Home » Non-US, Royalties, The Business of Writing » Ian Rankin: ‘It took 14 years for my writing to pay’

Ian Rankin: ‘It took 14 years for my writing to pay’

2 December 2013

From The Telegraph:

How did your childhood influence your work ethic and attitude to money?

Greatly. I grew up in a family that was working class, which taught me to be careful with money.

My father worked in a grocery store. When the grocery chain went into administration he eventually got a job in the naval dockyard in an office preparing the charts for the boats and the submarines before they headed out.

My mother worked in a school canteen – then worked in the canteen of a chicken factory. Every Friday the pay packet money would be allocated to cover bills.

I have a strong work ethic yet I’m incredibly lazy as well. The problem with being a writer is that everything you do can be called research. Sitting in the pub is research. Reading the newspaper can be research.

I will put off the evil hour when I start writing for as long as I possibly can.

. . . .

Has there been a time in your life when you didn’t know how you were going to pay the bills?

Between 1990 and 1996 we lived in rural France. My wife had suggested we make the move from London as the cost of living in the capital was prohibitive and my earnings back then from writing were low. But she encouraged me to give it a go, so I went full-time. Jack was born in 1992, Miranda didn’t have a job, and I just knew that what I was earning wasn’t enough to support the family. I began to have panic attacks and grew very restless and very fretful about the whole business. Things were tight, but we cut our cloth accordingly.

When did you realise that you were doing very well out of writing?

It was quite late on. Around 1999, when we were living in Edinburgh and had just managed to buy our first flat, a royalty statement for the backlist (all the Rebus novels I had done before, which hadn’t been making very much money up to that point) arrived at home giving a sum of six figures. Neither my wife nor myself could quite believe it but the agent confirmed the figure, so suddenly the penny dropped – the Rebus novels had just become popular.

It took a good 12-14 years, and many books, before the money became a happy factor of my writing career. If you think, my first novel was published back in 1986 and for that I had been given an advance of the grand sum of £200. I was pretty much 40 or in my early forties before I earned my first million.

Link to the rest at The Telegraph and thanks to Meryl for the tip.

Non-US, Royalties, The Business of Writing

10 Comments to “Ian Rankin: ‘It took 14 years for my writing to pay’”

  1. Long. Tail.

    It works for popularity as well as sales. It builds and it builds, and someday, if you’re good enough and lucky enough, it hits a tipping point and boom, you’re a took-decades-to-become-an-overnight-sensation.

    And this is so much more feasible with indiepublishing. Suppose he’d started out now. Do you think his books would have stayed on the backlist long enough to build that following and hit that tipping point? I don’t. It wasn’t very likely when he did it. It’s even less likely now. At least with tradpub.

  2. Fourteen years to see any real money. I wonder how many books he sold in that era? Probably more than you’d think.

    • I’d be happy to make a million pounds in fourteen years. That’s about the amount the average Briton earns over their entire working life.

      • If you work out the discounted value of his writing career starting at day one, I’m not so sure that he makes *that* much more money than an “average” person. Money now is ALWAYS better than money later, ceteris paribus.

  3. £200 in 1986 is equivalent to about £500 now, or about US$750 at the current exchange rate. Which I guess means that derisory advances are nothing new.

  4. I’ve been at it longer, but I made mistakes marketing in the eighties and nineties. 20 years down the tube. Then it took 7 years for the publishers to give up on me. I’ve self-published since 2011 and have watched my sales numbers decline due to competition from cheap or free books.

    But it can still happen. And this is the only way for it to happen some day.

    • [I] have watched my sales numbers decline due to competition from cheap or free books.

      With all due respect, I’m not sure I buy that line of argument.

      In my own genre, there is a website which offers, for free, not even accepting donations, over eight thousand stories, ranging from a few hundred words to three hundred thousand word blockbusters. Many of them are rubbish, but many of them are amazing, and in fact have been cleaned up and offered in revised editions as very successful indiepublished books. Yet people still buy my books, at what I consider very good price points. Would I sell more books if that website wasn’t there? Maybe. But I still sell plenty.

      • Not sure where I fall on that argument.

        I’ve seen several indies who reportedly made good livings from their writing before Amazon created KDP Select, and who’ve complained their sales have steadily fallen since its debut.

        On the other hand, I’ve also seen plenty of new indies who just released a book six months/a year ago who are apparently selling quite well.

        • Before KDP Select was the era where just about anything that was readable would sell at $0.99. So I’m far from convinced that Select has anything to do with declining sales since then.

          I have a couple of thousand free Kindle books. I still buy the ones I want to read, and only read the free ones when I’ve run out, or when it was a book I would have bought if I hadn’t found it free first.

      • Not sure I’m buying it, either. Mainly because that line of thinking is more like commody marketing — a zero sum game in which if my competitor sells more widgets, that means fewer customers for MY widgets. But I’m not selling widgets; I’m selling a unique, one-of-a-kind article. No one else writes or sells MY stories. This isn’t ego talking, it’s reality. No two novels are entirely identical, so to compare my sales to someone else’s is not very useful. I don’t really care that I sell a hell of a lot fewer copies of a story than Stephen King; I don’t write horror. He probably doesn’t sell that many westerns. It’s not a comparable market.

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