The Guardian has an article today by Rafqa Touma ‘Don’t Give Up Your Day Job: How Australia’s Favourite Authors Are Making Ends Meet’.
Ms Touma writes:”According to new research by Macquarie University, the Australia Council and the Copyright Agency, the average annual income from practising as an author is only $18,200 (Australian = £10,000). This has left two-fifths of authors relying on their partner’s income, and two-fifths relying on a day job unrelated to their writing. We spoke to some of Australia’s most celebrated authors who are supplementing their income with day jobs. Here is what they have to say:
Jennifer Down: the Miles Franklin-winning copywriter
Down won the 2022 Miles Franklin for her novel Bodies of Light, which was also shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s prize, the Stella prize and the Voss prize. She is also the author of Our Magic Hour and Pulse Points.
At a weekend writers’ festival in October, Jennifer Down had work to finish for her day job: a brand launch campaign was coming up. So she sat down at a pub and pulled out her laptop.
“I thought if I have to work on a Sunday afternoon, I’ll do it with a pint,” she says. She looked so focused that a group at the table across from her made a passing joke: “Have you finished your novel yet?”
Little did they know Down had in fact finished her novel, which had just won the country’s most important literary prize. “The irony is that it is a Sunday afternoon, and I’m doing my money job while at a festival for my non-money job.”
Down was named the Sydney Morning Herald’s young novelist of the year consecutively in 2017 and 2018. At the time, she was working as an in-house copywriter for an Australian skincare company, being paid less than $50,000. “I was living in a five-person share house, and I could barely pay my bills.”
“It is surreal,” she says. “Outside of work, my writing is really respected. I had this modest critical acclaim coming in. Then at work, I’m having social media copy corrected by a person who doesn’t understand what subordinate clauses are and hasn’t read a book in 10 years.”
Down currently works as a copywriter full-time. She sets her alarm for 4am to write for herself; the alternative is foregoing social engagement.
“I don’t know if it has paid off. It is gratifying to have won prizes, but I feel like it can be incredibly isolating at times.”
It also means she’s effectively working seven days a week. “I don’t really remember the last time I have had two consecutive days off,” she says. “It is paid for in the sense I have been able to produce work, but it is not without a cost.”
Holden Sheppard: the manual labourer with a TV deal
Holden Sheppard’s debut novel Invisible Boys won the 2019 WA Premier’s prize for an emerging writer, the 2019 Kathleen Mitchell award, the 2018 City of Fremantle Hungerford award and the 2017 Ray Koppe residency award. He is also the author of The Brink.
Holden Sheppard is well loved among high school readers, with a TV adaptation of his multi-award-winning novel Invisible Boys currently in production. He is now writing his third book under contract; to fund it, he is working as a manual labourer in a timber yard.
“Authors are sole traders,” he says. “The part that doesn’t get seen is that there is a huge amount of admin.”
The Australia Council report found writers spend only half their writing time actually producing original writing. With invoicing, emailing, social media managing, talks at schools, event appearances and podcasting to fit between his work at the timber yard, Sheppard says he is left to write whenever it fits.
The annual income of children’s book authors sits at $26,800 – higher than the $18,200 average. Sheppard acknowledges his books have sold well, “but as much as it might appear successful, it is still not enough to live off”.
He deliberately looks for casual jobs instead of permanent part-time ones, for the sake of flexibility. “If there is a media interview opportunity, or an event I really want to do on a day of work, it is hard to get it off,” he says. “You jeopardise your day job and your income.” This precarious work he chooses rarely comes with entitlements such as annual leave and sick leave.
In 2015, Sheppard received an Australian Council Art Start grant for $10,000, but the program was scrapped after his round. “I feel that is needed again.” He also advocates for digital lending rights, which don’t exist in Australia.
“Each revenue stream helps us. When people take a book out of an e-library, we don’t see that revenue.”
Michael Mohammed Ahmad: the award-winning novelist who wrote behind the counter
Michael Mohammed Ahmed won the 2015 Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelists award for his debut novel The Tribe. His second novel The Lebs won the 2019 NSW Premier’s Multicultural Literary award and was shortlisted for the 2019 Miles Franklin. He also founded the Sweatshop literacy movement.
“I am a multi-award winning author, and I have a doctorate in literature. I am about as educated as you can get. I have sold tens of thousands of books. Still, I don’t have the job security of a manager at McDonald’s.”
While writing three acclaimed novels – The Tribe (2014), The Lebs (2018) and The Other Half of You (2021) – and setting up the western Sydney-based literacy agency Sweatshop, Michael Mohammad Ahmad worked at his father’s army disposal shop.
“When customers weren’t there, I’d be writing my novels behind the counter,” he says. “I only stopped working there about two or three years ago.”
He’s proud he was able to support his family this way, he says. “But it is insane that I had to do that. The industry isn’t set up to support people.”
Mohammad Ahmad still works seven days a week, with weekends spent writing. “I feel fortunate that in my case it is a job I am passionate about,” he says. “Writers didn’t enter the industry for money.
“It is an activity we’ve been participating in since humans could begin to think. It is fostering the next generation of thinking. It is something we find valuable outside of the capitalist construct of wealth. Even though writers aren’t making ends meet, they are still going to do it.
Anna Spargo-Ryan: the acclaimed author doing everything all at once
Anna Spargo-Ryan won the inaugural Horne prize in 2016 for her essay The Suicide Gene. She was longlisted for ABIA’s Matt Richell award in 2017 for her novel The Gulf. She is also the author of novel The Paper House and 2022 memoir A Kind of Magic.
According to the research, more than one-fifth of authors have a day job that’s related to being a writer – but that doesn’t make it easier for them to write a book.
Since 2013, Anna Spargo-Ryan has been balancing a full-time freelance mix of jobs, from ghostwriting and advertising copywriting to writing podcasts, websites, brand guidelines and feature articles.
“I do a lot of writing,” she says. “But all of it is for other people. A very small proportion of it is for my own writing work.”
Spargo-Ryan once held a romanticised idea of working as a writer. “But over the past 10 years … I have realised that the only way to get writing done is to fit it in.”
This year she published her first nonfiction book, A Kind of Magic. Although she spent the last three years writing it, she “barely remembers” the process. “I had a deadline, I had a contract, so I had to write it, but I didn’t have the leisure of having lots of time to get that done,” she says.
“So I wrote it in all kinds of small gaps. Waiting for the kids at school, before meetings, during meetings, editing on the treadmill. Whenever I could get bits of time … which I don’t really recommend as a writing process.”
Spargo-Ryan recommends writers learn to diversify their craft. “You might get an advance that is like a tenth of your annual salary, and that would be quite a good advance,” she says. “Then you are going to earn like three cents a word, for 100,000 words. In itself it isn’t sustainable.
“No one has a patron who pays for you to do your creative work. Part of being a writer is the hustle, trying new things, and diversifying the work you are doing.”
Omar Sakr: the PM’s literary award-winner looking for a day job
Omar Sakr won the 2020 Prime Minister’s Literary award for poetry for his collection The Lost Arabs. It was also shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary award, the John Bray Poetry award, the Judith Wright Calanthe award and the Colin Roderick award. He is also the author of These Wild Houses and Son of Sin.
“[It was] easy enough to do at first because I was couch-surfing and didn’t have much in the way of expenses,” he says. “But it has become increasingly difficult as I settled down and started a family.”
Grants and prizes gave him time to write his debut novel Son of Sin, but publishing involves a “relentless grind” of writing and touring, which has been “impossible” to sustain since his wife gave birth to their son this year.
The report finds more than half of authors find searching for income elsewhere to be a competing demand on their writing time.
“Now I find myself in a very precarious financial position, and actively trying to find a day job,” Sakr says. “Full-time freelancing relies too much on uncertain outcomes and requires too much of me, on top of being a dad. I already knew that our society doesn’t support artists enough, but it’s brutal to realise we also don’t support parents in a meaningful way either.”