Writing won’t make you rich – get over it

Jane Shilling in the Times yesterday did what a lot of columnists do, particularly in what we might describe as the more upmarket broadsheets. She spent a thousand words or so moaning about how tough life is financially in the beleaguered middle class.

Don’t worry, this isn’t going to turn into some kind of class warrior-style rant about middle class journalists. That’s of pretty much no interest to me at all – especially in the context of a blog about freelancing and the nature of publishing.

But what did strike me was how very poorly thought-through it was. Shilling basically bemoans the fact that she can’t afford to do the nice things that middle class people ought to be able to do – have nice holidays, buy nice clothes and eat out – and also the things she really does need to do – fix the roof, have a cataract operation.

“Like many of the respondents to the Times Online poll, reported on Tuesday, I stopped eating out and buying books or clothes, except in sales or charity shops”

I’m sure that’s true, and she has my sympathy. Neither can I. But she also says this:

“I’m not proud to be the generation that undoes the remarkable achievement of my foundling grandfather, who dragged himself from destitution into the middle class by sheer hard work and determination.”

The trouble is, Shilling has achieved this almost entirely by her choice of career. She doesn’t say what her foundling grandfather did to drag himself out of destitution, but I suspect it wasn’t to become a journalist. My guess would be something like the law or medicine, or possibly teaching, if he went the professional route, or cut-throat commerce if not (if anyone knows, I’d be interested to find out).

That’s what my grandfather (though no foundling) did after he came back from the Great War minus a leg. He became an accountant. Similarly, my father, who sadly never lived to qualify for his comfortable final salary pension, didn’t come back from D-Day and muck about with illustration or woodwork – his interests – but stuck into the law, eventually becoming a company solicitor.

So when I’m stuck here earning reasonable, but not really life-changing, money as a freelance journalist and sub-editor, it’s entirely because I decided I didn’t really want to follow in their footsteps. There was something about the idea of being chained to a career and wearing suits and being stuck in an office that I couldn’t really stomach. Instead, I sort of drifted into publishing, partly because I had a certain raw aptitude for it, and partly through chance. It’s not a bad way to make a living. But it won’t make me rich.

Of course, there are ways to make more money at this game. More of which in later posts. But for now, back to the Times. What irritates me about this piece is the lack of understanding it reveals about the realities of the world. Writers don’t make much money unless they’re very focused, lucky and hard-working. And even then they don’t make that much.

Take a look at the excellent ‘Whatever’ blog by jobbing author John Scalzi, who makes the point that writing for a living makes crap money, but adds: “Writing professionally, even at its worst, still beats the hell out of lifting heavy objects off the back of a loading dock for $10 an hour.” Scalzi himself makes between about £60,000 and £80,000 a year from writing, which is a mix of fiction and non-fiction and which is quite impressive. But he could also do a lot better in a different line of work.

So just why does writing for a living, which includes journalism in all its forms, pay so badly? Bascially because, unlike becoming a doctor or a financial analyst or a corporate lawyer, which takes years of study and/or ability, any fool can write. Look at me – I’m doing it. And any fool can get published. Again, the evidence is here before your eyes. Thanks to the miracle of the new, social networking interweb, anyone can be a writer, photographer or filmmaker and publish their material without going through the old-fashioned hoops of getting a publisher of some kind to do it for them.

Another pressure comes from the legions of eager young things all working their way through media-related further education in a bid to become the next Big Brother presenter or celebrity journalist. The simple rules of supply and demand mean that loads of eager young candidates for publishing work depress the market a lot. And given that now a lot of people consume published content for free on the web, it all adds up to much less cash in the professional writer’s pocket.

Does it matter that much of the writing available is a bit rubbish? Not really, as there are bloggers producing material that is often better written, argued and researched than many ‘proper’ journalists. And certainly there is so much available online that pretty much any niche interest is catered to – which you can’t say about newsstand publishing.

And while Shilling hangs her piece on some current news hooks (the Budget, that Times Online poll, a couple of recent headlines) it’s really just a ‘look how tough my life is’ session. And we know what to call someone who fills a web page with their thoughts and complaints about life. Yes, her copy – and that of a lot of columnists’ for that matter – is really just blogging in print form. Only in her case she has actually been paid for it, for which she should count her blessings.

But if she really wants to pay to have those cataracts done, she should probably do an accountancy qualification…

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