Making a Living As a Writer

As I’m a little short of time, this week’s blog will reproduce an interview with author Donal Ryan that appeared in the latest edition of The Sunday Independent. The article was written by Niamh Horan, and Donal Ryan explains the reason why he returned to his job as a civil servant, despite writing three award-winning, successful books. To me, this article raises this question. Does a writer have a right to expect to make a living from writing? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Here it is.

He is loved by his readers, lauded by critics and is an award-winning author – but Donal Ryan has to return to his day job in the civil service so he can pay the mortgage.

“It’s nearly impossible to make a living as a writer,” he told the Sunday Independent this weekend, “You need to have something else on the go.”

Ryan, who is returning to his full-time role in the Workplace Relations Commission, says romanticised notions of millionaire best-selling novelists aren’t grounded in reality.

“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 have two kids in school and I have a mortgage to pay,” he said.

“I am lucky though. I loved the civil service. It was a job that I was good at and that I found fulfilling and challenging and I had an opportunity to help people and to make a little difference in the world.”

Outlining the numbers that go into achieving a best-selling status, he explains: “If you look at the charts every week, in the autumn you need to sell around 1,000 books to be No.1. At the moment I suppose about 500 books would do it or 300 even – it depends on the time of year.

“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.”

But he says he is lucky to have the support of big publishers: “I can’t complain. My publishers are fantastic.

“I have just signed a contract for three more books and my advances are really good but, still, I have to look at the long term and the fact that I have 20 more years of a mortgage, so you would need to sell a lot to earn a living from that alone.”

From Nenagh, Co Tipperary, Donal worked as a civil servant with the Department of Enterprise for years before his debut novel The Spinning Heart was published in 2011. He then became a writer in residence at the University of Limerick. He has just published his third novel All We Shall Know about a married woman who becomes pregnant after an affair with a 17-year-old Traveller.

 The 40-year-old lives in Castletroy with his wife Anne-Marie and their children, Thomas (8) and Lucy (6) and says he is grateful for his gift because it saved his family from tougher times.

“When I got my first publishing deal, I was completely and utterly broke. I literally hadn’t a penny.

“People working in the civil service were told we were on ‘the pig’s back’ and that we supposedly had big salaries and parachute pensions. We were blamed for the crash and told the only way to get out of it was to crucify us.

“But to lose a quarter of your household income at the stroke of a pen was a pretty serious thing. All of a sudden we hadn’t got enough money to pay for the messages. I literally could not pay the mortgage,” he says.

“At the end of every month the outgoings as a family were more than what we were earning – there was no break from it, there was no end in sight. But then that spurred me on.

“I started writing at the time and I said to myself, ‘I have to make this sellable’, I have to create something that will make a bit of money’.

“I wrote The Spinning Heart in that frame of mind. From the point of view of a person who was broke, and I knew if I could get that advance, we would be out of that hole of debt. To be honest – being a writer literally saved me.” Ryan – who received 47 rejections before finding a publisher – gives inspiration to young writers and explains that it was his self-belief that made him persevere.

“I remember getting one rejection from a major publishing house that was on a big A4 sheet of paper and all it said was ‘sorry not for us’ so I knew they hadn’t even read it.

“I got another note from an agent, who told me: ‘I’ll take on three novels next year and they’ll all be of a higher standard than this’. I just thought, ‘he’s wrong, he’s wrong about this. I had a real serious belief in the novel The Thing About December and I still do.

”That novel for me just felt alright. And I knew in my heart that eventually it would work out and if I kept plugging away that eventually somebody would sit down and read it.

“There’s often terrible advice given to young writers, starting off that they have to be selective with who they send their book to, but I think you should try absolutely everybody.”

He also tells aspiring novelists that if they want to start then they need to get over their fear and put pen to paper. “The thing is it [success] came at the end of 10 years of trying to write and failing, but that’s what you have to do. You have to practice writing. People think, ‘I am good at it, I can just sit down and do it’ but you can’t. You have to fail and fail and fail and fail again before it starts to turn around.” He describes writer’s block as “a feeling of sickness” that is so overt “you could puke” but he says once the magic comes together, “it gives you an immense feeling of pleasure. Nothing could ever compare to it”.


Donal will be in conversation on February 26 with Cecelia Ahern at the Limerick Literary Festival and with Anne Enright at the Ennis Book Club Festival on March 3.



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