For many authors-in-waiting, getting a publishing deal is seen as the pinnacle. But as many authors-in-print know, the book is merely the climbing frame.
I think it’s fair to say that few authors make enough money from the sales of books alone, to be swinging on a hammock sipping cocktails six months of the year, or even paying a Dublin mortgage without a trust fund, a working partner or a nixer job on the side. Unless you’re in the ‘run-away success, consistently in the best seller list for months’ bracket (of which Ireland produces more than it’s faire share) it is hard to earn a living wage from book sales alone.
Donal Ryan brought this issue into sharp focus a couple of years ago, when he announced that despite being a popular and best-selling author, earning 40c per book wasn’t going to put his kids through school and he went back to the civil service to supplement his good (but not great) writing income.
With non-fiction writing however, you can cast a wider income net, not through increased book sales, but by expanding your income platform.
When I was asked to write a memoir in 2016 on the back of a blog I had been writing, I was offered an advance of €3000 and the book became a bestseller for a short period of time. While I have earned that advance back for the publisher, further royalty cheques have not been clogging up my letterbox. The Bahamas holiday is still on hold.
However I have gone on to earn something in the region of between €7k-€10k on the back of the book by writing topic-related features in an array of UK and Irish papers and magazines, as well as appearing on radio and TV panels. The subject of my blog and then book was my experience coping with ‘the sandwich years’ – caring for young children and elderly parents; an experience that more and more of us are dealing with as we give birth later, and our parents are living longer. From that one book I have written about a multitude of issues from post-natal depression to being a carer, from grief to discussions around right to die.
However the book (which I thought of initially as the pinnacle of my writing ambition) became merely a stepping stone to building a broader writing career. Relationships established with media from features based on the book topic, have led to much more diverse and longer term opportunities including a regular column in a UK newspaper. I can say therefore that total income from and relating to, and as a result of that book, is more like €20k plus. It’s not going to see me driving around in a Jaguar but it’s less shabby than just the advance; an advance that when broken down to income per hour of effort, would put me in illegal wage territory if not slavery (although every author does it for the love first and foremost so that’s not a complaint about the advance).
So my advice to anyone beginning their foray into non-fiction writing is this: the book is only one part of a broader platform to earn money. It’s a crucial part, but not the whole part.
So as I await with bated breath while publishers currently chew over my latest non-fiction proposal (and I realise that holding my breath isn’t going to work as these things take terminable amounts of time, and I’ll be very terminal if I don’t breath, eat and age at least several months before I hear back), I again have to look at how I build an income platform rather than just focus on potential book sales, should it happen. For me, this involved some coloured pens, white boards and even diagrams. It’s not obligatory but vastly satisfying,
My next book is about redefining Mid-age and will hopefully (that bated breath again) be called the Mid-Life Manual. It will take a serious but light-hearted look at a year in my life as I talk to the experts and go on adventures, learning exciting things and taking on challenges all to discover how to embrace this stage of my life. Covering everything from mental health, diet, anti ageing, body beautiful, to fitness, menopause, dating, sex and sensuality, it will see me change the way I eat, try various anti-ageing techniques with varying degrees of success, humiliation and hilarity, take up meditation, learn how to tango and discover how to have four different types of orgasm to name but a few (I have a feeling chapter 8 will be the one I’ll be asked to write about the most). In order to further my earning potential from these experiences and the manuscript, I can extend the reach of my writing way beyond a physical book, to include on and offline journalism, website and podcast development, and blog to name but a few.
I am also going back to college. Because writing is precarious and non-fiction tends to be topic based, my interest extends beyond just learning and writing about the subjects. I also want to share them. So, in order to help me write more authoritatively, and to bolster my income potential, I am spending a year getting my advanced diploma in leadership and life coaching so that I can become a Mid-Life Coach (get it?). Not only will I be able to teach what I’ve been taught, I can further my knowledge of the subject for further possible projects. I’m not suggesting for a second that every non-fiction writer do the same thing. This is just the platform I am building for this book. Your platform will look very different. But a platform is what you need to build to expand earning potential from non-fiction book sales. So my advice is keep on writing, but dig out the coloured pens too.
For a podcast discussing this in more detail, see Indulge in Writing podcast.
(c) Alana Kirk
About The Sandwich Years
The Sandwich Years is the heartfelt, inspirational story of the bond between mothers and daughters, and how one woman – through caring for the person she had relied on the most – finally found herself.
Alana Kirk, married with two children and a third on the way, often found herself stretched between the various demands on her time – parenting, marriage, work, friendship, self. But when her mother suffered a massive stroke, just days after the birth of daughter Ruby, Alana’s life became unrecognisable.
The next five years – ‘the sandwich years’ – were a time of heartbreak and difficult choices as Alana lost herself amid part-time caring for her mother, supporting her father and parenting three young daughters, while also attempting to get her career back on track. But it was also a time of growth and love as Alana rediscovered the joy her loved ones bring to her life, and learned how to find a way back to herself.
The Sandwich Years is a celebration of mothers and daughters, and everyday warriors.
(Previously published as Daughter, Mother, Me)