Monday, 11 February 2013

The Freedom to Write: Muh Nee?

So, a few weeks back, I wrote this post in which I talked about what I think (most) writers actually want from their writing. Rather than talking in terms of 'making a living', I broke it down in terms of three kinds of freedom to write; financial, social/cultural and personal/psychological. I thought at the time there was more to be said, so I'm going to do a post on each of these kinds of freedom, and financial freedom is first up.

J.P. Sartre said that there are only two elements of the human condition which are truly universal; we all have to work (i.e. earn enough to sustain ourselves), and we're all going to die eventually. He was a cheery fellow.

But he's probably right that those two facts are as close as it gets to universal. What it means, in practice, is that we have limited time to play with. We spend a third of our lives asleep, and the better part of another third in work. Factor in all the millions of domestic tasks that make up life as well, and most of us as 'pre-career' writers have to make do with maybe ten hours a week of writing time (I'm actually quite lucky - albeit cash poor - in this regard).

And this is one case where time really is money. Somewhere between a sixth and a third of your life will be spent in money-earning activities. That's a huge slice. Every hour of writing that pays financial dividends comes out of that share rather than out of family time, or personal hygeine time, or sleeping time (or, if you do NaNoWriMo, all three...). To put it another way, every hour of writing time that pays is an hour that doesn't cost - it is, financially, a free hour in which to write.

Now, I've said before, and with all the persistence of a broken record, that writing to get rich is a bad idea. I fight that battle because I believe that getting into writing with primarily financial aspirations rather than literary ones is a painful, discouraging experience which at best wastes a lot of someone's time. That doesn't mean that I don't want to get rich from my writing, or that I don't want to make a living at it - it's just that the writing is the motivation, and the money (and the marketing activities that accrue it) is the means, not the other way round.

So my question is this; at what point are you financially free to write? What counts, from a financial perspective, as a career in writing? At what point do you feel like you can give up, or cut back on, the day-job?

The general question 'what does it mean to have a career in writing?' is a very hard one to answer, and ranges over a complicated set of topics. But the financial question, because it deals with a precise decimal quantity - the amount of money you want to be making - should at least be answerable. It's a simple question of what you want to be able to do in addition to writing.

This year is going to cost me a little under £5000 for rent, bills and food (I live pretty frugally, and in a cheap city). Being a writer means (to me) needing a computer on which to write, and an internet connection by which to distribute and promote my work. I also want to keep my musical instruments and consoles in working order. Call that, for just-on-the-safe-side purposes, another £1000. I want some sort of a social life (£10-20 a week, i.e. an extra £500-1000). Then there's the question of up-front costs for writing-related stuff (in particular, formatting for print and editing, both things I've largely dodged paying for so far - but this can't last), which could get quite high but which aren't at the moment featuring in my planning.

Call it £7500 total, and let's say that's a half-decent absolute minimum for one person to survive on. We can guess that I'll need to get somewhere between £10,000 and £13,000 in sales revenue, depending on the precise structre of tax and royalty calculations if I'm going to cover this year from my writing (I'm almost certainly not). But that's a baseline.

That's what it will take for me to think I can give up the day-job. The precise amount you settle on will probably be different, but it's unlikely to be smaller (I'm seriously not kidding about how frugal my living costs are). Want to run a car? Add at least £1000 per year for fuel, taxes and insurance. Buying a house? Several thousand, every year, in mortgage payments. Want to support a family? Add at least £10,000, plus a further £5000 for each child beyond the first - all per year.

This, ultimately, is why I don't like the idea of writing for the money - I feel like I've got a huge mountain to climb just to make my £7,500, and if I was measuring success by how close I got to that target rather than how much writing I get to do and how good I feel my writing is, I would probably have already had all the hope crushed out of me. Know your goal before you make a serious commitment to this business - and don't forget just how big a mountain you'll have to climb to get there.

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