Literary Careers

types of poetry careerMany schools of poetry exist today, each with their different aspirations and career paths. The broadest grouping is into professionals and amateurs, but even professional poets and novelists disagree as to what is authentic, and make strenuous efforts to belong to the right movement. You can only appreciate such coterie politics by jumping into the swim of events — writing, editing, reviewing — but you will need eventually to declare for one or other of the current types of literarature, and modify your output accordingly. Your pattern of acceptances will be a guide, but also helpful will be extensive reading, particularly the critical work of the 'enemy camp'.


Many dream of the time when they can really get down to writing, without the need to put food on the table and create a name for themselves in their day-to-day jobs and local community. Why not become a professional, a career poet or novelist, turning out collections regularly from prestigious presses, and taking a recognized part in conferences, courses and workshops?

Some hundreds of writers do that, becoming artists in residence at universities, or accredited workshop conveners at writing colleges or community centres. Writing was, is, and always will be an an essential part of their lives, whatever the cost, however financially or socially unrewarding. They spend their last penny on a book, and can remember precisely when they encountered an author later important to them.

Note the unquenchable interest, contacts and background. Professional writers make careers for themselves in one or more of the following ways:

1. Take a Master of Fine Arts degree, and become a writer in residence etc. at some recognized university or college of further education.

2. Follow a university English course by a Ph.D., but spend much of their time writing and associating with poets, promoting their work and being promoted in turn.

3. Become officers of poetry institutions, again hobnobbing with poets and becoming part of the publicity machine.

4. Teach in an English faculty, many of which run a magazine publishing certain types of poetry and their important names.

5. Work in a publishing house, particularly those few that bring out poetry collections or literary novels.

6. Join the poetry performing circuit, building up a loyal public and issuing collections of their popular numbers.

Of course there are dangers. One is the need to publish collections at regular intervals, regardless of quality, simply to prove credentials. Another is the ease with which literary activities can substitute for the real thing, which is writing. Everything is easier than writing poems or short stories that are any good, and perhaps only the most uncompromising (and sometimes difficult) characters survive the temptation.


But perhaps you're not a career writer at all, but an amateur in the best sense of the word, who has produced a substantial body of work. How do you get your precious lifeblood published?

1. You're earned the money to self publish at no cost spared. You find a reputable publisher, talk to local bookstores and place your work on Amazon Books.

2. You don't have the $1,000 + needed to 'publish and be damned'. Your options:

1. Join a local writing group and publish in their occasional anthology.

2. Submit to the many ezines springing up on the Internet, and disappearing as fast again.

3. Submit to one of the long-established small poetry or literary magazines.

4. Self-publish an anthology of your work: traditional or print-on-demand.

5. Run your own magazine or literary website.


Now the bad news. Publishing isn't easy money. Before sending off your masterpiece, or even thinking about your next article, you might bear in mind:

1. Publishing is a strange if not mad world that combines superb professionalism with laughable incompetence.

2. Over half of books bought aren't actually read.

3. The odd best-seller aside, no one today makes serious money at publishing, either authors or publishers.

4. Because many publishers are struggling to survive, the last thing they want is another manuscript from an unproved author.

5. If they're sensible, authors write to communicate, for a love of their subject, and (just possibly) some status.

6. Anyone can publish a book today at modest expense, but even recouping the outlay needs effort and much inside knowledge.

7. Electronic publishing and the internet are important developments, but bring their own needs: just creating an e-book and setting up a marketing website will not work. Some talent is needed, but equally important is an understanding of the publishing business, persistence and a grasp of the opportunities.

Most writers earn far more from reviewing, teaching, adjudicating competitions, giving talks, running workshops, and/or appearing on radio than from royalties on their publications. {1} Twenty odd years ago, some 70,000 new books were published each year in Britain, of which 6,000 were novels. Twenty percent of these had some claim to literary respectability. {2} There were big-earners, multimillionaires even, but only 300 full-time novelists made over 8,000 p.a., with another 300 supplementing income from journalism, and another 900 supplementing income from some other literary activity. Figures from other countries were equally depressing (e.g. 1250, 750 and 1750 respectively for the States), {3} and these will not have improved recently.

Rebecca Brandywyne spoke for many when she remarked: 'the hard reality is that the vast majority of authors cannot earn even a comfortable-much less a luxurious-living from their writing careers, and, unless they have access to other sources of funding (such as a working spouse, investments and dividends, or an inheritance), are frequently compelled to take other jobs as their primary means of financial support.' She provided a worked example. Consider a mass-market paperback book of 25,000 copies printed, an average return rate of 50%, an average $6.50 cover price, and an average 6% royalty rate. Royalties would amount to $4,875, less agent fees of $731.25, leaving the author a before-tax profit of $4,143.75. {4}

Writing a Novel

How long it takes to write a decent novel depends on the genre, the quality, and what you call writing. Kerouac's On the Road was dashed off in three weeks, but Joyce's Ulysses took sixteen years {5}. The actual typing may only require a few months, but the ideas generally take years to gestate, and that first draft will need extensive rewriting and sometimes a whole new storyline. Many novels never come good, and have to be abandoned— providing valuable experience but not, as Bernard Shaw remarked, worth quite what we've had to pay for it. Most novelists report a year or two of actual writing. Best-selling novelists can afford a more leisurely pace, turning out a blockbuster every three or four years. Some novels are written in weeks, either under inspiration or by relentless application, but that rate can't be maintained for long. The respected UK Society of Authors found half their members earned less than the minimum wage {6}, and successful authors urge newcomers to look before leaping into full-time writing. {7}{8} Any large UK publisher will receive 2000 unsolicited novel manuscripts in a year, and publish 20. The average serious first novel receives half a dozen reviews and perhaps sells 1000 copies over two years. With royalties around 10% at best, writers must learn to mechanically turn out a commercial product or starve. Seventy-five per cent of serious writers in the States earn no money at all from their work, ever. {3}

Don't believe this? Use rankforest to check sales on Amazon, or just glance at the sales ranking. A respectable ranking of 10,000 indicates sales of 100 books per month, perhaps earning their proud authors $1 a sale. Consider the work that internationally known poets put on their sites (we're not naming names), and ask not why it's so indifferent but how they ever got round to writing the pieces in the first place, given the unending schedule of talks, signings, representation on various societies, weekly column, and contributions to late-night shows where they must say something kindly about the books of colleagues they haven't read and don't intend to.

Literature does not bring fame. Its standard-bearers were the English departments in schools and universities, but these have been taken over by critical theory, which often lacks humanity and the honesty of clear exposition. {9} Work in the small presses is very mixed, and few have a circulation above the low hundreds. Even the habit of close attention soon wears off, as 58% of US high school students and 42% of college students never open a book after finishing their education. {10} Print on Demand companies estimate that one million manuscripts are looking for a publisher in the States alone, of which only one per cent will be successful.


1. Peter Finch's The Poetry Business (1994).

2. D.J. Taylor's A Vain Conceit: British Fiction in the 1980's (1989).

3. George Greenfield's Scribblers for Bread (1989).

4. Brandywyne, Rebecca. Advances and Royalties: How Authors are Paid.

5. Mya Bell's Web Log. July 2004. NNA (Not Now Available).

6. An Independent (UK) newspaper article of 4th March 2006 quoted a 2005 Society of Authors study, which found 50% of UK authors earned less than the minimum wage, and 75% less than 20,000/year.

7. Sendbuehler, Fran. First Novel Policy and The Bestseller. Feb. 1996. NNA

8. Weinberg, Robert. Writing Full Time-A User's Guide 2003.

9. Chapter 3 of Bernard Bergonzi's Exploding English: Criticism, Theory, Culture (1990), Chapter 2 of Alvin Kernan's The Death of Literature (1990), and Chapters 1 and 9 of George Watson's The Literary Critics (1986).

10. Poynter, Dan. Statistics 2004.

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