My Writing Life; Why Bother?

Authors Carlo Gébler and Ian Sansom share their views and experiences of the literary world with a sold-out crowd at Aspects Festival

Back in the '70s and '80s, a writer could get by on producing two or three book reviews a month if they wanted to. At around £300 a pop – depending on who you were writing for  the freelance life could quite easily be supported. 

Fast forward to 2015 and you’ll be lucky to get £50 for the same quality and length of work. As for writing books, well – unless you’re in the realms of Rowling, then it's reasonable enough to ask - My Writing Life; Why Bother?

This is the topic of discussion at Aspects Irish Literature Festival in Bangor for two of Northern Ireland’s established and yes, successful, writers – Ian Sansom and Carlo Gébler.

Successful but not, as both point out, successful in the way some might think – that is, financially. In that regard, success today, says Gébler, whose latest book The Projectionist launched at Belfast's No Alibis Bookstore on September 26, is much for him as it was back in the '80s.

Indeed, the crowd is audibly surprised to hear that despite being the author of several novels, a playwright, reviewer, arts commentator and more, the pay checks beg to differ. Money is, of course, something few like to discuss in public on personal terms, but a commodity that everyone nevertheless wants to know about.

Sansom and Gébler are therefore refreshing in their honesty and don’t hold back on some hard truths.

Can anyone seriously make a living today solely as a writer, and what should they expect from the literary world once they get there? Aspiring writers, buckle up and be prepared.

Freelance

'We’re here to talk about literature and the way literature is,' says Gébler. 'I started publishing in 1985 and it’s completely and utterly different now.'

So, what do we need to know about the literary world today?

  1. Publishers are no longer interested in the long-term cultivation of writers to ensure quality text is produced.
  2. There’s no more editing.
  3. Writers have to self-publicise.
  4. The money has collapsed the things that existed around publishing, for example, support to writers – all that has largely gone.
  5. The average earnings for writers now is around £8,000. It was £12,000 last time they checked (and this all depends on your publisher).

Looking at this list, one might be inclined to reiterate the aforementioned event title; or to think perhaps that this is all an exaggeration. One would be a little naïve to do so however and, while the truth can often be hard to hear, it’s surely not such a surprise to anyone writing today.

It’s clear that in 2015, publishers want what sells; they want quantity over quality, and they want authors to do their own publicity.

Indeed, follow some authors on Twitter and you’ll soon experience the avalanche of ‘buy my book’ tweets that clog the system on a daily basis. From the self-published and the publisher-published alike. Being a writer today is a lot of work, and the return is a lot less lucrative than you might think.

'Before, there was winnowing (finding the quality writing), distribution and publishing. Now, it’s changed,' says Sansom. 'There’s now a worldwide platform, so if you wrote a book this afternoon, you could distribute it this evening and have it read by anyone tomorrow. There are opportunities for writers, but does it breed a different kind of writer perhaps?'

Gébler adds that although writing is a solitary activity, the participation of other people in the post-writing process is invaluable.

Editing

'That’s what publishers used to do,' he says. 'You do need to be told things. What happens with very successful writers now, because they’re not in an editing culture, is that they’re not told to cut their work.'

As for Amazon and the like, or as Gébler calls it, 'the democratisation of literature through technology,' it will ultimately 'exploit writers horribly.' Indeed, what author could hope to benefit from a 93:7% profit split? The 7% of course, going to the writer.

'The people I find myself liking now are the Grub Street people,' says Gébler. 'People who can produce text for money – I have admiration just for the fact that they can do it. Like Orwell – having the craftsmanship and the ability to function in a difficult literary culture.'

Sansom adds: 'I admire people who are halfway between – those capable of making art better and capable of being entertaining.'

Sansom, it should be added, also has a new book out – Death in Devon - the second instalment of his The County Guides series. Having lived in Bangor for many years, the English-born scribe has penned the popular Mobile Library mystery series, writes reviews in the national press, is a respected academic and has published essays in The New York Times.

Meanwhile, Enniskillen-based Gébler, who’s written everything from children’s books and adult novels, to memoirs, plays and short stories, as well as teaching and also writing for the national press, is just as accomplished.

These are writers with experience, talent and who have managed to persevere through the metamorphosing literary landscape over the years. So, when they talk of the state of literature and today’s writing culture, it makes sense to listen.

As the floor is opened up for questions from the audience, our two writers can’t dodge the inevitable. Why, then, do they stick at it?

Says Sansom: 'It’s a vocation. Different people write for different reasons, but I’m very attracted to the idea that art-making is a form of reparative activity. By being creative, you’re putting something back together.'

Gébler adds: 'The rage to order makes me feel better. The establishment through language of a picture which I can decant from here to your head makes me feel better.'

As for their individual writing style, for Sansom, writing is more about the art of language - the performance and the telling of a story. 'I’m as much interested in that as the storytelling aspect,' he says. 'I’m not particularly good at the storytelling aspect…'

For Gébler, the opposite is true, as he prefers the ‘what comes’ next’ challenge of the storytelling process – the narrative of the story. 'I’m interested really in the situation, and less interested in the language,' he says. 'One of the things that has got better in literature I think, is that it’s less rigid about narrative form now.'

He adds: 'But good writing needs style, authority and oomph. What puzzles me is that not everybody has that.'