The day that Donal Ryan, above – winner of the Guardian First Book Prize and the European Union Prize for Literature – announced that he was quitting full-time writing and returning to his job in the civil service was a red-letter day for me. Not because of Donal’s announcement, but because on that day I received my first royalty cheque.
That is first ever, first in over 40 years as a published writer.
There were four figures in this royalty cheque, so not some measly sum, and it came from an Irish publisher – O’Brien Press, who published my last novel – The Rising of Bella Casey – in 2013.
The arrival of a royalty statement – which comes once or twice a year depending on the publisher – is normally nothing to get excited about. It comprises columns of figures detailing sales and returns, with a total at the end which is usually a minus number. That means that you have not worked off your advance through sales and that you are, technically, in hock to the publisher.
This might suggest that you’ve got a huge advance, but not necessarily so. Advances for authors have been declining seriously in the past decade. They are certainly a far cry from the high-flying days of the 1990s when jackpot figures were being bandied about in bidding wars between publishers for certain books – and certain authors. For the rest of us, it’s a case of dwindling fortunes. (The advance I received for my 2016 book, Prosperity Drive, – a collection of short stories – was a third of what I received for my second novel, The Pretender, in 1999.)
And don’t let the word advance fool you either. Most people think it’s a large sum you get before you ever write the book; but for most writers it’s a modest sum you get when you’ve delivered the book to the publishers but it has not yet been published.
I’ve never expected to make a living out of writing in Ireland. I’ve always worked at something else – first in journalism, now in teaching, though in the Noughties I did try to go it alone for a while. But as Donal Ryan remarked, it’s a demanding experience depending on your art to earn your bread, particularly if , like him, you’re the father of two school-going children with 20 years left on the mortgage.
“It’s nearly impossible to make a living as a writer,” he told the Sunday Independent when he announced his decision earlier this month. “You need to have something else on the go. You could take a chance and scrape a living through bursaries and writing books, but I’d get too stressed out. It just isn’t worth it.
“I reckon I get about 40c per book. So I would need to sell a huge amount of books to make a good salary out of that.”
Interviewed by the Irish Times on the same topic, Ruth Hegarty, managing editor at the Royal Irish Academy and president of Publishing Ireland, said: “For most people, it doesn’t seem possible for them to be just a writer and devote themselves entirely to writing – even if that would be the best thing for them.
“In literary fiction, I would say it is more normal for advances to be in the hundreds rather than the thousands of euro. Royalty rates in Ireland are often based on net receipts rather than list price, so if you’re looking at a book that sells for a tenner, the author might expect to get something between 50c and €1.20 for it.
The Irish Times article quoted the most recent survey of Irish authors’ incomes – published by the Irish Copyright Licencing Agency in 2010 – found that in 2008-09 over half the writers consulted (58.7 per cent) earned less than €5,000 from writing-related income. Indeed, the commonest response – given by more than a quarter, or 27.9 per cent of respondents – was that they earned less than €500 a year.
The public perception of a moderately successful writer is a far cry from the penury of €500 a year. Even those who should know better, are disbelievers.
Sixteen years ago I registered as self-employed and used an accountant to do my yearly tax audit. Mr Abacus was not someone I knew personally – first mistake: always get a personal recommendation where accountants are concerned! – and he kept on asking me about my royalties.
What royalties, I kept on saying, I’ve never earned any royalties (not even the 40 cent per copy Donal Ryan is talking about). Mr Abacus, frankly, did not believe me. He was sure I was salting away profits from my books – though, of course, given the tax breaks on their creative work for writers in Ireland courtesy of Charlie Haughey (with a little help from the recently late Tony Cronin), such hiding away of funds would have been nonsensical.
It was not a matter of personal distrust, I think. Mr Abacus, being a man of the real world, just didn’t believe it was possible to slave away on projects that sold in thousands of units but didn’t earn anything for their creator. I don’t regret my life choices and I would write even if I never got published again. But acclaim – even modest acclaim – is not the same as income – and any aspiring Irish writer should look to Donal Ryan before deciding that the writing life without any other visible means of support is for her. It may make you happy but it won’t necessarily make you rich.
The paperback edition of Prosperity Drive is out from Vintage on February 23.