If you ever decide to finally write that book, be careful: you’ll probably earn $50,000 less than the average Australian every year.
According to new research from Macquarie University, the Australia Council and the Copyright Agency, the average annual income from authorship only $18,200. This is why two-fifths of authors rely on their partners’ income, and two-fifths on a day job that is not related to their writing.
It takes time and energy to find and manage multiple revenue streams, which is why the report warns of a potential loss of Australian stories.
We spoke to some of Australia’s best-known authors who supplement their income with day jobs. Here’s what they have to say:
Jennifer Down: Miles Franklin Award-winning songwriter
Down won the 2022 Miles Franklin for her novel Bodies of Light, which was also shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Award, the Stella Award and the Voss Award. She is also the author of the books Our magic hour and Pulse Points.
At a writers’ festival weekend in October, Jennifer Down had to finish work for her day job: a brand launch campaign was in the works. So she sat down in the pub and took out her laptop.
“I thought if I had to work on a Sunday afternoon, I’d do it over a pint,” she says. She looked so focused that the group at the table across from her casually joked, “Have you finished your novel yet?”
Little did they know that Down had actually finished her novel, which had just won the country’s most important literary award. “The irony is that it’s Sunday afternoon and I’m doing my money job while I’m at the festival for my non-money job.”
Down was named the Sydney Morning Herald’s Young Writer of the Year consecutively in 2017 and 2018. At the time, she was working as an in-house copywriter for an Australian skin care company, being paid less than $50,000. “I was living in a house with five people and I could barely pay my bills.”
“It’s surreal,” she says. “Outside of work, my writing is really respected. I received modestly rave reviews. Then at work, a person who doesn’t understand what subordinate clauses are is correcting text on social media and hasn’t read a book in 10 years.”
Down currently works as a full-time copywriter. She sets her alarm for 4 a.m. to write to herself; the alternative is to renounce social engagement.
“I don’t know if it was worth it. It’s a pleasure to win awards, but I feel like it can be incredibly isolating at times.”
It also means that she actually works seven days a week. “I don’t remember the last time I had two days off in a row,” she says. “It paid off in the sense that I was able to produce work, but it wasn’t without cost.”
Holden Sheppard: manual laborer with a TV contract
Holden Sheppard’s debut novel Invisible Boys won the 2019 WA Premier Emerging Writer Award, the 2019 Kathleen Mitchell Award, the 2018 City of Fremantle Hungerford Award and the 2017 Ray Koppe Award in Residence. He is also the author of The Brink.
Holden Sheppard is a huge favorite among high school students, with a TV adaptation of his award-winning novel Invisible Boys currently in production. He is currently writing his third book under contract; in order to finance it, he works as a manual laborer in a lumber yard.
“The authors are independent traders,” he says. “The part that you don’t see is that there is a huge amount of admin.”
An Australia Council report found that writers spend only half of their writing time actually producing original writing. With invoicing, emailing, social media management, speaking at schools, event appearances and podcasting to fit in between his work at the lumber yard, Sheppard says he’s left to write whenever it suits him.
The annual income of children’s book authors is $26,800 – higher than the average of $18,200. Sheppard admits that his books have sold well, “but as successful as it looks, it’s still not enough to live on.”
He deliberately seeks casual jobs instead of permanent part-time jobs, for flexibility. “If there’s an opportunity for a media interview or an event that I really want to do on a weekday, it’s hard to take advantage of it,” he says. “You’re jeopardizing your day job and your income.” This precarious job he chooses rarely comes with rights such as vacation and sick leave.
In 2015, Sheppard was awarded a $10,000 Australia Council Art Start grant, but the program was canceled after his round. “I feel like it’s needed again.” It also advocates for digital lending rights, which do not exist in Australia.
“Every revenue stream helps us. When people take out a book from the e-library, we don’t see that revenue.”
Michael Mohammed Ahmad: Award-winning novelist who wrote behind a counter
Michael Mohammed Ahmed won the 2015 Sydney Morning Herald Award for Best Young Novelist prize for the debut novel Pleme. His second novel The Lebs won the 2019 NSW Premier’s Multicultural Literary Award and was shortlisted for the 2019 Miles Franklin Award. He also established the Sweatshop literacy movement.
“I am a multi-awarded author and doctor of literature. I’m about as educated as you can get. I have sold tens of thousands of books. Still, I don’t have the security of a job as a manager at McDonald’s.”
While writing three acclaimed novels – The Tribe (2014), The Lebs (2018) and The Other Half of You (2021) – and founding western Sydney-based literacy agency Sweatshop, Michael Mohammad Ahmad worked in his father’s military care workshops.
“When there were no customers, I would write my novels at the counter,” he says. “I only stopped working there two or three years ago.”
He is proud that he was able to support his family in this way, he says. “But it’s crazy that I had to do it. The industry is not set up to support people.”
Mohammad Ahmad still works seven days a week and spends his weekends writing. “I feel lucky that in my case it’s a job I’m passionate about,” he says. “Writers didn’t get into the industry for the money.
“It’s an activity we’ve been participating in since humans began to think. It encourages the next generation of thinking. It is something we find valuable outside of the capitalist construct of wealth. Even though the writers don’t make ends meet, they will.
“Therefore, it is the moral responsibility of society to take care of writers.”
In the report, more than 60% of authors said that domestic responsibilities interfered with their writing. Mohammad Ahmad says there is a clear racial divide between those who can write.
“There’s a reason Australian publishing has often prevented people of First Nations and culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds from being published,” he says. “This is because if you generally come from an upper-middle-class family, you will be able to find opportunities to write and you can make the financial sacrifices necessary to survive and continue writing.
“There are obstacles to other communities [into the industry]. If you can’t afford to write, you won’t be able to subsidize it.”
Anna Spargo-Ryan: An acclaimed author who does everything at once
Anna Spargo-Ryan won the first Horne Prize in 2016 for her essay The Suicide Gene. She was shortlisted for ABIA’s Matt Richell Award in 2017 for her novel The Gulf. She is also the author of the novel House of Paper and the 2022 memoir A Kind of Magic.
According to research, more than one fifth of authors have a day job that is related to the work of a writer – but this does not make it easier for them to write a book.
Since 2013, Anna Spargo-Ryan has been balancing full-time freelance jobs, from ghostwriting and advertising copywriting to writing podcasts, websites, brand guidelines and articles.
“I write a lot,” she says. “But it’s all for other people. A very small part of it is for my own writing.”
Spargo-Ryan once had a romantic idea of working as a writer. “But over the past 10 years … I’ve realized that the only way to finish writing is to fit it in.”
This year she published her first non-fiction book, A Kind Of Magic. Although she spent the last three years writing it, she “barely remembers” the process. “I had a deadline, I had a contract, so I had to write it, but I didn’t have enough time to do it,” she says.
“That’s why I wrote it with various little gaps. Waiting for children at school, before meetings, during meetings, editing on tape. Whenever I could get chunks of time… which I don’t really recommend as a writing process.”
Spargo-Ryan recommends that writers learn to diversify their craft. “You might get an advance that’s a tenth of your annual salary, and that would be a pretty good advance,” she says. “Then you’ll earn about three cents per word, for 100,000 words. It is not sustainable in itself.
“No one has a patron who pays you to do your creative work. Part of being a writer is being busy, trying new things and diversifying the work you do.”
Omar Sakr: winner of the prime minister’s literary award in search of a day job
Omar Sakr won the 2020 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Poetry for his collection The Lost Arabs. He has also been shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Award, the John Bray Poetry Award, the Judith Wright Calanthe Award and the Colin Roderick Award. He is also the author of These Wild Houses and Son of Sin.
Poet Omar Sakr has been a full-time writer for six years.
“[It was] in the beginning it was simple enough because I couch surfed and I didn’t have many expenses,” he says. “But it got harder as I settled down and started a family.”
Scholarships and awards have given him time to write his debut novel, Son of Sin, but publication involves a “relentless grind” of writing and touring, which has been “impossible” to sustain since his wife gave birth to their son this year.
The report reveals that for more than half of authors, seeking income elsewhere is a competing demand for their writing time.
“I am now in a very precarious financial situation and am actively trying to find a day job,” says Sakr.
“Full-time freelancing is too reliant on uncertain outcomes and demands too much from me, on top of being a dad.
“I already knew that our society doesn’t support artists enough, but it’s brutal to realize that we don’t support parents in a meaningful way either.”