Prizes and a Patron ~ Vanessa Gebbie on Earning as a Writer

Vanessa Gebbie is the first of our story writers in conversation to answer the questions Gina Frangello posed in her last post to our series “Why The Short Story?” A Conversation Among Writers. Just to remind you, here are Gina’s questions: “What role, if any, does money play in your decision to write and what to write? How has being a writer—in particular a short fiction writer—impacted your life financially? Have you had to make sacrifices or changes? Have you ever considered a more “traditional” career? Do you make decent money on your writing, and if not, how do you pay the bills? What are the pros and cons of the writing life when considering the harsh realities of economics?”


V: Let me stop laughing before I type my reply.


Money paid no role whatsoever other than a negative one, in my decision to write fiction. Prior to that, I was being paid a small sum now and again to write non-fiction as I was a journalist of sorts—the sort that doesn’t get paid much. That’s not quite fair—I was also owner of a one-woman marketing consultancy, and had been for some eight years. I was earning thanks to that—and sometimes, decent sums.

As soon as I stopped to write, I earned not only nothing, but a negative sum. There were course fees to find. There was the purchase of a computer. Paper. Ink. Workshops. Not to mention the books. Books and more books! And I was no longer adding to the family ‘pot’. But let’s put this into context. I wasn’t exactly a youngster. My husband, bless him, had two rather useful attributes—firstly he was in a well-paid job, and was more concerned with my happiness than my financial contributions. And thus it was that I acquired what used to be called, in the olden days, a patron. I was just married to mine.

Without my income, we had appreciably less money. Even the odd competition win, bringing in a thousand or two in a good year, was laughable when compared with the income I’d given up.

I’d had my various careers. I’d done a languages degree, then worked for the Ministry of Defence in London, had one son, requalified in management specializing in HR, done an MBA, taken on senior management roles, had second son, started up the marketing consultancy… then suddenly, enough of the treadmill! Time to do what I needed to.

My husband (mon patron) pays the bills.

Short fiction has paid me very very little, if we are only talking cash. Publication fees can be measured in tens of pounds. I have been lucky and won competitions—even they don’t pay much—the best was a Bridport second place which raised £1000. ($1657 apparently…) I have two collections out and a text book, with one of the largest most respected indie presses in the UK. They pay no advances. Royalties are tiny. 7.5%. We make a little on the books—can buy them for a 35% discount and lug them round readings, festivals… But know something—I am not a saleswoman. I am a writer.

I wrote a novel. It took me five years to write. Well, from my previous post you will know it was a glorious series of short stories which was bullied into a different shape, firstly because I wanted to see if I could write something longer, and secondly because I had an agent (acquired thanks to a single short story, incidentally…) who wanted a novel to sell. So I am counting the advance I got for that as allied to the writing of short stories, if I may. A decent, not high, but very welcome five figure sum.

Wow. Five figure sum, huh. What, literary fiction? Yeah. But before we get too excited, remember it took me five years to write. That’s (if my maths is right) a cool and not-high four figure sum for each year spent working on this thing. If I take into account the money my darling patron spent on multiple stays at writing retreats (it was written in Ireland) flights and car hire to get there—over the five years…he has just about broken even.

I ought not forget teaching—as if I could. I love doing that, and have had some terrific times—being writer-in-residence at Stockholm University this time last year, for example—working at Winchester Writers Conference in July, running a week long workshop in Ireland next month—a workshop at Bridport in November—teaching pays well.

However. I am a writer, and a teacher when asked, not an academic. Is writing an academic pursuit…now there’s a question?! If I let teaching become a job, I would worry about what would happen to the writing—and am happy to leave it to those who can juggle the demands of both disciplines much more effectively than me.

Financially, I have run very far and very fast to stand absolutely still. By anyone’s measure, for a lit writer, four books in four years must be doing OK, product-wise…but then I read today about a debut author getting £600,000 in a two book deal. I felt sick for a moment. Then I looked at what her novels were about—nothing I could write in a million years…and felt much better. I do what I do and am happy. Just about. It remains to be seen whether I have the reserves to do this all over again, despite the fact that I have a brilliant idea tapping at the windows of my heart…oh what the hell. Writing will see me out one way or another. And there is one certainty. When I do shuffle off this mortal coil, my estate won’t be able to pay for solid oak and brass handles. I’ve ordered plywood.

Thanks again, Vanessa. There’s a whole lot more about this writing stuff on Vanessa’s website and blog:  www.vanessagebbie.com You might want to check them out. Next up, Dennis McFadden on eating shrimp with project managers. -PMc←

9 Replies to “Prizes and a Patron ~ Vanessa Gebbie on Earning as a Writer”

  1. “Writing will see me out one way or another.”


    I think there was a time when short stories made money. Mostly I think of weird tales and detective stories. I think of some essays I’ve read about authors trying to write as many words as possible because they got $.025 per word or (at best) $.05.

    Now when I think of short stories I kind of think about musicians. A short is like a single. Not a single in the “radio hit” sense. It’s more like a single that someone releases to their twitter followers just to show them something new. Or, maybe that’s not exactly right. I don’t mean to say it’s a throw away product. I mean in the sense that it reminds already fans that you still exist. It also lets people unfamiliar with your sound/voice see what you’re all about. It doesn’t make money, but that’s not its role anymore.

    And, because it doesn’t make money I think offers a freedom that maybe a novel doesn’t. Depending on the situation there seems (I don’t know for sure because I’ve not been in this situation) to be a fair amount of pressure on the writer to make money. I can see this especially if you have an advance. There should never be that kind of pressure but I’m positive it must happen to a lot of writers.

    An important role that short stories play for me is the feeling of completion. I have been struggling with a novel for a little while now and sometimes go to the short story for two reasons: I want new, refreshing ideas/characters and I want to complete something.

    I don’t want to monopolize the comments section so I guess I should complete this soon. I will think about it more and I will blog about it thoroughly.

  2. I enjoy the analogy too. Thanks for your comment !

    I must draw attention to my typos – my income spread over five years writing the novel is of course ‘a cool and not-high four figure sum for each year spent working on this thing…’

  3. Four figure sums p.a…? Very interesting article, but not one I’ll share with my husband just yet… perhaps after a (homebrewed) beer?!

    1. Years ago when I was lamenting my racking up the rejection slips from prestigious yet under-financed American lit journals, my then-husband shared my disappointment: “I just wish someone would take one of these stories and send you a big fat check already,” he said. I said, “I won’t get paid for this,” (by most journals, I meant.) “What?” He said, no longer quite so sympathetic. “Then why are you doing it?”

      I have a new husband now, and do, now and again, get paid for it. (Writing stories, I mean.) But that’s still not why I do it. (Write stories, I mean.) More on this in a post at a later date.

      Thanks, Martha, for your comments.

  4. I am dismayed when I meet people who tell me that they want to make millions, like J K Rowling. My insides shrivel. If you have greed in your mind when you start, then surely the work will not be sincere or emotionally true. So when I read about writers who love the craft, who devote their lives to getting work out there, producing original words that will inspire – all is well again.

    I get paid now and again. it’s a thrill for sure but it does not motivate me. It can’t really. I would not be happy with myself…

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