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What People Should Know About Writers | Sylvia McNicoll

Currently the rotten economy has made the publishing industry leaner and meaner.  Rejection notes sound curt and dismissive.  So much so that I caught myself telling a relatively new writer the other day that I couldn’t believe I could make a living at it all these years (25).  She pondered at how difficult that must be herself.

The truth of the matter is that many writers earn a living besides blockbuster writers such as J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins or Stephanie Meyers.  What even new writers don’t understand is that advances and royalties alone rarely make up that liveable income.

Writing-related income does.

So, the moment you write a book, you are often asked to teach others how to do it.  This could be in a community college or university depending on your own educational background. Or it could be a session at a writer conference. Children’s writers also instantly become experts on how to make kids read–parents wring their hands as they approach me about advice on this matter–so income can come from family literacy talks.  We also know how to inspire writing in young people.

If you listen to anyone who is passionate about their work, you realize the potential to motivate and inspire students and others.  Income, and book sales, therefore can be derived from school, library, and bookclub visits.

Strangely, I’m often paid to judge writing contests.  Minimally, still usually enough to pay for a full grocery cart.

Looking at, evaluating and/or suggesting changes on a manuscript should pay the mortgage for one month, depending on the size of the home and manuscript.

The expertise required to write a book can lead to the ability to edit others’ work.  I love my part time job editing a parenting magazine called Today’s Parent Toronto.

Freelance writing opportunities have become less frequent since everyone gives away information, such as what I’m doing right now, on blogs.   But I have, in the past, written for newspapers and magazines.  This month I hired myself to write a feature called Creating a Passion for Pages.

Additionally I have earned my way through being an electronic writer in residence, through writing a proposal for an internet travel journal and even bartered a museum membership by “trying out” to write the (wall) speech balloons for some microbes.

My family vacations have been structured around weeklong readings where the hotel has an amazing waterslide.  

Lately, most of my royalties come from other countries where I guess kids buy more books than in Canada.A windfall gain might be an Ontario Arts or Canada Council Grant.  I have been fortunate in the past.When a writer wins a GG, TD or other major monetary award, don’t even ask what they’re doing with the money.  They’re paying down their VISA and/or personal line of credit.

Two fairly steady streams of income are public lending rights (moneys paid through Canada Council for books available in libraries) and Access Copyright (blanket licensing that charges small fees for small unrecorded photocopying and digital downloading–saves the user time if he/she doesn’t have to write me for permissions)  Monday, I’ll be flying into Ottawa to try to convince MPs to tighten the educational exception on the copyright bill C11 to protect the AC income.

Grocery cart by grocery cart, the bits of income all add up.

I think every writer longs to be a blockbuster author.  We feel inadequate when we’re not, especially when signing a contract in the publisher’s office. Or when a government (municipal, provincial or federal) makes cuts to the arts.

But, does the world only want blockbuster hits?  Think of all the wonderful surprising books that have changed your life that weren’t best sellers.

I fondly remember a waitress hugging me after serving me my lunch because her child had stayed up reading her first book (mine) the night before.  I’ve heard that a young victim of parental abuse came to therapy clutching her favourite comfort, one of my books.  I know at least two young women who have fostered many guide dogs after reading my fiction on the topic.  There are many other touching stories I know about that make me realize that blockbusters are not the only important literature out there.
In fact, I often find the bestsellers rather disappointing.

So for the general public, don’t begrudge the writer the fees for talks and other writing related activities.  Also buy the book even if you can put it on hold at the library or borrow it from a buddy.
Finally, tell your MP that the arts and a strong copyright bill are important to you.

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