How To Make a Living as a Writer: 2020 Edition

For the past two years, I’ve written about how writers make a living. Or, more specifically, how I’ve managed to keep the wolf from the door during that specific year. This year, I think a lot of us have felt that the wolf has been prowling more keenly than usual. Or more accurately, that a whole pack of wolves has been prowling – one of which has been coronavirus itself, baring its teeth and howling at the sanitised door handles.

Extended wolf metaphor aside, we’ve all experienced difficulties of some kinds this year, in whatever form they’ve presented themselves. It’s only natural that those challenges are reflected in the year’s earnings.

So what has 2020 looked like for me?

As you can see, I earned next to nothing during 6 months of 2020. That’s half the year.

Some of this was a planned period of little-to-no income: I was on a residency at Hawthornden in January, and away in South America and Antarctica during the bulk of February and March. I knew in advance that I’d have barely any income during these months, and I planned my finances accordingly. That’s normally one of the joys of being freelance: that ability to measure out the working year in fits and starts if necessary, rather than spreading the work (and income) evenly across all months.

Of course, what I didn’t account for was everything else 2020 would throw at us. Like a sensible freelancer, I had work lined up for when I returned from my trip – and plenty of it. In fact, I had so much work lined up that I’d made a start on some of the planning bits three months early, before I left. Mistake, as it happens, since a fair bit of what I planned for ended up getting cancelled because of Covid.

In fact, most of my work from this year has ended up being cancelled, or at the very least postponed to 2021, or even 2022 in a couple of cases.

Luckily, there were a few months (like June, where I received two bits of Covid support) that helped me to counteract some of the leaner times.

So where did my income come from this year?

This year, I’ve listed 4 categories:

  1. Funding: money from grants. Specifically, this year, it’s been Covid-19 support grants, both from the government and from the Arts Council.
  2. Facilitation: both workshop facilitation and facilitation of creative projects. I’ve put these into one category because often project money will include funding for both the delivery and administration side, lumped together.
  3. Writing: commissions, royalties, ALCS money.
  4. Events: panel events and readings (in person and online), radio and television appearances.

Unsurprisingly, I haven’t earned that much from events this year. This is partly because fewer events have been taking place this year, but some of it is also to do with where this year has fallen in terms of my own publication. My Name is Monster came out last year, which resulted in my doing a lot of events and appearing at quite a few festivals. The original plan was for the paperback to come out this summer, but because of Covid, it’s been postponed to January 2021. Without a book coming out this year (on top of Covid cancellations), it makes sense that I haven’t been doing all too many events.

The same goes for facilitation. A lot of the venues and organisations where I would normally run workshops haven’t been operating in the same way this year, either because of furloughed staff or lack of visitors – or, in the case of schools, open but (understandably) not to outside visitors.

This isn’t universal, of course, as a few organisations I’ve been working with have found ways of creating workshops that don’t need me to physically travel to a school or community group – either through online forums like Zoom, or by creating video workshops that can be accessed independently. These have been few and far between, but they are happening, which is not only a huge help to freelance artists like me, but means that we can still be providing different and enriching experiences in schools – someething which feels extra important after the challenging year so many children (and teachers) have had.

So what about writing? For someone who describes herself as a writer, 11% might not sound like that much to have made from the actual writing bit of the job. But actually, I’m pretty happy with that. That’s because this year, unlike the past two years, I haven’t received an advance. (An advance on a book is usually split into 3 or 4 chunks, which are paid when various milestones are reached – usually: signing the contract with the publisher; submitting the finished manuscript; hardback publication; and, sometimes, paperback publication.) My Name is Monster is already out in the world, so I’ve already received my advance for that, and I’m still working on the next book, so no contracts signed for that yet. This is what I expected from this year, so I’m ok with that.

Which just leaves grant money.

I won’t lie, this year, grant money has been invaluable. I’m sure I’m not the only writer / artist / freelancer who has felt this, and my heart goes out to those freelancers who haven’t been eligible for the government support. It’s the government support that has allowed me to keep working. Because yes, I have been working. It’s just that most of it hasn’t involved getting paid.

What has work looked like in 2020?

As you can see from the graphs above, there has been some paid work. There have been a couple of commissions, and some digital workshops and facilitation work. There’s been the occasional media appearance. And, of course, there’s been my own writing. (I wrote a blog post about writing in the time of coronavirus, and all the extra challenges that brings, earlier in the year.)

But there’s also been all that other work. The sort that does pay. The sort that takes up time and creative energy, but without the financial reward. This is the sort of work that has felt more abundant this year.

Things like applying for opportunities (which I’ve felt I’ve had to do so much more of this year). Things like answering emails – a lot of which have been about renegotiating work, or about the potential for work that may or may not happen. Things like re-planning existing work in light of a pandemic. I think a lot of people underestimate just how much administration it takes to be a writer – and this year, admin has felt heavier than ever.

Perhaps it’s Parkinson’s Law: the idea that the work always expands to fill the time available to complete it. Perhaps it’s just that, in the absence of a lot of paid work, I’ve realised just how much unpaid work I usually do. But I suspect that this year has produced its own special brand of administration, which has weighed more heavily on the working week. Thank goodness for the grants that have, effectively, paid for me to do some of that unpaid admin this year.

So what happens now?

It’s all very well looking at the year gone by, but a freelancer (writer or otherwise) always needs to be looking towards the future. There always has to be some kind of plan.

The problem is that those Covid support grants (72% of my income in 2020) won’t be around in 2021 – or at least, are looking like they’ll be at a highly reduced rate. And it doesn’t look as though society will be getting ‘back to normal’ any time soon.

I won’t lie, this scares me. It scares me on behalf of myself, but even more so, it scares me on behalf of my industry. I’m talking about the book industry and about the arts industry. After all, they’re pretty connected.

What happens when that support disappears, and we’re all left on massively reduced incomes?

Quite a few organisations are finding ways of working digitally, or are instigating the slow return of in-person events and workshops (though of course, these present their own access issues, and aren’t feasible for everybody). I am seeing an upturn in the amount of work available compared to, say, in the summer. I’m also seeing more bits of work start to drip into my inbox, which is reassuring. It isn’t up to pre-Covid levels, but it’s a start.

I’ve already talked a bit about my strategy for when it comes to submitting applications in 2021. I was mainly talking about this in reference to creative burnout, but it goes for finances as well. The main strategy? Focus on the existing work, and on the things I don’t have to spend days applying for. Prioritise the certainties. Reduce the unpaid administration as much as possible, to buy myself that time to write.

I’m going to say this again, because it’s somthing that hasn’t happened enough during the administrative frenzy of 2020:

Use the existing paid work to buy myself time to write.

And with any luck, I’ll have an income graph that looks slightly different at the end of 2021.

0 Comments

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.