Will you write that book in 1998? If so, don't give up the day job, says John Sutherland. Most authors are as poor as ever
In 1976, the novelist Paul Bailey was touring schools, courtesy of the Arts Council, giving the country's children some idea of the literary life. It has always been an austere line of work. In passing, Bailey divulged how much (little, that is) he earned from his pen. "If that's all you get," one of his young hearers asked, "why do you do it?" I would like to know what that proto-Thatcherite child is doing today. Paul Bailey, I'm glad to say, is still writing stylish fiction.

Why do they do it? Fame, money, and the love of beautiful women, Byron famously retorted. But writers get less than their fair share of these good things. If you want to get rich, laid, and your face on the cover of Rolling Stone, the guitar is mightier than the pen.

There is an interesting calculation recorded in Margaret Drabble's life of Angus Wilson. She recalled that 1976 was a "good year" for her authorially: "I had earned pounds 12,216 gross". Wilson had earned fractionally less from his writing, pounds 11,287. Drabble and Wilson were, in the mid-1970s, two of the most distinguished novelists in the English-speaking world, revered national possessions known by name and reputation to every cultivated Briton. Wilson was knighted for services to literature in 1980; Drabble received a CBE in the same year.

A footnote in the biography reminds us that sterling was in 1976 worth a quarter of what it now is. Even so, the rewards are startlingly modest measured against the fame. pounds 45,000 is considerably less than a middlingly successful barrister or surgeon would expect - let alone those sufficiently at the top of the tree to figure in the honours list. And, of course, authors ("creative writers") have a different earning curve from those of us in salaried professions.

Most professionals - doctors, lawyers, teachers - can confidently expect to earn more in their last 10 years of gainful work. Prudently, their employers will have been salting away and investing up to 20 per cent of their income over the years for a pension to see them through their retirement.

Nineteen seventy-six was a high point for Wilson (then aged 64). Ten years later, crippled with Alzheimer's and his royalties shrunk to under pounds 3,000 per annum, Sir Angus was totally dependent on charity. There are few more culturally shaming sights than a literary knight with a begging bowl.

Nonetheless, Wilson was among the luckier of his craft. He had friends (and a devoted companion) able to help out. Many writers die broke, broken and alone. Read Samuel Johnson's Life of Richard Savage and the obituaries of John Braine (died 1986). Little has changed in 200 years. Being a young writer in a garret has a certain romanticism. Dying in a garret is something else.

It makes sense to think of the literary life as a lottery. And a very odd lottery, at that. If, for instance, you went back in H G Wells's time machine to the 1960s and told T S Eliot that there would, 30 years on, be a golden and inexhaustible stream of subsidiary rights income from a popular musical (of all things) based on one of his works, he would have scratched his head in wonderment. "Ah!" he might have thought, "Murder in the Cathedral, always the most performed of my plays." The notion that his comic-verse album about cats would prove to be the most remunerative volume of poetry of the century would have struck him as grotesque.

Even more curious is the winning ticket in the W H Auden lottery. With the (unexpected) US box-office success in 1994 of the film Four Weddings and a Funeral, the elegiac poem "Stop all the clocks" became a hit. Sales of Auden's poetry soared. And where did the royalties go? Auden had died in 1973 leaving everything to his long-time male companion, Chester Kallman, some 25 years his junior. The cash in hand amounted to a few thousand dollars, which Kallman squandered on drink and lovers, before dying of an exploded liver 14 months later.

Kallman did not believe in wills. His estate went to his mother, a retired widow in Florida. Mrs Kallman remarried a similarly superannuated dentist before herself dying. So where have the vast revenues generated by "Stop all the clocks" gone? Don't ask.

Of course, there is no direct harm to W H Auden in this strange route taken by his posthumous royalties. Why should he have cared about posterity's fickle judgements on his verse? What had posterity ever done for him (as Oscar famously asked)? But looking over the course of Auden's life one can see that some advance on this windfall would have been very useful to him, and beneficial to his poetry. Like most world-famous poets in the 20th century, Auden was obliged to support himself (and the parasitic Chester) by other, creatively debilitating work: lecturing, reviews, visiting professorships and, not infrequently, downright cadging. If the muse called, she was likely to be told the poet was not at home today; try next month.

At the turn of the century, Walter Besant - the founder of the Society of Authors - calculated that no more than 200 British creative writers lived by their pen alone (he excepted journalists). There are probably not many more than 200 today. In 1997, having surveyed the income patterns of 329 creative writers, the Society discovered that 29 per cent had received a "most recent advance" of under pounds 1,000; for 41 per cent it was between pounds 1,000 and pounds 5,000. Only 6 per cent of those surveyed reported an advance of more than pounds 25,000.

Seeing it in the mind's eye as a mountain of greenies, 25 grand may seem a lot of money. But few writers can turn out a book a year; and very few a book a year for four decades (the average working life). There are, of course, the mouth-watering advances which make newspaper headlines. Stephen King, we read, has just secured $17 million for his next blockbuster. Lucky him.

British levels of advance tend, at the top level, to be less fabulous. But columnists had a field day with the (reported) pounds 450,000 which Martin Amis got through his agent, Andrew "the Jackal" Wylie. As reported, the deal was for two future works. Amis turns out his books at two-to-three year intervals.

Was it that munificent? Subtract the Jackal's 12 per cent and top-slice 20 per cent for the rainy-day pension. Spread the remainder over five years, which the Inland Revenue lets authors do to save paying an excessive amount of tax at the 40 per cent margin. What you are left with is an annual income for Amis of around pounds 61,000 gross. Rather less, I would guess, than some journalists who made merry about his reconstructive dental surgery.

Poets get the hardest deal of any creative writers. If there is one piece of advice to give to a young writer intending to support themselves by verse it is Mr Punch's: "Don't!". Alongside its 1997 awards to artists, the Paul Hamlyn Foundation undertook a survey of the earning patterns and income of 342 British poets who had applied for its support. It makes chilling reading. As the foundation's managers report, "The applications reveal that most poets make only a tiny fraction of their income from poetry (under pounds 2,000) and that they earn their living from a wide variety of other occupations" - the "toad work", as Philip Larkin called it.

But few poets, as the Hamlyn Foundation points out, enjoy such well-paying occupations as Larkin's university librarian post: "Average annual earnings of poets ranged from pounds 7,500 in the North West to pounds 14,500 in the Midlands and Scotland. Poets in London earned on average pounds 12,358". The average wage in Britain in 1997 is pounds 19,000; professional salaries range from an average pounds 21,000 for a teacher to pounds 60,000 for an urban GP. Why, as the child asked, do they do it?

Of course, no one owes poets a living. If they choose to starve it's their fault for not going into some sensible line of work like accountancy. But, perversely, we want poets to write poetry. We take pride in their achievement as "our heritage" (their work, our heritage). Some 2,300 volumes of poetry were published and some 7 million copies sold in Britain in 1996. We are all the richer for it. If there is one field in which Britain excels it is not soccer, athletics, or building millennium domes, but creative literature.

How could it be improved? Very easily. The public library system (now being systematically destroyed) was set up in the 19th century with a "penny charge" on the rates. A penny tax on the one form of poetry which does sell - lyrics set to pop music on CDs - would generate a fund of Lottery proportions. Distributed as good-cause money it would dignify the writing profession and, in all probability, improve the quality of English literature over the long term.

The bad news is, it won't happen. The good news is that it doesn't have to happen. However little you pay them, the fools will carry on writing.