Friday, February 24, 2023

The One Where I Get Angry


by Abir 


Does a background in any other kind of business give you a head start as a professional writer? If you were designing a course of study for a budding writer, what would the modules be?


Morning. Friday again, and the weather seems to be warming up a bit – at least that’s what I tell my wife when I refuse to turn on the heating. With the longer days and first flowers in the garden, you’d expect me to be full of the joys of spring, but I’m not, and so don’t expect any uplifting thoughts from this post. Instead, I’m going to give you the unvarnished truth. 


Being a professional writer can be a tough, thankless task. For so many of us, getting published is our dream. We spend years, decades, writing, honing our craft, getting rejection after rejection, till one day, the amazing happens – we get an agent who’s willing to take us on and an editor who’s willing to publish our work. It’s a huge achievement. The relief. The vindication. At last, you feel like a proper writer (though really, you’ve been one all along), and yet, monetarily, you’re not really any better off. Chances are, you’ve been given a small advance – enough to take the kids to Disney Land or Peppa Pig World, but not much more, nothing life changing. You’re still going to have to go back to work tomorrow and listen to Kevin drone on and on about his weekend in the Cotswolds/Catskills/wherever. And here’s the thing. You’ll probably have to do it next week as well, and the week after that, and then again for a very, very long time, because a) Kevin is an arse, and b) most published authors, at least in the UK, don’t make minimum wage from writing. Seriously. The median income for authors in the UK is about £7,000. ( ). Meanwhile, Amazon and the big publishing houses record bumper profits. But it’s not just their fault. What does it say about us as a society when we place a higher value on a cup of coffee than we do on a book?


So you want to get ahead in publishing? Well yeah, business and marketing skills and a proactive attitude are all useful, but if you really want to get ahead, here are my top tips. (NOTE: Some of the below might sound like sour grapes – it’s not. I’m one of the lucky ones. Publishing has been good to me. It gives me my living, but that doesn’t mean I can’t call out bullshit when I see it). So here goes.


Top Tips for being a best-selling writer:

·      Be a celebrity – if your face is on the TV or the internet – it doesn’t matter what for – then you’re pretty much guaranteed a book deal of some sort. The really good news is, you don’t actually need any writing talent. Indeed, if you’re borderline illiterate, the publishers will bring in some proper impoverished writer who’s willing to work for twenty grand, to write the thing for you. Bingo, you watch the royalties roll in and your ghost writer gets to heat their home for another six months. Win win! (PS. You get bonus points if you’re royalty or, better still, a politician who has royally fucked the country, but you now want to explain how it was actually everyone else’s fault.) 

Note: This doesn’t mean that all celebrity writers are shit. Some can write very well, but they’re a small minority.


·      If you aren’t a celebrity or a politician, then your best bet is to be a young, attractive white woman. You can then write very average books, safe in the knowledge that your publisher will provide you with a massive marketing budget that’s pretty much guaranteed to get your face on billboards and breakfast TV; because when it comes to sales, forget starred reviews in literary magazines, it seems what the buying public really want from a book is to know it’s been penned by someone with a telegenic white face that gives them a warm, fuzzy feeling while eating their cornflakes.


·      If you’re neither of the above, then I’m afraid it gets difficult. Some people have tried being talented and writing really, really good books, but that’s hit and miss and I wouldn’t advocate this approach if you can possibly help it. (Talent is an odd thing. In most industries, being talented is a good thing, but in the world of commercial fiction, I think too much talent can be rather a hindrance to your career.)


·      There was a time when being a rich, Oxbridge/Ivy League educated white man was a ticket to getting published, but this doesn’t seem to guaranteed any more, which is desperately unfair on these poor souls. To them I say, don’t worry, you’ll still be ok as long as you have famous or influential parents.


That’s about it, really. If you want to get ahead in this business, then your best bet is to be a young, white, telegenic reality TV star with an eye to making a quick buck and no more than a passing familiarity with the written word. Just turn up at your agents’ and let the machine of publishing take care of the rest. If, however you don’t fall into that category, you might want to try something with a greater chance of success, like a career in neurosurgery or being the captain of the Titanic.


Have a great weekend everyone…and turn down the heating. It’s warm enough now. I swear.



Ha, great stuff! Having designed a course for budding writers, I made sure it included a module on the actual nuts and bolts of being a writer: how to approach an agent, how to work with an editor and not be a butthurt whiner when they point to problems that will actually make you book better, how to manage your cashflow, how to build strategies that get you further along the path from McJob toward writing (at least part-time) for a living, how to safeguard your mental, how to deal with social media.

All the fun stuff!

Anonymous said...

While acknowledging the privilege of all white authors, it seems unfair to identify women as the ones facing an easy ride, with male authors still outselling women and female author earnings plummeting (alongside Black and mixed race authors). There remains a 41.4% gender pay gap between male and female authors. ALCS Report 2022.

Susan C Shea said...

It's a bleak message to a writer looking for his or her first agent/publisher, someone who doesn't fit the jackpot description. When I look around, though, I'm seeing better things, especially in the last decade. I credit SinC and Writers of Color for busting open the race bias door, and the fact that writers of certain kinds of crime fiction (cozies, traditionals, in particular) are often women of a certain age, and even an age beyond that. First thing: Write a really good book, knowing that without a royal name or an NFL career, you can't shortcut the writing bit.

Terry said...

I love your advice. Last weekend I was at a conference (not a writing conference) and had to give an eight-minute talk on how to write a best-selling novel. My top advice? By famous, or infamous. After a few practical tips, my last advice was "Be lucky."

Paul Gitsham said...

Where do you get an application form for Strictly?