Red-letter royalties

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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.

The two Es come to UCC

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I’m delighted to announce that two of the writers I most admire will read together in the first of University College Cork’s School of English reading series. Between them, they have charted the female – and Irish – experience in five different genres over 40 years.

Ireland Professor of Poetry, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, and the 2015 Irish Pen Award-winning writer, Eilís Ní Dhuibhne will read together at the Creative Zone, Boole Library, on Tuesday, November 8, at 6pm. Admission is free and all are welcome. Come and join us for what is going to be a night of literary riches.

Cork-born Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin is the author of numerous poetry collections, including Acts and Monuments (1966), winner of the Patrick Kavanagh Award, The Sun-Fish (2010) which was awarded the International Griffin Poetry Award, and The Boys of Blue Hill (2015) which was shortlisted for the Forward Prize.  She is Emerita Professor of English at TCD, the founding editor of the poetry journal Cyphers and this month begins her three-year tenure as Ireland Professor of Poetry.

Eilís Ní Dhuibhne is a bilingual novelist, short story writer and playwright. She is the author of four novels – including the Orange Prize short-listed The Dancers Dancing – six collection of short stories, six novels in Irish and six children’s books. Among her awards are a Bisto Book of the Year for her children’s fiction, the Readers’ Association of Ireland Award and the Stewart Parker Award. She teaches on the MA in Creative Writing at UCD and was awarded the Pen Award for Outstanding Contribution to Irish Literature in 2015.

 

 

Writing on fire

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The cover of Surge is fiery looking, as befits an anthology of new writing.  The volume from Brandon Press is a celebration of the old and the new; its publication marks the 40th anniversary year of O’Brien Press and is named after a Dublin literary magazine of the 1930s/40s established by Thomas O’Brien, among others. (Thomas founded O’Brien Press  in 1974.)  The name may be old but the content is all new. It contains work hot off the keyboards of a dozen or so student writers from all over Ireland.

If you want to know what’s happening in creative writing at UCD,Trinity, Queens Belfast, UCC and NUIG, then this volume is a showcase of new names in the fiction firmament.  But there’s more. The anthology represents, more than any dry university curriculum listing could, the ethos of creative writing scholarship – about which there is often skepticism. (Can writing be taught etc etc. . . ) For along with the newbies, there are also fresh stories from established writers who tutor and mentor on these courses such as Frank McGuinness, Eilis Ni Dhuibhne, Mike McCormack  – and yours truly. (For obvious reasons, I’m particularly proud of the students who represent UCC’s inaugural MA in Creative Writing – Madeleine d’Arcy and Bridget Sprouls.)

The idea of the fiction workshop is to mimic the medieval craft guild, in which tyro writers get together with old hands to learn the trade.  What this volume represents is a composite picture of that process.  If you want to see who’s learning from whom, don’t look to the index at the back before reading the stories and maybe you’ll be surprised to find you often can’t tell the master from the apprentice. Rather like looking in on a fiction workshop, where it’s often not clear who’s in charge. And all the better for it.

Surge will be launched at the Dublin Book Festival on November 15