Writing For A Living – The Big Payday Fallacy

All you need is that one big break and you can quit the rat race and live your dream.

That’s the thinking, isn’t it? It’s also the mistake that just about every writer makes.

You’ve spent your life reading books, or watching films and TV, and you’ve decided the life of a writer is a great one. Better than wasting the days of your life in an office, or on the shop floor, or digging ditches. And you’d be right. It might not all be unicorns and stardust – it’s a job, what job is? – but it’s about as near-perfect as it gets.

You set your own hours. You don’t have a boss needling you in your place of work. More importantly, you get time. To reflect on life. To spend with your thoughts. To appreciate the world around you.

That’s a big deal. (And most writers will tell you, it’s more valuable than money.}

But money is still the key in the equation.

Everyone has responsibilities. When you’re in your twenties, it’s making sure you can pay the rent and eat. When you’re a little older, it’s, perhaps, a significant other, perhaps children. How many get to be self-indulgent and take a leap into the dark to launch that fantastic writing career?

And so the plan is to steal all your free time, in the morning when everyone is asleep, or late at night, or in your lunch break, and scribble away. And then you sell your novel/script and take all that cash, replace your salary, and ease seamlessly into the writing life.

That’s not a plan. There are no milestones, no measurable data, no paths to an achievable target.

It’s a fantasy. A child’s wish.

You’ve read the stories of the writers who get big, life-changing pay-outs, but you’ve never read the stories about the ones who get some, but not quite enough. Because those stories are boring.

Most book advances are the equivalent of a year’s salary on minimum wage. You might think you can scrape by on that until the bigger stuff starts rolling in. You might be right. Or you might never be published again. You might sell one TV script and no more for years. To stake the existence of all those people who rely on you on a roll of the dice like that, is not kind, or wise.

So if you’ve got responsibilities, that’s it for the writing dream. Is that what I’m saying? There’s no way to gain escape velocity from the mundane life into the place where you’re making a living from writing?


There’s no simple way, but there is a clever way.

Forget the idea of a big pay-day as a mirage that will lure you away from the path you should be on. Once you ignore that impetus, you can start plotting the way ahead.

RULE # 8: Build your portfolio.

We’re in a new world now. You no longer need a ‘job’ like mum and dad. Increasingly, people are carving out a good living away from the nine-to-five. They get money *and* freedom *and* fulfilment.

The trick is building multiple income streams so you’re not relying on one paying gig that could fall apart. This is your portfolio. It’s what all 21st century writers are doing – and it is something you can start putting together while you’re in regular employment.

Start off writing for some online sites that pay. Work on an ongoing relationship. Self-publish on kindle. Do some journalism. Ghost write. Do ad copy. Teach a class at your local college. Write some comics. The thing here is, you don’t need to make a lot of cash from each individual job, but cumulatively a little becomes a decent amount.

There are plenty of tiny pots of money out there if you’re spry and you pay attention.

Keep a good account of earnings. Data is everything. Once you can see you can pay the month-to-month bills you’re close to take-off. And then when you do sell your book, or a script, or get a pitch accepted, or get to write an episode of Doctors (the entry level for screenwriters and who accept *lots* of new writers every year – £4,700 for a half-hour script and you can do several a year), you’re ready.

Even so, there’s still going to be one key moment when you have to take the big decision: stay where I am or take a leap into the unknown?

Question any person who’s found their way into one of the glamour industries, or any successful person anywhere, and they’ll tell you that at some point they were faced with risk. Taking the risk – a calculated one, of course – was the key factor that moved them out of the pack and into the front-runners.

There is no safe path to being a success. There is no easy road to making a living out of writing.

But if you treat it like a business, building your client base, you can minimise that risk and dart through the open door.

Agents, And Why You Need Them

In a café in North London, my screen agent leaned across the table and gave me his first – and probably most important – piece of advice. He said it to every single new client who signed with him.

“Nobody in this business is going to do you any favours.”

That stands true for every area in which you might be trying to sell your writing, not just the film and TV industries. Publishing. Comics. Games. Journalism. No one will give you any chances. No one will give you a shot because you’re plucky, or because you had a beer with someone they know, or because you’ve worked really, really hard and you feel you deserve an opportunity for your efforts.

Every single opening has to be made by you, and earned by the quality of your writing.

It’s a great piece of advice that may not be obvious when you’re starting out (it’s very clear when you’ve been doing it a while). But it also shows the value of having experienced people around you.

If you want to maximize your earnings from your writing, you need to develop a good team who can take all your hard work and run with it. Agents are the key part (and we’ll get to the other members – your network – in a future post). It’s entirely possible to sell novels and short stories without an agent, but it’s a huge mistake because you won’t make a fraction of what you could be earning. Even if you’re self-publishing, Amazon offers better terms for work submitted through an agent. (Didn’t know that? One reason why you need an agent.)

And if you’re hoping to work in film and TV, you won’t get anywhere without an agent. Nobody will read your work. And if they do, by chance, scan the first few pages, they won’t take you seriously.

More importantly, as we crash towards the third decade of the 21st century, everything has changed. Media is converging, the opportunities are endless, and a good agent will help you navigate the labyrinth to that pot of riches.

Back in the bad old days of the last century, writers generally did one thing. They’d have a book agent, say, who sold that great opus to a local publisher, maybe a few foreign publishers. And that was it.

Nowadays your book can be sold in multiple territories across the world, with an advance in each one. And then books become films, TV, comics, video games, board games, virtual reality experiences, and all those things become all the other things. If you don’t have a good team with expertise and contacts in all those areas, you’ll miss out on the gold rush.

One of the questions I often get asked is why this or that book hasn’t been made into TV or film.  “It’s brilliant!” “Better than XXX!” It’s not been made because the author hasn’t employed a good screen agent who can get that book on to the desks of producers and sell it hard. That’s how it works. If no one sells it, it doesn’t get made. (Usually. There are one or two exceptions that prove the rule). Producers haven’t got the time to find you.

RULE # 4: Build your team.

I have two agents, both based in London – one for books, one for screen. My books agent is Euan Thorneycroft at the long-established agency, A M Heath. Euan pitches book ideas to editors on my behalf, negotiates my contracts with Random House, mainly in the UK, but sometimes in the US depending on the project. Euan is widely connected in the industry, so he picks up intelligence about who is looking for what, what’s been bought, what sells, what’s the likely next trend.

But here’s the thing: because A M Heath is a big agency, they have other departments and a wider range of contacts to get your work earning. There’s a dedicated Foreign Rights department with a wonderfully multilingual staff, who know the editors at publishing houses everywhere else in the world. In the last few months they’ve sold, among other things, my novel Hereward to a big German publisher, and my novel Pendragon to Italy.

My screen agent is Conrad Williams at Blake Friedmann. Conrad sells my screenplays and my two-page pitches. He also suggests me for projects that he hears about where a writer is needed. Producers come to his office to tell him what they’re looking for, and he regularly meets with the movers and shakers of the UK and US TV and film industry on their home turf. His contacts are impeccable. Conrad also makes sure my novels, short stories, novellas and comics are optioned for film and TV. Even if they don’t get made, there’s always a fee for optioning. And once an option expires, usually in a year or two, the option can be re-sold. Some writers make a good living merely from having their work optioned, without it getting anywhere near a screen.

Euan and Conrad are in regular contact to exchange intelligence and to make sure my work is getting out there to all possible outlets.

In my experience, the bigger the agency you can land, the better. They’ve got more contacts, more clout, and departments of experts in different areas. In screen, they can package you with directors and stars to make a better ‘offer’.

That’s going to put a lot of noses out of joint. One-person bands will tell you their contacts and clout are just as good, and they can give a personal service. There’s some truth in that. But see what kind of personal service you get from a big agency if they start making any money out of you. But really, just get the best agent – with the most experience, and the most contacts – that you can. It’s hard to land on the books of bigger agencies, and you’ll need to prove they’re not wasting their time with you.

But: not all agents are equal.

Some people decide one night they’re going to be an agent and set up a website the next day. Poor writers get excited they’ve got an ‘agent’. But these people have no contacts and no clout. The writer would be better served sending out their work themselves. In fact, these kinds of agents can damage careers from the get-go. Remember, you sign with an agent – there is a contractual agreement. They have rights to your work that they’ve, allegedly, marketed during that period, and can hang on to the agenting rights so no other agent can touch it. If they were hopeless at the start, they’re not going to get any better. That book or script is essentially dead, unless you can get them to null and void their rights.

Other agents – usually in the one-person band group – don’t keep up with industry standards. Some still operate as if it’s a 20th century business. They haven’t developed contacts in film or TV, games, whatever. Others are simply unaware of the advances in digital. One agent told an author to give up his entire ebook rights for his backlist to his publisher, because ‘at least they’ll be earning’. No advance or at least only a nominal one. Those ebooks now sit on the company server, not marketed, earning a tiny royalty, and they’ll sit there forever. The author could have made a fortune self-publishing them. The agent had no idea.

Find good people you get on with. Clever people. Connected people with a track record. With a team like that, you’re out there punching hard, and you’re not doing it on your own.


Apple’s Big London Move Might Be Bigger Than You Think


Today Apple announced it will be moving into the high-status new development at the iconic Battersea Power Station on the banks of the Thames in South London.  The plan is to set up a new UK ‘campus’ to echo the doughnut-shaped ‘spaceship campus’ the company is currently constructing in Cupertino, Ca, as a global headquarters.

The half-a-million square foot lease is one of the largest office deals in central London in two decades, and it’s a good fit – the power station matches Apple’s design aesthetic and it has a strong music link.

Apple will be bringing together all its 1400 non-retail London employees at the site – mainly human resources and other corporate – but it will have plenty of space to expand, at least to another 1600 staff members.

And the UK has a new government Budget in November, one that in the strained atmosphere post-Brexit has taken on added significance.

One of the issues the chancellor Philip Hammond will be attempting to tackle is how to stop a flood of big, global companies leaving the UK now that their access to the European market has been severely curtailed, with the clear damage to UK tax revenues and employment that would follow such an exodus.

One mooted plan is to lower Corporation Tax – already one of the lowest in the world – by another 5%, and then to take it even lower.  The effect on the bottom line of those big corporations will likely off-set any Brexit pain they’re feeling.

Apple has had plenty of tax-related problems in recent weeks – the European Commission ruled last month that the company has to cough up $14.5 billion in “illegal tax benefits”, which Apple is appealing –  and its enthusiasm for the EU is fading fast.  CEO Tim Cook said, “The most profound and harmful effect of this ruling will be on investment and job creation in Europe.”

Apple’s European headquarters are currently in Ireland where it employees 5,500 people.  It has said those jobs are safe, for now, but the new UK campus won’t be open till 2020, and with a new corporate tax regime in place and a business-friendly government in power, the establishment of Apple East in London looks a good bet.  Apple wins on every front – it gets to stick two fingers up to the EU, which on many fronts has not been tech-friendly, and it can clean up its brand by paying the tax it owes, to the UK, and not to the EU.  The UK benefits significantly, in higher tax receipts, in jobs, and in the gold-rush of tech firms who will follow the lead of a massive name like Apple.  The lower corporate tax rate will more than pay for itself.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan has already welcomed Apple’s vote of confidence in the city.  Today he said: “I’m delighted Apple is moving into Battersea Power Station, helping to generate new jobs and economic prosperity for London.  It is a further sign London is open to the world’s biggest brands and the leading city for trade and investment.”

It’s no secret that the Mayor and the government have been involved in a host of back-channel negotiations to attract companies like Apple and stave off any post-Brexit economic nightmare.  But a move by Apple to London would also fit with this government’s driving policy to build a global technology hub in the capital (and along a corridor running up to Cambridge).  The chancellor said today that this move “demonstrates how the UK is at the forefront of the next steps in the tech revolution.”