Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Arrogant puffery

On Sunday my wife read out a letter from The Observer. It said:

The self-righteous and arrogant puffery of the assorted literati to whom you gave publicity in your headlines and articles on Bookstart really cannot go unchallenged. Handing out new books to those patronisingly thought to be in need of them has little or nothing to do with literacy but, of course, has everything to do with the amount of money made by authors and publishers and it would have been more honest had those fulminating against the threat to cut the £13m of taxpayers' money presently doled out to this so-called charity declared their financial interest.

The letter was by Ann Keith, whom - a spot of Googling discovered - was (and maybe still is) a librarian at Christ's College here in Cambridge. Where to start?

That a librarian should have such an antagonistic attitude to writers is certainly bizarre, but that she would set herself so violently against an organisation that promotes reading and gives books to children is sad and actually disgraceful.

Is it 'patronising' to give books to children? In what way? Does she mean that it is patronising to assume that these children are disadvantaged in some way and need our help in the owning of books? If she does, she misses the point entirely - that in fact is the new government's plan for the book-gifting scheme: that the books will go only to those who 'need' them.

But the book-gifting schemes as they stand at the moment make no such assumptions - and that is their strength. They do not make the patronising assumption that simply because parents have the money to buy books that they see the point of books. I'm sure we all know well-off friends or acquaintances who do not seem to have a place for literature in their lives and so do not see it as a necessary part of their children's lives. It is not only poor children who do not know what it is like to have a bedtime story read to them or understand the thrill of becoming totally enthralled by a book.

But of course, Ms Keith has made the point that I am only saying all this because I have a financial motive. I need children to buy my books so that I can afford to fly my diamond-studded helicopter between the various mansions and private islands owned by my author friends.

Let's start with Booktrust and the Booked Up scheme. I will not pretend that there is not a possible financial dividend from being put onto that list. The books are bought from the publisher but at a reduced rate with reduced royalties, but it raises the author's profile which is never a bad thing, and a child that enjoyed that book may buy - or ask his or her parents to buy - another in the series. I was honoured to be put on the list, but I was also aware that it would do my career no harm. I am not about to make any apologies for that.

I am a full time writer and have been for a little over ten years now. Apart from a little illustration (and I'm talking one or two jobs a year) I have no other source of income. I consider myself a successful author, in that I think I produce good work and I have a living wage, but my income is still nothing to shout about. I earned more working one day a week as an illustrator on The Economist than I have working all week as a writer for much of my career. Having said that The Economist paid very well, as did newspaper cartooning in general. I have done enough other jobs - proof-reading (mind-numbingly boring) and working in a steelworks (mind-numbingly boring and hideously dangerous) for instance, to know that I could be a lot worse off. Money isn't everything.

I have said before that writing is a compulsion and you had better have it if you have any thoughts of attempting it as a career. But we write for children and young people because we love doing it - not all the time, but most of the time. Not only do writers earn very little, they compound it by doing lots of work for nothing, whether it be a visit to their local school or library or taking part in events. Much of this stuff can be seen as 'self-promotion' but in truth it isn't very effective and comes about mainly because children's authors and illustrators are suckers for this kind of thing.

When I first started writing we were in the first stages of Harry Potter fever and I - along with all other children's authors - would be regularly asked what we earned. We expect eight year olds to assume that if one author is a squillionaire, then all authors must be - but to get the same naivety from an adult is a little galling. But why the hell shouldn't I do a job I like and get well paid. Who would I be harming?

Of course I want to sell lots of books, both because I want my books to be read and I want them to be popular, and because I want to earn more money than I do. Who doesn't? But we are not, as authors, in control of how many books we sell. We are not in control of whether they get reviewed, where they get reviewed or how they get reviewed, whether we get nominated for awards or invited to festivals - or whether we get chosen to be on a list like Booked Up.

The money we are sure of receiving (providing we do work that the publisher wants to publish) is not great in most cases. This is known as the 'advance' - that is, money advanced to the author set against what the book will earn in royalties. Nothing in publishing is simple, so that this advance comes in three even smaller tranches - one on signature of contract, one on delivery of manuscript and one on publication. All other forms of income from a book - royalties, foreign sales, audio or film deals - may never actually materialise. Many advances are never paid off.

Incidentally, the royalties take an age to come through. They are paid in twice-yearly batches - January to June and July to December - but of course the author does not get paid straight away. They have to be processed. For three months. Then your agent will probably hang on to it for another month. So as an author you will see a profit from the sales of your book (if there is one, remember) a year later. Unpredictable income, no paid holidays, no sick-leave. Welcome to the puffed up, glamorous world of writing.

Mostly I assume that if a writer is earning more than me, they are working harder than me, and in most cases that will be true. The only way to get rich is to have a bestseller and/or a movie made of your book. There are so few children's authors who fit into this category that it isn't even worth factoring in. To even earn a decent standing of living most authors have to either work damned hard and write a lot of books, have another job as well, or have a partner who does a job with an actual recognisable wage. Certainly, if you have ever dreamed of being an author, follow that dream out of a desire to write, not out of a desire for riches. Buy a lottery ticket instead. The odds are better.

But what a preposterous notion it is, Ms Keith, that children's authors have to declare a financial interest before leaping to the defence of an organisation like Booktrust - an organisation that everyone (particularly librarians) ought to hold in the highest regard. Shame on you.


  1. I should think Ms Keith has gone to ground in shame by now, such was the avalanche of incredulous respondents to her ill-informed letter. I've learned my lesson as well, I'm giving up writing, I'm going to become a librarian, I hear they get paid a fortune and just sit around all day reading books.

  2. You speak for us all - the Assorted Literati.

  3. Ah, the Assorted Literati! It does make us sound exciting, doesn't it? Like something from a Dan Brown novel. I wish it was as exciting as it sounds.

    And Kathryn, please don't give up writing. I hear there are many, many librarians who are hard-working, poorly rewarded people who care passionately about books and reading. It's a odd job to do if you don't. Maybe she only likes dead writers.

  4. I was reminded of your blog by a Google alert (related not directly to this, but your mention of Rosemary Sutcliff recently). I welcomed your robust assault on Ms Keith's position; and I suspect Rosemary would have done. She became a story-teller in part because she was read to by her mother all through childhood years of illness and before she could read aged twelve or so. (And she needed to earn to finance the live-in care she needed all her life to help her transcend her physical disabilities.)

  5. I think that most librarians, or those that work hard promoting reading and literacy in this country would disagree with what Ms Keith has apparently written. I am involved heavily in promoting books and the joy of reading and support the whole concept of Bookstart. It is, as it so boldly says...a gift for life! The specious comments - because honestly, that is what they are - must be based on an ignorance. In Wales the National Assembly has got behind this initiative whole heartedly based on a findings from a pilot study in Birmingham. This was not taken on lightly, which makes me proud to live here. I sincerely hope that this happens in England and the signs are that things are turning from the catastrophic announcement made some weeks ago concerning Boostart in England. The uproar is real and people are angry - quite rightly in my view. This whole reading experience is too important to lose. As Chris says, it moves across all social levels...working alongside librarians, health visitors and clinics who also promote the libraries as well as the books and the act of reading. So, either you have a hidden agenda or you have no idea what the Bookstart experience is all about. As for writers (and illustrators) displaying..."self-righteous and arrogant puffery..." you couldn't be further from the truth. I don't think writers should be disparaged in this way and frankly I don't feel that librarians should be tainted with your rather blinkerd and incredibly shortsighted view. The only thing you can say about these people is that they care, are hard working and hold the future of our children in their hands...whether its a book to borrow, one that is written or simply sharing a story.

  6. Rosemary Sutcliff is one of the main reasons that I became a writer. Actually she is also one of the reasons I became an illustrator - because I loved the Charles Keeping illustrations in her books. She was a great writer and a big part of my childhood.

    And Rob - you do know that Kathryn was joking don't you? I don't know of any children's authors who do not have an enormous respect for librarians. But of course you are right to say that there is a lot of anger and concern out there.

  7. Thanks Chris - credit me with some sense of humour, the words from Kathryn about a librarian having a huge salary had me choking (with mirth!)on my garibaldi!

  8. Sorry Rob - as soon as I typed that I realised how it sounded. Patronising, arrogant, puffed-up authors!

  9. Hmmm, must check my bank account for the squillions I'm meant to earn. Second thoughts maybe I'll get an early night after all I have to get up for work in the morning...

  10. I don't have a comment to make about the article, although I suspect I should have. But since the post goes to your inbox before publication (so you can delete it) I just want to say that you haven't changed that much from when we were at school, or playing crib, and it's nice to know that you're still around after 30+ years.
    All the very best for 2011

  11. Check now Jon - maybe those squillions have been lying there without you realising! And 'work'? You can't be talking about writing surely?

    Graeme!!! It is fantastic to hear from you. Thanks for leaving a comment. It's good to know that any of us are still around after this long, huh? I hope I have changed though! It would be a bit weird if I'd stayed the same through all my many adventures. I'd love to hear what you've been up to. If you want to have a chat drop a line to my agent and she can pass it on to me - if that doesn't seem too much of a pain. I need to sort out an email address for the blog. But I need to do a lot of things! Happy new year to you, too!