Friday, April 18, 2008

Crunching the numbers as a writer

How much you get paid for a piece of writing work can often seem entirely arbitrary. Some industries can be remarkably well paid, while others are so tightfisted only the truly committed [or those who don't the money] are willing to work there. The most lucrative commissions I've had stem from computer games development. Much like movies, if a computer game is a hit, it can generates vast incomes for the developers in little more than the blink of an eye.

Grand Theft Auto IV is due out soon, the latest in a series that has grown in popularity from the original release. Trade press are predicting it could gross hundreds of millions in one day, with a plague of sick days at workplaces worldwide as players roadtest the new game. Rare is the film franchise that earns more and improves in quality with each new release. But computer games can and do get better as a series progresses, thanks to advances in technology.

As a consequence, writing for games can be very well paid for writers. It's not easy to break into, and the treatment of writers ranges from first class to cattle class. All too often, writers are hired near the end of the development process. As a consequence, they find themselves acting as narrative paramedics, putting a band-aid over problems. Happily, that's changing. But writers largely remain dayworkers, not an integral part of the process.

Writing for comics can be rewarding too, simply because the time needed to write an issue or an episode of an established series isn't huge. If the arena has been set up properly, the world and its protagonist should naturally generate a steady stream of new stories. All you need do is tap that for inspiration and deliver the goods. Writing a thirty-page comic book is the work of a day or two, yet can pay a four-figure sum. Compare that to writing a novel.

The vast majority of novels don't sell enough to clear their advance, so fiction authors are writing for their fee. Many scribes are only getting a low four-figure sum for a new book with little prospect of royalties, yet they're pouring weeks, months, even years into the project. This raises a question: what's more important to you as a writer - what you get paid, or what you write? In an ideal world, we'd be writing masterpieces, not fretting about money.

But professional writers live in the real world, where bills need paying, mortgages must be kept up and food needs to be funded. Not every job a writer does will have a little piece of their sould buried deep inside it. Sometimes, a writing job is just a job. You try to avoid those situations, lest you become just another hack, churning out just another novel. Let's face it, if you don't take pride in your work, how can you expect anyone else to care?

All of this rambling stems from the fact I've just done my accounts. Last year I grossed the lowest amount I've made for 17 years. Despite the parlous state of my finances, I had one of my most rewarding years as a writer. Why? I was retraining, acquiring some of the skills I need for my quest to become a TV drama writer. I was learning new things, discovering stories locked inside my imagination I never thought I'd write. It's an exciting time, even if it isn't a rich one.


AndrewT said...

So the moral is don't give up the day job? Just as I had the week from hell and thought about pursuing that career change even more.

Barry said...

That's what you get for swanning off to upside down land innit!

Seriously though. If it's that hard for someone with your CV, then think of us first-rungers. Post us some stories of when you lived it up in your younger days while being commissioned left right and centre.