by Kim Kelly



I was asked by another writer recently what success as a writer means, and it’s a good question. For a massive majority of writers, it doesn’t mean selling truckloads of books, with queues down the high street at signings, or earning so much money you are compelled to buy diamond-studded collars for your cats for want of how to spend it all.

A recent study published in the Guardian showed that 17% of professional writers earned no money from their work at all in 2013. That was in the UK; in Australia, where the cash pool is tinier, I think we could safely expect that the number of writers doing their thing for zilch would be a little higher. These are professionally published writers we’re talking about here, too.

Even writers who sell quite well rarely earn a liveable amount from it. If the average wage in Australia is about $70,000 per annum, the average Australian writer’s advance is somewhere around a tenth of that. It might have taken the author two years to write their latest offering, though, so in real terms, that author wrote that book at a rate of around $67 per week. You won’t pay the rent on that; you won’t pay your grocery bill, either. If you value your own worth as a writer by these terms you’ll go mad with the injustice of it all. You might even want to give up – most do.

Inveterate nutbag that I am, I’ve been at it now for more than ten years. So, what keeps me hanging in there? How do I measure success in the absence of the usual indicators of wealth and fame? What pulls me back from the edge of the vortex of despair?

My immediate response to my writerly comrade’s question was, ‘I lurk among the library catalogues across the nation to see if my book is being borrowed.’

As I’ve said in a blog past, if I want to get an instant hit of sunshiny love, I look to Far North Queensland libraries. They are bananas for Australian-made up there, it appears, and the number of ‘ON LOAN’ notices beside the catalogue entries for my books make me feel on top of the world. Seriously, what deeper success is there for a writer other than knowing that they are connecting with a reader – somewhere, out there in the big wide void – right now?

Well, there’s fan mail, too. Whether it’s an old-fashioned note in the post or a quick hello on Facebook, corresponding with readers who have been moved in some way by your work is gold. In fact, I have made a new favourite pen pal this very way. I won’t name her here, in case she might be shy of this public nattering business, but I will divulge that she’s ninety years young and beautiful in all ways. She’s also read every single one of my books and told me in detail what each one has meant to her personally. My eyes fill with tears of gratitude just to see her handwriting on the envelope.

But an extra special thing of loveliness happened when I opened her last letter yesterday. She told me she’d had some trouble getting hold of my first novel, Black Diamonds, as it’s been out-of-print for some time, and she doesn’t read ebooks, but that one of her granddaughters had found her a copy in the University of Sydney’s Fisher Library.

My heart and my brain flipped as one: Fisher Library? It never occurred to me that my books would be in the main library of my old university. Of course Fisher has several bazillion books, but I just didn’t imagine in my wildest that they would have mine.

I loved that place. In many ways Fisher Library was a refuge for me, and maybe one day I’ll write a book on why, but it was also a place of wonder, of dreaming. Not far away from its stacks, though, just across the other side of the uni, twenty-nine years ago, a friend laughed in my face when I told her my deepest secret: that I wanted to be a writer. I’ve carried that knock a little heavily ever since but that letter from a wiser friend laughed straight back at it yesterday. At last.

Success? Absolutely, and rather sweet.