortgage.
The arc of Ryan’s story has a fairytale quality – the 47 rejection letters from publishers before his novel The Spinning Heart was finally rescued from the slush pile in 2011 and went on to win a host of prizes including the Guardian First Book Award and Dublin Book Festival’s Irish Book of the Decade as well as being longlisted for the Booker and shortlisted for the Impac Dublin Literary Award.
Despite following up with three critically acclaimed and bestselling books in four years – The Thing about December, A Slanting of the Sun and All We Shall Know – the author revealed in a newspaper interview yesterday that his literary career has not had the traditional happy ending one might have expected.
“It’s nearly impossible to make a living as a writer,” he told the Sunday Independent. “You need to have something else on the go. You could take a chance and scrape a living through bursaries and writing books, but I’d get too stressed out. It just isn’t worth it. I have two kids in school and I have a mortgage to pay.”
“I reckon I get about 40c per book. So I would need to sell a huge amount of books to make a good salary out of that. I can’t complain. My publishers are fantastic. I have just signed a contract for three more books and my advances are really good but, still, I have to look at the long term and the fact that I have 20 more years of a mortgage, so you would need to sell a lot to earn a living from that alone.”
Ryan’s story struck a chord with other writers. “Maybe now people will stop asking me why I’m driving a 13 yr old car,” tweeted Liz Nugent, author of two award-winning No1 bestsellers, Unravelling Oliver and Lying in Wait. “Have to say I’m feeling a strong lack of empathy for publishers today. Basically they’re screwing the writers,” tweeted Tommy Conlon, ghostwriter of three bestselling sports autobiographies by Ronie Whelan, John Hayes and Shane Curran.
“ I thought Donal Ryan was incredibly brave to come out and lay out the realities of being a writer – because the public often has a very skewed view,” said author David Gaughran. “But I would like to talk about the publisher in this scenario. I’ve no issue at all with Lilliput Press, I actually like them a lot, but the system as a whole needs to be examined.
“Everyone in the publishing chain claims to be broke. Publishers always say this is a low margin business. Agents have greater and greater trouble placing books. Booksellers, of course, are constantly feeling the pinch. But publishing as a whole is huge, generating $125bn in global sales every year. Where does all that money go? Why are authors paid so poorly? Contracts are terrible across the board – the system is designed that way. But it can change and it has to change.”
The Irish Times is currently running a Writing Lives series in collaboration with Words Ireland, an umbrella body for writers and publishers, exploring this very subject of how writers can make a living.
The most recent survey of Irish authors’ incomes – published by the Irish Copyright Licencing Agency in 2010 – found that in 2008-09 over half the writers consulted (58.7 per cent) earned less than €5,000 from writing-related income. Indeed, the commonest response – given by more than a quarter, or 27.9 per cent of respondents – was that they earned less than €500 a year.
“Writing is a wonderful career but it is not one that should necessarily be pursued in poverty,” said author Sheena Wilkinson. “You don’t need poverty to create, you need security.”
“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 the case of Mike McCormack, author of the multi-awardwinning Solar Bones, 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 the success of his novel, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which has sold approximately seven million copies. With royalties at roughly €1 a book, says Boyne, “you can figure it out from there”.
Siobhán Parkinson, Ireland’s first Laureate na nÓg and is publisher of Little Island Books, said: “Most writers live a fairly hand-to-mouth sort of existence, and most of us need sources of income additional to our writing-generated income, and this need does not vary all that much through our writing lives.”
Ruth Hegarty, managing editor at the Royal Irish Academy and president of Publishing Ireland, said: “For most people, it doesn’t seem possible for them to be just a writer and devote themselves entirely to writing – even if that would be the best thing for them.
“In literary fiction, I would say it is more normal for advances to be in the hundreds rather than the thousands of euro. Royalty rates in Ireland are often based on net receipts rather than list price, so if you’re looking at a book that sells for a tenner, the author might expect to get something between 50c and €1.20 for it.
“If you look at the top 1,000 books sold in Ireland last year, you are doing well to sell somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 books, so if you multiply that by – for simplicity’s sake – a euro, you’re making between €1,000-€2,000 for your book. If you make that, you’ve done well, and that is more normal than the great big advances.”
According to Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin, who runs writing consultancy the Inkwell Group and writes crime fiction as Sam Blake, “everybody should be getting an advance, because no writer should be writing for free. However, Irish advances tend to be quite small, because Irish publishers are restricted in the size of the market and they may have less financial flexibility, so you might find an Irish advance is only €1,000.
“You’re self-employed and you don’t know where the next bit of money is coming from.”
Poet, novelist and Aosdána member Mary O’Donnell argues that patronage is essential for a healthy society. “The enrichment of a culture is assisted by an active artistic field of work. The general public will not and often cannot pay artists directly, so they don’t support this enrichment in a practical sense. If the majority do not support this enrichment, while enjoying the ‘product’, then we must as a society/community respect the role of patronage and not see it as an opting out from ‘real work’ on the part of artists.”
Of all the accolades Ireland gives its writers, among the most respected must surely be membership of Aosdána. Limited to 250 members at any one time, it seeks to honour artists who have made an outstanding contribution to the creative arts in Ireland. Members are also entitled to apply for a Cnuas – a five-year annuity valued (in 2015) at €17,180 per year.
“I think there are a lot of people who aren’t members of Aosdána and could be,” said Hegarty. “Does the Cnuas need to be extended – and could it be extended?”
Mia Gallagher, addressing patronage as part of the Writing Lives eries, wrote: “There are lots of issues with patronage. Crucially, there isn’t enough. In 2016, the total figure for English language literature bursaries was €218,350; Irish language writers were awarded a further €44,470. 187 writers in total applied; 36 were funded. Award every applicant and they’d have received €1,500 a head.”
The Artists’ Exemption helps. It allows the sale of artistic works by artists, writers, composers and sculptors in the Republic of Ireland to be exempt from tax (subject to certain criteria), up to a cap of €50,000 per year.
There is also, of course, the dole, aka known as “the other Arts Council” for creatives. The launch last month of Creative Ireland – the Government’s five-year programme which aims to build on the legacy of Ireland 2016 by improving access to cultural and creative activity – contained within it a commitment that the Department of Arts and Social Protection will “devise a mechanism to assist self-employed artists who have applied for Jobseekers Allowance”.
And then of course, there is the State-supported solution that Donal Ryan has come up with. Ann Power, widow of The Hungry Grass author Richard Power, said at the launch of her late husband's reissued classic: "The Irish civil service must have been the biggest patron of the arts since the Medici: every civil servant seemed to be an artist, a writer, a sculptor, a poet, you name it. Richard’s desk had previously been occupied by Flann O’Brien, of The Third Policeman. While being a civil servant had its advantages: you could be sure of a roof over your head and food on the table, it also meant that free time for your “real” work was limited to the left-overs of the nine-to-five job and at the period that Richard was writing The Hungry Grass, our six children were aged from ll years old down to a few months, so peace and quiet at home were hard to come by."
Of course, money is not the prime motivation for 99.9 per cent of writers. 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.”