Time and Motion study: the poet laureate reveals how he can survive on pounds 5,000 a year

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The Independent Online
ANDREW MOTION, The Poet Laureate, has said that he spends the whole of the pounds 5,000 salary he receives from The Queen on postage stamps to reply to members of the public. Breaking down his earnings, Mr Motion estimates he makes around pounds 55,000 a year. But only about pounds 2,000 of this comes from payment for his poems.

In an interview with the literary magazine, Mslexia, The Poet Laureate makes what is an unusual gesture for a writer, and is honest about his income in an article that examines some of the myths about writers' earnings.

Andrew Motion's earnings are said to be well above the norm for most writers. But even he finds that his poems are the least significant part of his earnings. The biggest slice of his income, around pounds 30,000, comes from his part-time professorial salary at the University of East Anglia. Then there is a pounds 25,000 advance for his next literary biography (of 19th century art critic and poisoner Thomas Griffiths Wainright) which has taken three years to write, and so works out at pounds 8,300 a year.

Then, he explains, "There's the pounds 5,000 from Buckingham Palace. After tax, that just about covers my stamp bill - I get so many letters as Poet Laureate."

He earns around pounds 5,000 a year also from public readings, giving about 100 readings at an average of pounds 50 a time. A further pounds 5,000 comes from literary journalism - "I can charge more now. It used to be pounds 300 for a 1,200 word review. Now I'd get pounds 500."

Other well-known authors contacted by the magazine also claim to be earning a lot less than the public might think. Prize winning novelist Beryl Bainbridge says that her income has risen "meteorically" to pounds 35,000 after many years hovering around the pounds 9,000 mark. Frieda Hughes, poet and daughter of the late Ted Hughes, has sold just 3,000 copies of her latest work Wooroloo, despite the book being reviewed in every national newspaper. With a 10 per cent royalty on a pounds 6.99 cover price, that means an income for Ms Hughes of just under pounds 300.

Debbie Taylor, editor of Mslexia, says that despite the big news stories about six-figure contracts for unknown authors, the reality is that even household name authors are often unable to survive on the income from their books.

They have to take on other jobs, she says, and their `real work', their creative writing, "is forced into precious interstices of their lives." This appears to be confirmed by Andrew Motion, who says: "I've become very good at writing poetry on trains."

But Beryl Bainbridge thinks any sympathy would be misplaced. "I never expected to earn a living from writing," she says, "and I can't understand the source of that expectation. You either want to write or you don't."

Fellow writer Margaret Forster agrees: "It's a privilege to be a writer. It's a gift, and it's arrogant to assume a living goes with it."

But novelist Jane Rogers takes a different view. She says: "Writers produce the raw material that is flogged by publishers, booksellers, radio, film, and TV companies. The jobs of all the people employed in these trades depend on us. They make better profits than writers do, and they pay themselves better wages."

And Fay Weldon believes writers are now wary of admitting how little they can earn and still manage to write. "We have become politicised," she says, "we do not want to admit we can live on a diet of bread and cheese, as that is what publishers and TV companies will then expect us to do."

THE EARNINGS BREAKDOWN

Part-time professorial salary at the University of East Anglia - pounds 30,000.

Advance for biography - pounds 25,000 over three years.

Salary for being Poet Laureate - pounds 5,000

Public readings - pounds 5,000.

Literary journalism - pounds 5,000.

Payment for his poems - pounds 2,000.

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