When visiting book clubs to talk about my novel Whisky Charlie Foxtrot I am sometimes asked if writing is ‘lucrative’. In answering this question, I am torn between hysterical laughter and desperate sobbing. I recently finished preparing my tax return for the last financial year so I can tell you exactly how lucrative writing is, for me.
No, that is not missing a zero. In the last financial year I earned an average of $140 per week for my writing. Out of that, only $2210 came from book sales, for my book which was published in November 2012, i.e. has been on the shelves for less than a year.
An obvious explanation for such a low income might be that I have written a bad book. But, critical reviews and reader responses suggest otherwise.The Australian Book Review declared ‘It is rare to encounter fiction… that so intelligently explores the downright messiness of family relationships… rarer still to find an author who writes of traumatic injury and the looming shadow of death with such verve and sensitivity.’ And The Australian said ‘… by far the enduring sense of this novel is of having been in the hands of a storyteller with more than just a good story, one with something to say about how to live, and the energy and pluck to say it.’
Is it a marketing problem perhaps? My publisher (Fremantle Press) arranged radio, online and print interviews, as well as reviews in well-regarded publications to get the ball rolling and I did everything in my power to sustain the momentum, including regular blogging and other social media, and countless speaking events at book shops, libraries, book clubs and festivals.
How then can a well-received book with a perfectly respectable marketing push sell so badly? I asked this question of my publisher and was told simply that this is the reality of ‘the market’. He reported that though there are always exceptions to the rule, at a meeting of Australian publishers and agents he had attended earlier this year, it was established that most books by ‘mid-list’ authors (a polite industry term for non-bestsellers) are struggling to sell 500-800 copies. Compared with these dire numbers, Fremantle Press were reasonably pleased with Whisky Charlie Foxtrot’s 1300 sales.
But I was not. I wanted my book to sell more, because I wanted it to reach more readers. And though I don’t expect writing to make me rich, I would like to earn more than $6.20 an hour, mostly because, in the absence of a ‘minimum wage’ for my work, I have to look elsewhere for income.
For the last 18 months I have had the rare and wonderful privilege of being supported by an Australia Council Fellowship. Prior to that I was lucky enough to receive a small grant from the West Australian Department for Culture and the Arts. But applying for grants is a relentless and wearying business, in which I have been unsuccessful as often as I have been successful. If my next grant application is unsuccessful I will need to return to teaching ESL at a local university. It is an enjoyable and well-paid job, but it is not the job I want to be doing. The job I want to be doing is writing.
And aside from the financial implications of unsuccessful grant applications there is the horrible sense of being perpetually judged and found wanting, the feeling of competitiveness with other writers and the sensation of being always on tenterhooks while you await the outcome of some opportunity. Sometimes the grinding sense of being perpetually undervalued makes it hard to be gracious about the success of others; so that when I saw Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project on the shelves at Coles, instead of thinking ‘Good for him’ I felt like throwing myself onto the floor of aisle 3, screaming ‘Why can’t it be me?’