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.