The €500 a year career: do Irish writers get paid enough?

From The Irish Times:

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.”

. . . .

“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.”

Link to the rest at The Irish Times and thanks to Alexis for the tip.

19 thoughts on “The €500 a year career: do Irish writers get paid enough?”

  1. Are you telling me you would rather return to your crappy civil service job than self publish? Four bestsellers and the guy can’t make a living??? It’s because your publisher is stealing from you. Wake up.

    • Four bestsellers in Ireland likely means that he sold a few thousand books. No, he couldn’t make a living on that volume by self-publishing, either.

      • It won the EU prize for literature. It was the best-selling novel in the EU, not just Ireland. It also hit bestseller in the Boston Globe, the NYT and the WSJ and the list goes on and on and on. He didn’t sell a few thousand copies, he sold a few HUNDRED thousand copies. So yes, he should be able to make a living off of this. He is being robbed blind by his publisher and saying “please, sir may I have some more.”

      • He’s also a literary author. Not a genre that does really that well in self-publishing. Maybe because they do rely a lot on winning prizes and that kind of thing is more open to traditionally published authors.

        But making 40c per sold copy? He could do much better than that with self-publishing. He’s being ripped off, and yet praises his publishers. That makes me very sad.

  2. I’d argue that multiple streams of income is necessary for everybody. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, not even if it’s the most gorgeous basket you’ve ever seen.

    Less pressure = more fun. And better chance of productivity.

  3. I’d have liked to read more related to David Gaughran’s comment. Where is the money really going? A $125 bn industry, but everyone is broke?

  4. One issue not addressed was that a regular salary usually includes benefits worth more than many people realize. As an author who relied on modest advances for years, and whose husband is also self-employed, I understand the difficulty of scraping together money for medical coverage (unsure if this affects Donal), retirement savings, etc., while (in the US, anyway) paying double the Social Security and Medicare taxes.

    Especially when there are children in the picture, this can be an overwhelming task. I wish I had an easy answer, but the fact is that a self-employed author needs to earn much more than she would as an employee because of these often unrecognized benefits (such as the employer paying half the S.S. in the U.S.).

  5. unrecognized benefits (such as the employer paying half the S.S. in the U.S.).

    Except that these “unrecognized benefits” often stifle higher wages for the employee.


    • Doesn’t matter; the point is that an employee earning a $50,000 salary is not in a comparable position to a self-employed person clearing $50,000 before tax.

      • The point is that the $50,000 salaried employee is earning much more than $50,000. That employee is just experiencing his “missing” wages being spent by someone else before he even sees it in his payroll advice.


        • Put it this way: the employee that sees $50,000 a year pre-tax is costing his employer closer to $100,000. So he has to be at least twice as productive as the self-employed (author) at the same take-home. Which kinda evens out the benefits the self-employed has to pay for out of pocket to match the same after tax package.

  6. 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.”

    It doesn’t have to change. We can observe it operating the same way for years. Payment to authors is forced down by the huge number of authors submitting to publishers. Competition among authors forces prices down.

    What we do see is another system emerging. That system completely bypasses publishers. Don’t like what publishers pay? OK. Don’t use them. Complaining about them will achieve nothing.

  7. I’ve read The Spinning Heart, I’ve even met the man himself at a reading. While he’s a nice guy and writes good prose; it’s lit fic, he’s trad published, and it’s available in a limited market of Ireland and the UK. He’s never going to make a living with that. Making broad statements like “it’s almost impossible to make a living as a writer” is just silly.

    • I have to agree with you, Patrick. The American market is where a decent living can be made. I was doing fine with the UK and Irish markets but last year the US readers found me and my earnings greatly increased as there is such a huge population of English speaking readers over there. My income is mostly from digital books – the paperbacks are much more expensive to produce and deliver, so they bring in only a small fraction compared to ebooks.

  8. These books aren’t available on the western side of the Pond? I’m appalled if his agent didn’t include world English rights on an award winner. Maybe the book is available here — lit fic is pretty much off my radar, but…

    Terrence is right. The system SHOULD change for our benefit who do the lion’s share of the actual work, but there’s no reason it MUST. The vested interests are too committed to keeping the status quo, to embrace much change.

  9. It’s been ever thus. Literary fiction never paid well, and yet people continue to expect to make a living writing it. Can’t sully their precious minds with genre fiction, oh no. Learn to publish themselves? The horror. The insult. They are authors, my dear.

    I feel no pity for this guy. It’s not like stuff like this isn’t talked about just about anywhere writers congregate. It shouldn’t come as a shock to him. He should enjoy his awards and put his nose to the grindstone at his new/old job. The stockholders at his publisher won’t even know he’s gone.

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