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The second event in the London SCBWI's 2013 Professional Series happened last night, with a talk on making a living as a writer. In attendance were:

- Jane Clare, a multiple published author of books for younger children, including the award winning Gilbert The Great series and a number of series for Working Partners; and

- Lorna Fergusson, an author and owner of the successful Fictionfire site, which offers writing courses and writer support services.

Asking the questions and maintaining order was SCBWI's very own Sally Poyton.


I'll begin the report with a confession - owing to a work event I wasn't able to make it to the start of the session so I missed the introduction and Jane's opening remarks. So apologies for that.

I arrived though as Lorna was explaining that she'd started out writing adult fiction and had her novel The Chase published by Bloomsbury. She explained that this was before ebooks began and so she's recently had the electronic rights returned to her and is releasing an electronic version this year. She's recently completed a manuscript for children aged 12+ and is working on a historical novel that's over 100,000 words. She said that she wanted autonomy in her career but pointed out that this also meant having insecurity. She said that she started off teaching English A Level in Oxford but found that the teaching strand of her career collided with the speaking strand of her career and she started teaching at Winchester Writers' Conference and also taught novel writing courses and in Oxford University's adult education department. She set up Fictionfire in 2009 because she was getting frustrated with the procedures involved in teaching. As part of her business, she teaches day courses at Trinity College, does critique work and teaches. She said that she finds it all very fulfilling.

The session started with Sally putting to the panel a number of questions that had been raised on SCBWI's Yahoo Group. For the purposes of this report, I've summarised the questions in bold italics and underlined and summarised each panellist's opinion on the same.

Where do you find writing work and how do you fit in writing with your other work?

Jane: She was contacted by Working Partners through her agent about a proposed new series based on dinosaurs. Jane's a geek about dinosaurs so she wrote an audition chapter, which got her through to the second round where she received editorial comments. She took on board their comments and became the writer for the series. She has however tried out for other series but not been commissioned for them. You can approach Working Partners yourself to express an interest in auditioning for their series but Jane's work has all come through my agent because most of the contracts contain confidentiality clauses. The risk of doing work for reading schemes and Working Partners is that you've got no guarantee that you'll be taken on and paid.

Lorna: She found that doing workshops, promotion and critique work can take up a lot of time. She tends to work well to deadlines but she's had to do it by writing in the middle of the night - normally between midnight and 4 am (and only after having a nap in the early evening). Lorna sets a target of 1,000 words per session and she keeps going without doing any revision so she knows that there are bits in her current historical novel that don't make any sense. The problem with this writing method is that she does feel awful the next day but she says that you need to flick a switch in your head to stay determined and get the job done.

How long did it take you to start making enough money to support yourself?

Jane: She started writing in the 1990s and after writing for 5 years she'd made about £60 from the sale of a poem. She'd written about 6 books before thinking about doing it full-time. She was working part-time at a library and reduced her hours until she reached a point where she was making a living from her writing.

Lorna: She made the point that it all depends on what you mean by making a living. She pointed out that most authors don't make all their income from writing - most advances are around £5,000, which is usually paid in 3 instalments (one on sale, one on submission and one on release) and then you've got to get the sales to earn out to earn a royalty. She said that you need to sell about 30,000 books per year to make £20,000 and the median income for authors is £4,000. The top 10% of authors earn 50% of the income so writers need to go into the profession by being realistic and you need to find other ways of supplementing your income.

Do you need the support of a partner to write?

Jane: Her husband died 11 years ago but he had life insurance, which meant that Jane didn't have to worry about paying the mortgage. However it's a difficult question to answer.

Lorna: Lorna's husband always believed in her and believed in Fictionfire (although he worries that she's spending too much time on it). Her husband is her first reader and she doesn't know how to manage without him.

Jane: Most of her time is spent on writing and in thinking about writing - even when she's doing other things. She writes short books so she tends to get the first draft done in just 4 days.

Lorna: She's focused but tends to concentrate on Fictionfire and critiquing so she finds it difficult to switch off to write during the day although she can switch into it during the night.

Do you have to have an agent?

Jane: Jane is represented by Celia Catchpole at The Catchpole Agency who she's grateful to but she used to have a scattergun approach.

Lorna: did have an agent at Curtis Brown who was wonderful but who retired and the person who took over was less proactive. She currently doesn't have an agent but has joined the Alliance of Independent Authors and is epublishing her book The Chase. The Alliance of Independent Authors gives advice and support and has a database of support services together with a foreign rights agent. She thinks that publishing is in a state of flux and is examining itself so authors should ask publishers what they're going to do for them. Some writers are giving print rights but keeping digital rights. It's okay to self-publish as long as you behave and approach it professionally. Agents are useful - they're a buffer between you and the publisher and can deal with subsidiary and foreign rights deals.

How do you deal with school events?

Jane: Jane loves doing school visits and says that they're a good earner for writers. She charges Society of Author rates (£350 for a day's visit). Schools generally don't want to add extra for travel/accommodation so she doesn't generally charge separately for that - although she does for international schools. Schools generally want authors to be enthusiastic and inspire children to write rather than just blatantly self-promote their own work. Jane started off trying out material for free at her local school and then put together a pack that she took out to other schools together with her rates and she also joined Contact An Author and said that it helps to put on references from schools. She also contacted literary co-ordinators.

How do you deal with general events and talks?

Lorna: It started with being asked about The Chase and then slowly grew from there as people started to get to know her. She recommended making use of Twitter and Facebook because it helps you to hear about events and helps people to hear about you. Lorna contacted Oxford University about teaching - you need to network and be open to possibilities and receptive to what's going on. Authors also need to work out what their identity is, e.g. what are you an authority on? She recommended joining specialist groups because you meet people and share experiences and feel less isolated.

Jane: Jane recommended having bookmarks as promotional tools for kids because you can sign them and they want to know about your books. She uses Vistaprint for business cards and postcards. She has done local festivals and always tells the local press when she has a new book out.

Lorna: She noted that authors tend to be treated badly at big festivals. It's difficult to talk to festivals and event organisers about money but authors should be willing to have that conversation because there's usually a lot of preparation involved. Lorna usually quotes Society of Authors rates but says that writers are bad about pricing what they're doing and communicating that. She recommends that authors put an accurate value on what you're worth and what an hour of your time is worth.

Jane: Jane recommended that you don't do half-day events at schools because the schools tend to pick the 9am - 1pm slot, which is longer than half a school day. She has a three-quarter day rate for this, which schools seem okay with. Last year Jane did 28 school visits, mostly in March to tie in with World Book Day and Book Week.


Many thanks to the organisers for another interesting and informative event.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Sally Poyton
Mar. 22nd, 2013 09:41 am (UTC)
Thanks for this very comprehensive and interesting write up Caroline. Both Jane and Lorna, were fascinating and very generous with their honest responses, much food for thought!
Mar. 23rd, 2013 09:08 pm (UTC)
No problem. I found it very useful.
Kathryn Evans
Mar. 22nd, 2013 12:58 pm (UTC)
Thanks for posting about this - good for those of us who couldn't make it!
Mar. 23rd, 2013 09:08 pm (UTC)
Re: Thanks
You're welcome!
Mar. 22nd, 2013 02:32 pm (UTC)
Thanks for this, Caroline! Whew, glad you're making it to all the events I'm missing!
Mar. 23rd, 2013 09:08 pm (UTC)
No problem - happy to pay it forward.
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 23rd, 2013 09:09 pm (UTC)
Thanks - and thank you for stopping by.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )


Caroline Hooton

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