Ask Alice: What are some of the less glamorous realities of being a YA author in Australia?
Ask Alice is an online column produced by the #LoveOzYA team, and written by our Secretary, Alice Boer-Endacott, who has published several young adult fantasy novels and a non-fiction essay.
Ask Alice is designed to unpack all aspects of the Australian young adult literary scene, so if you’ve got a question, go ahead and Ask Alice!
There’s a lot of romanticism around the idea of being an author. But, as I’ve discussed with many other authors – especially those of Young Adult novels – while it’s profoundly rewarding work, it’s also hard work. It is a job, after all. Most recently, it’s been a subject that I’ve discussed quite a bit with Jared Thomas.
Jared, who has recently joined the #LoveOzYA Committee, is a Nukunu man and the author of several highly regard Young Adult novels, including Songs that Sound Like Blood (about which I interviewed him last year), My Spare Heart, and the recently released Middle Grade work, Uncle Xbox. Like many authors, Jared balances his creative work with his work as Research Fellow in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Material Culture and Visual Art at the South Australian Museum and University of South Australia.
When he joined the Committee, one of the things Jared flagged that he wanted to put on the #LoveOzYA agenda was raising awareness about what exactly it means to be an author of Young Adult books within Australia. This dovetails with one of the key interests of this column, which seeks to peel back a lot of common assumptions and take a look at the literary industry, with a particular emphasis on the fact that this is a commercial process, and being an author is a job, not a hobby, albeit a job that doesn’t always take up all of your working life.
Indeed, that was the first thing Jared shared with me, that in his experience, getting a publishing contract doesn’t guarantee you’ve ‘made it’:
“One of the main things I wish that I was told is just how difficult it would be to be able to make a living wage from book sales as a YA author in Australia. A big part of the difficulty of selling high volumes of books in Australia is our small population in comparison with Europe and the US. When I started writing, being young and idealistic, I thought that all I had to do is work incredibly hard, write great stories, get published, and then I would be able to make a living wage from my writing. Consequently, I’ve always prioritised my writing over my 9-5 job. It’s only recently, thirty years after committing to the development of my writing through tertiary study [and] the writing of quite a few books, that I’ve realised this dream may not happen.
I don’t think I would have changed much if I were equipped with knowledge of the difficulty of generating significant income through writing, but others may want to think about balancing writing with another profession if having a regular income is important.
Having said this, writing has been a satisfying way to gain additional income and it has opened the world for me regarding international travel and the development of friendships.”
Making enough money to support yourself is in many ways one of the hardest parts of writing. It was something I discussed with Lili Wilkinson in an interview about her most recent book, A Hunger of Thorns, which was written with the assistance of a grant and a creative fellowship (the relevant material hits around the 12 minute mark).
As a result, while it’s important to make some money from writing, Jared made the point that it’s also vital to find internal motivation for writing:
“Success as an author is often framed as book sales (income generation), and presentation at writer’s festivals here and abroad. Most of my writing life is spent in solitude. […] Enjoying the process, I feel, is an important part of becoming successful.”
He went on to say, “It’s important to love writing for reasons beyond potential income generation and ‘fame’ because there can be long periods before a book generates income or an invite to a festival. My dedication to writing today more so comes from a love of the act of writing, the meditation, entertainment and challenge it provides me, and the ability to connect with readers.”
One of the reasons it’s so crucial to have that intrinsic motivation is because sometimes the reality, that if you want to be, or are, published, you are part of a commercial enterprise, regardless of how much we emphasise the importance of creative fulfilment.
As Jared said, “Publishing is a business like any other and there’s also a certain luck when it comes to the success of a book in the marketplace. There’s the old business motto of ‘success breeds success’ and perhaps many of us try to show our success too much. I feel authors worry that being vulnerable and discussing the lows as well as the highs of being an author may jeopardise our longevity in the industry. Today more than ever, publishers aren’t just signing on authors on the merits of their books, they are signing on authors as personalities, their ability to connect with people through many channels.
I also have friends that through their literary success are amongst the wealthiest people that I know, so I certainly don’t want to diminish people’s dreams of financial success through writing, and I’m sure most of my peers want to help others to retain these dreams.”
Keeping in mind that if you want your book published, you are effectively selling a product, which means that you can in fact educate yourself on that commercial process. From the Australian Society of Authors’ shop you can purchase various resources which give insight into this process and industry. It’s worth noting I debated whether to include a link to paid resources, but at the end of the day, the point is that if writing is something you view as a career, such resources fall under the category of a business expense.
However, something which, in my opinion, can complicate when it comes to investing in such resources is the fact that there are a number of services, courses, and guides, which often in some way infer purchasing them will advance your writing career (generally with the inference that this will increase your chances of netting an agent or publishing contract), but do not actually do so. I view such offerings as quite predatory. So if you are considering paying for a particular product or service, be clear on what you want to get out of it and how likely it is to deliver what you want.
However, at the end of the day, writing is also a process of creativity, which means that the process of its creation is an inherently special one, and the end touches people in a beautiful way. I’ll leave you with Jared’s words on this: “I really enjoy the friendships that I’ve gained through being a YA author. I feel the writing helps me to be open minded and engage with new ideas, music and film. It’s an incredible thing when readers let you know how your work connected with them, particularly if they had a transformational experience through engaging with the work.
My writing has assisted me to develop relationships that are now decades old whereby I am able to visit people in the US, UK, Canada, Jamaica, Scandinavia, India, and they visit me.”