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This is the real question that most writers want to have answered. So I’ll answer it.

(Though if I really knew how to make money as a writer, do you think I’d be writing this? Of course not! I’d be in a hotel in Lausanne, living off the proceeds of my succès de scandale, or in New York, New York, writing about life back in the Old Country, or in my Parisian apartemente, with my second wife/husband/muse, turning down invitations to be interviewed on tv by Alan Yentob, and responding to endless requests for Q & As in newspaper weekend supplements.)

You will of course have read the reports by the Society of Authors about how authors’ earnings are in steep decline, and how the average income of the average writer is now less than the average income of your average anyone working in the sugar beet fields of East Anglia, or in the fulfilment centres of Swindon, but you will also believe that this does not, could not and will not apply to you. You may even have read the work of the psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman, who claims that what he calls ‘optimistic bias’ is ‘the most significant of the cognitive biases’, but you will believe that you do not suffer from this optimistic bias, because you are lucky/special/the exception that proves the rule.

You may even follow on social media some of the many authors and publishing experts who promise to tell you the secrets of literary success, if only you will sign up for their newsletter, mentoring scheme, or online study programme. Don’t let me put you off: maybe if I’d signed up to an online study programme I’d be in that hotel in Lausanne right now. Me, you, and Mr and Mrs Nabokov.

Instead, I live in my modest little house in my modest little way, and I am what publishers refer to as a midlist author, which is to say you’ve probably never heard of me – and nor have most people at my publishers. I write books and articles destined soon to be forgotten in exchange for small sums of money that might perhaps cover the cost of a foreign holiday, as long as it’s not all-inclusive, and you’re travelling alone, and out-of-season, and you’re prepared to share a bathroom. This is normal. It’s OK. Fortunately, I also have a day job.

Like the actual economy, the publishing industry is a vicious dog-eat-dog, winner-takes-all enterprise: a handful of people make a lot of money; everyone else makes next-to-nothing. Which is both totally fine and totally unacceptable. Nobody asked you to get into this business. There are plenty of jobs in financial services. On the other hand – really? Three years work on a novel for the price of a second-hand hatchback?

Here’s the truth: the only surefire way to make money from writing is … to write a book about how to make money from writing.


This article is from a series of ‘How To...’ guides for emerging and developing writers, written in 2019/20 by Ian Sansom.

Ian Sansom is the author of the Mobile Library and the County Guides series of novels. He writes regularly for the Guardian, the TLS, and the Spectator. He teaches at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry. iansansom.net


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