Monday, 28 January 2019

Trying to make it work in the age of Universal Credits: some ideas to earn more money as an author in 2019 by Juliet Clare Bell

For people on a low household income, Universal Credits (or Child Tax Credits/Working Tax Credits as they currently are for many people) can be a critical part of their family budget. If you are a writer and have school-aged children, and in particular if you are a single parent, or your partner is also low waged, you may well be on tax credits already and in various states of nervousness about what happens when you are moved onto Universal Credits. Or you may already be on Universal Credits. This post looks at ideas for how we as authors might earn more money in 2019 –whether or not you are on tax credits –but for those of us on Universal Credits or still on tax credits, earning a minimum threshold level as a freelancer has become a necessity.


At its most basic, it boils down to this (and I’m using me as an example –it might be different for you): I need to have more picture book manuscripts accepted by publishers and I need to get more school visits. This is where my income comes from. So what can I do to get more of each?


I now have a wonderful accountability partner who is on Universal Credits and also needs to earn consistently more money as an author than she has averaged in the past. We are using rough estimates of how much we need to earn a day/week/month in order to count as being freelance for Universal Credits and then deciding whether different projects are worth attempting financially and how much we have to gain from spending time on something like updating a website which doesn’t bring in money just by being there, but which we hope will attract more teachers (and more author visits) etc when it’s done. Until your youngest child turns thirteen, in order to count as being freelance for Universal Credits, you need to be working the equivalent of 25 hours per week at minimum wage, which equates to earning around £50 per day throughout the year –if you’re working five days a week (when your youngest reaches thirteen, it’s 37.5 hours per week, so you’ll have to earn quite a lot more). This is not exact but it helps when working out which projects to work on. If you’re working on something that will earn you less than £50 a day, you’ll need to be earning more on another project to make up for it. My accountability partner and I skype each other once a week and talk through our plans for the week, what we achieved the previous week, and what new opportunities we've found.


We’re working on the assumption that if we write more manuscripts (and write them well), we have a greater chance of more manuscripts being picked up by a publisher –which seems a fair enough assumption. So we have each committed to writing a picture book manuscript every month and giving it to the other to critique on the last day of the month, each month. We know that our feedback will help the other as we’ve been critique partners for well over ten years. The hit rate of manuscripts being submitted to manuscripts being accepted is quite low even for successful picture book authors, and of course, we’d love for all our manuscripts to be accepted, but writing more (as long as they’re good –and we’ll make sure we’re doing that) is still likely to increase the number of manuscripts that get picked up (we’ve also got critique groups and agents to share work with but the fact that we’ve committed to writing twelve feels like we’re properly accountable and that we’ll actually do it.)


There are some wonderful nonfiction picture books around. Two of the many that I love are:

Me... Jane by Patrick McDonnell (Little Brown, 2011)
about Jane Goodall, and

A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin by Jen Bryant and Melissa Stewart 
(Knopf, 2013)

Having taken quite a break from writing nonfiction manuscripts, this year I’ve committed to writing at least three (as part of the twelve manuscripts overall). With a massive incentive to get more manuscripts taken on by publishers this year, I’ve been practical on how I should break it down. I was commissioned to write a narrative nonfiction picture book about the Cadburys several years ago (here's a blogpost I wrote about it at the time) and it was a brilliant experience for me. I was fired up to write lots more nonfiction and wrote a Picture Book Den blog about it, with suggestions for coming up with nonfiction picture book ideas . And because of the post, I was contacted by a publisher to go and talk with them about my ideas. After what seemed like an extremely successful meeting with three members of their team, I was hopeful that I would be writing more nonfiction but it was before narrative nonfiction had taken off in the UK (it had really taken off in the US) and they decided that it wasn’t financially viable at that time. Given the time involved in researching and writing a nonfiction picture book, I didn’t pursue them much after that as other editors were saying the same –for the UK market at least.

Many editors in the UK are now saying they’re really interested in narrative nonfiction, so it seems like a properly fruitful avenue to pursue again –especially since I’ve already written one, and I used to be a research psychologist –so I love researching. Anyone out there who likes the idea of writing narrative nonfiction picture books, according to quite a lot of picture book editors I’ve spoken with/seen at events in the past six months, the time to do it is


I do a reasonable number of author visits and I really like them. And –as I’m sure many of you are- I’m good at them –because I like them. I genuinely really like children (I was a research developmental psychologist before I started writing and always did lots of babysitting when I was younger –as I’d always liked children) and I love doing assemblies to hundreds of children –and working with them in smaller groups, trying to encourage them in their creativity. Lots of writers don’t like author visits, and fair enough, but whilst I love writing at home on my own, I also love the contrast of a noisy, energetic mass of children in a school. But I don’t do enough. Even though I like the visits, I have not been good at the self-promotion and going out at getting the visits for myself.

So I have committed with my accountability partner to:

[1] Revamping my website to make it easier for teachers to find an author who wants to do school visits

[2] Making it clear what I do on them (Candy Gourlay’s advice on making your website teacher-friendly at last year’s SCBWI conference was brilliant)

[3] Increasing the types of sessions I can do. You might want to think about this, too. What is it about you and your books that means you can do something different in your sessions from other people? Try taking each of your books and thinking what specific sessions you could offer that relate to that book. I’ve had a go at doing it with some of my books, below:

                               (c) Don't Panic, Annika! (illustrated by Jennifer E Morris, 2011)

Don’t Panic, Annika! (illustrated by Jennifer E Morris) is about a child who in anxious but overcomes her fears –so I’m going to develop a specific session I can do relating to that (on top of the sessions I already do), and given my background in psychology, I feel comfortable doing this.

 Two Brothers and a Chocolate Factory: The Remarkable Story of Richard and George Cadbury (illustrated by Jess Mikhail, 2016) 

Lots of schools study local Victorians and/or chocolate. I’ve done sessions on this (I did one last week –because a teacher had my book and realised I was local and asked) but I’ve never advertised it as an option.

The Unstoppable Maggie McGee (illustrated by Dave Gray 2015) 

This is a story about resilience and the importance of imagination, and the main character has a serious disability which means that she's often in hospital. I’m hugely interested in resilience in children (especially with my background in psychology) and I’m a really keen advocate of better diversity in children’s stories. I can absolutely do sessions specifically on resilience, and would love to do more work with children with disabilities (as I did before creating the story).

The Kite Princess (illustrated by Laura-Kate Chapman; Barefoot Books, 2012) 

The Kite Princess could be the starting point for a great session talking about empowerment (Amnesty International UK even sold it) but did I offer a session on empowerment as a possibility on my website? No!

Benny's Hat (illustrated by Dave Gray, Pomelo Pip, 2016)

And Benny’s Hat (illustrated by Dave Gray) is about sibling bereavement. There won’t be many schools who’d like to do a focus on bereavement, but there absolutely might be some, and Dave and I worked with many bereaved and pre-bereaved children and with young people with life-limiting conditions when we were creating the book –and we did lots of events, too, but not in schools. And there’s nothing on my website that offers these events as an option.

I feel like I’m taking a bit of a risk here by saying this as it sounds incredibly foolish and short-sighted not to have offered specific sessions based on the subject of specific books, and  I’ve not yet updated my website (but it’s certainly a great incentive to ensure I do it before then end of February since I’ve said here I will!). But I'm hoping that it might encourage a few other people to look at their own books and consider extra sessions they could do. I love the sessions I do on a typical school visit, and they feel very relevant to children in schools and I refer at times to the different books and I read some of them in assemblies, but in terms of bespoke sessions relating to specific themes of individual books? I've not put that as an option on my website. When I’ve been asked by specific schools to do something more related to one of the other books, then I've done it, but I've just not been proactive about offering it. I look at this list and think 


Or if I’ve thought of doing it before 


I could offer so many more sessions to schools I’ve not yet been to (and those that I have) if they’re looking to do something about anxiety or worries, or resilience, illness, disability, death, empowerment (or straightforward pirates, even...).

So many authors can do wonderful visits but don’t advertise themselves well enough, or widely enough. Have you missed a trick with your author visits? Is there something you can offer that you’re not yet offering? And in terms of being shy about advertising yourself on your website, is there anyone else who gets lovely verbal feedback at their author events but feels a bit too sheepish about asking for feedback or quotes you can use on your website? Maybe we can all make this the year of being bolder and asking for some quotes that can help bring more teachers to our websites. Almost all of my author visits come via my website, and my website is currently pretty poor. But by the end of February, I will have made it much more relevant to teachers. And if it takes ten days of rewriting content and totally revamping it, well by the £50 per day figure, I won’t have to get many additional author visits for that theoretical £500 to have been well worth it.

When I’ve got my site sorted, I’ll also look for new ways to get author visits via the author organisations. But I’m being practical and getting my website content sorted out first. If you’re also interested in getting more author visits, is there something you could do with your website to help? 
Or could you work on some additional, more niche, workshops you could add to your current options?

Another advantage of an accountability partner is that you’ve got two of you looking out for writing opportunities, including grants. Check out the Society of Authors and the Arts Council who both do grants for writers. I was lucky enough to get a grant from the Arts Council a few years ago and it meant that I could do a project and create a book that would never have been taken on by a traditional publisher because it was a really difficult subject: sibling bereavement. I’m excited about applying for two new grants over the coming year (it’s part of my accountability twelve-month plan so I’ll have to do it!)

When I started doing the accountability, I got a MomentumPlanner and worked out a proper plan for the next twelve months, including what I’d do in each quarter. One thing I committed to doing was contacting a person or organisation/group/charity about any possibilities of writing-related projects or potential books. It’s something that won’t take too long to prepare for and is probably a really long shot, but that feels like it’s worth a try in case it comes off. Just before Christmas, I contacted someone in the public eye that I’ve never met nor been in touch with before but have a connection with and sent her my Cadbury book and explained why I’d love to write a book about her (given her way of thinking and compassion and generosity) and why I thought I was the right person to do it. I thought it was unlikely –but she’s got back to me and said she’s up for it! I can’t say more yet but it’s extremely exciting and it’s worth thinking about how you might be the right person to write a book about a particular person or thing, and contacting the relevant person. Think –what are you good at? What combination of factors makes you the right person for this self-styled opportunity? It could be a book or approaching an organisation about why you’d be the right person to be their writer in residence (and they may never have thought about having a writer in residence before, nor even know what one is). I know which organisation I’m contacting this quarter of the year and again, nothing may come of it, but it actually might and if so, it would be a fascinating project and one which I think I could do really well. I’ve got goals for the year, for each quarter, and for each month and rather than feeling scared about whether I’ll be able to stay being freelance once we’re moved over to Universal Credits here because of the amount of money I’ll have to be earning not only per year but each month (so you can’t have a slow month in terms of income coming in), I’m feeling excited about all the things I’m doing this year.

(my middle child also being excited -in the rain, on our favourite beach in Orkney)

The rules around Universal Credits are being revised after many complaints and obvious problems with the system (the Society of Authors went to parliament to talk about the impact they will have/are having in areaswhere it’s already rolled out) on diversity in writing, given that so many writers earn, on average, less than the minimum wage. It is desperately sad for those who have already been moved onto Universal Credits and are really suffering. Many of us have a breathing space for a year or so, whilst the government temporarily halts the roll-out for a year and tries to sort it out. I hope it is massively overhauled in a way that works for those on a low family income (or scrapped entirely). In the meantime, I am going to work hard –and in a smarter way- to try and earn enough, and enjoy my work as I go along. I have clearly not been very business-minded up until now, but we've got to do it now and with an accountability partner to help me along, it's a much less nerve-wracking business. 
If I have to get a non-freelance job in a year’s time because I’ve not earned as much as I need to be counted as a real author (woe betide any author who doesn’t manage to earn minimum wage –consistently, every month…-currently, you will have the credits reduced substantially for any month you do not earn 1/12th of the annual minimum wage), then at least I’ve given it everything I can, and enjoyed the process.

Do you have any good ideas about how to increase your income for the year as a writer? Or do you have any thoughts on generally being more productive? It would be lovely to hear from you in the comments section, below. Here's hoping that 2019 is a creative year for us all and one in which we can earn enough money to continue writing.

Juliet Clare Bell is a children’s author who loves writing, creating and doing all kinds of author visits. This will most definitely be reflected in her website by the end of February 2019.


Jane Clarke said...

It's tough out there. Wishing you all the very best achieving your goals. When I had 2 dependents, I found it impossible to earn a living from writing alone - until I began ghostwriting series for Working Partners - that was fun, provided a regular income, and I learned a lot.

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Thanks, Jane. Your work at Working Partners sounded great!

Lucy Rowland said...

I really enjoyed reading this post, thank you! It certainly is tough- I still work a 3 day week as a Speech and Language Therapist as it would be hard for me to earn a living from writing alone, though I do do a bit of regular writing work for Harrods which helps. I also tried applying for a grant through the Arts Council last year but didn't get it unfortunately. However,as part of the application I had to do a project plan and that really made me think about the importance of structure and planning my writing time and, like you, considering what I hope to achieve at the end of each quarter.

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Thanks, Lucy. Writing the Arts Council grants are great for looking at planning, I agree. It's really helped me.

Tony Higginson said...

Lots of very good points, sadly it's always the balance between real time and real money and really needing both. Distance to schools from you is often a factor, local schools should pool fees and arrange little mini tours

Juliet Clare Bell said...

It's true. But I think it starts with the author being really upfront about what she or he can provide and I know I've been really remiss on using my website to explain clearly what I do (and gathering testimonials in writing). So I'm going to get my website in the best place first and then deal with all the other issues (of schools having much smaller budgets, etc) after that. Thanks for your thoughts. Mini tours sounds good!

Andrew Preston said...

I must admit, I'd never heard of the term... accountability partner. The first thing that came into my mind here was that it was that was a relationship scenario somewhere between a friend with benefits.., and a, well, a partner.

This whole Universal Credits thing does seem to have the flavour of... "Work.., work harder you plebs...".

Me ? I'm considering doing a 'side hustle'. That is, something that is directly about bringing in money, not particularly concerned with ones vocation, career path etc.., usually with knowledge we already have, but reframed or redirected.