I first published a version of this article in the Guardian on-line, so please forgive me if parts of it sound familiar.
I left school with a burning urge to lead the life of a writer; travelling like Byron, fêted like Wilde before his fall, creating laughter like Wodehouse and crafting sentences like Nabokov. I had no professional contacts so I wrote my masterpieces speculatively and every path I went down ended with a rejection slip or total silence. The perceived wisdom then, as now, was that earning a living as a writer was about as likely as winning a lottery.
Then I discovered the secret of marketing. Instead of writing things and trying to persuade people to buy them, I would find out what writing services people needed and offer to provide them. So, at the same time as begging publishers and editors for commissions, I made myself available to anyone who might want to write an article or a book but did not feel able to do it for themselves.
I have just finished a three year stint on the management committee of the Society of Authors and therefore know how hard it is for many writers to make a living, but it was never easy. I have now spent just over 40 years as a freelance author and ghostwriter, during which time I have kept a meticulous record of every penny earned and can with hindsight see exactly how my personal experiment has panned out.
Although it was about ten years before I could support myself fully from my writing, in the course of those 40 years I have earned around £4-million. Obviously there were some feasts and famines along the way but by and large the graph has travelled upwards year upon year. From a starting point of about £1,000 a year, I hit six figures for the first time twenty years later and for the last ten years the annual figure has wavered between £150,000 and £200,000. That puts me roughly on a par with the Prime Minister, (but no free accommodation), which is a level I am more than content with.
The vast majority of that money has come from ghostwriting, some from fees paid by wealthy individuals and some in royalties from books that became bestsellers. Every time I agreed to a split in royalties instead of a fee I was taking a gamble and sometimes I would end up writing a whole book for virtually nothing. Looking back now, however, I can see that it was projects where I took a gamble that paid off the most handsomely. One book, for instance, has earned me more than half a million and quite a few have earned me more than £100,000. It is possible to ghost four books a year, although three is more comfortable, which means that most years the ones that earned nothing have been compensated for by the successes
By making my primary living from selling writing services I have been able to risk taking the time out to write speculative “passion projects”, (as they are called in Hollywood), in the form of novels. Two of these novels have ghostwriters as narrators and all were inspired by people I met and places I gained access to as a ghost.
In Pretty Little Packages the narrator is plunged into the world of people-trafficking and sex-slavery, while Secrets of the Italian Gardener is set in the palace of a Middle Eastern dictator who is telling his story to a ghostwriter during the outbreak of the Arab Spring. The Overnight Fame of Steffi McBride is set in the world of instant celebrity, a place where most ghostwriters spend at least some of their time.
Last year I published a memoir, Confessions of a Ghostwriter, which looked back over the last 40 years and I wonder how many palaces, brothels and VIP areas I would have had privileged access to if I had stayed in my garret and written the books I dreamed of writing as a teenager, and whether I would ever have been able to earn a living and support a family.
So, what would I say to the young person setting out to be a writer today? First I would ask if they want to write for their own pleasure and fulfilment or whether they want to use writing to support themselves financially. If it is the latter then they must furnish their brains with something that they can write about, gain access to information that other people are willing to pay for or provide a service that others need to buy. The odds that your passion projects alone will ever make enough money to support you in any decent style are about the same as when you buy a lottery ticket, so you are inevitably going to have to do something else to earn money in the coming years. The more varied and interesting your life and experiences, the more likely that you will have something worth writing about. The more time you spend honing your writing skills through crafts like journalism and ghostwriting, as well as by producing speculative passion projects, the sharper those skills will be when the time comes for you to try to sell your passion projects to an understandably uninterested world.
When we get to the later years of our lives it is good to have some stories, adventures and interesting experiences with which to regale our grandchildren, being a writer can provide as many of those as you care to take up.