What Are Words Worth? asks underpaid Islington writer Pete May

Pete May author of What Are Words Worth?

Pete May author of What Are Words Worth? - Credit: Archant

From the perils of working from home, to pitching book ideas to a declining publishing industry, May’s ‘Diary of a Midlist writer’ charts a comical but precarious year

What Are Words Worth by Pete May

What Are Words Worth by Pete May - Credit: Archant

Islington must have more writers and would-be writers per square foot than any other London borough. But writing is not the glamorous or rich occupation some assume.

My new book What Are Words Worth? was written in Finsbury Park and is a humorous look at the non-genteel poverty of the literary world. It also makes a serious point about declining incomes for authors. In 2019 a survey by the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) revealed that the average writers’ annual income is now £10,437. And that’s an average, meaning a lot of writers are earning less than £10k pa.

What Are Words Worth? is loosely modelled on the Victorian classic Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith (set around Holloway). One Amazon reviewer has kindly described it as a cyber version of Orwell’s Keep The Aspidistra Flying.

It follows a year of my writing life from January 2019 to the start of the pandemic in 2020 and reveals the truth about a midlist writer misfiring in the gig economy.

It also features some of the downsides of working from home such as a relentless trail of fox debris in the garden, a rat down the loo, drilling on the roof and drug deals on the street corner. Not to mention a teenage daughter over-celebrating into the small hours and a wife who is standing on a wobble cushion doing pretend paddle boarding with a broom.

Many of the scenes will be familiar to Islington residents. Not least my regular encounters with urban foxes, who rip open bags of rubbish on top of our chicken coop and deposit all sorts of horrible detritus.

Most Read

Much of my downtime is spent walking our dog on the Parkland Walk, buying Hippy Bread from Salt the Radish or having coffee with my daughter at the Blackstock Kitchen.

In Islington Ecology Centre I run a local writers’ book stall and almost sell one to Jeremy Corbyn.

At Finsbury Park bus station, I find myself lecturing a beggar on how the print industry is dying. There are also plenty of gigs and plays, including Billy Bragg at the Islington Assembly Hall, Graham Parker at the Union Chapel and The Last Temptation of Boris Johnson at the Park Theatre (we felt sure that old chancer would never get elected).

In my time I’ve had 15 non-fiction books published by the likes of Penguin and Collins and written for the Guardian and many other publications. Last year I appeared in Islington’s Council’s ‘literary road map’ of Islington, but even I’m struggling.

We’re lucky in that we own our house and I do a job I love. But with the print industry contracting and few publishers paying advances any more, life is precarious.

My year involves trying to sell book title ideas on Fiverr, moving over to the dark side of PR, writing £10-a-go music biographies of middle-class French rappers and German schlager singers, trying to eke some blog revenue from AdSense, relying on Kindle Direct Publishing revenues of £1.73 per book, doing a monthly newsletter for Pilates Central in Upper Street and receiving a lot of “not quite right for us” emails from commissioning editors.

Meanwhile my wife Nicola Baird — who writes the Islington Green column for the Gazette — also has a portfolio career. She is writing her Islington Faces blog for love not money, teaching media studies, riding and paddleboarding, and editing the Pavement, a magazine for people who are homeless.

The start of the year sees me visiting a life coach as my wife thinks I’m depressed, and telling her about my fear of not having a big idea or a big income. By the end of the year my income has increased a bit and I’ve learned not to beat myself up over industry changes that I have no control over. A chance meeting with my old agent in the Alwyne pub at Highbury convinces me that maybe things will look up, barring a global pandemic.

What I’ve tried to depict is that writers write, whether there’s money in it or not. Readers have been kind so far. Islington resident and writer Rosie Millard, the Chair of BBC Children in Need, says: “It made me properly laugh out loud… a cracking read, original and funny.” Other reviewers have said it reminds them of a forgotten time when people were busy. Hopefully it’s an honest and funny take on being a wordsmith, which Islington’s writers and readers will enjoy too.

What Are Words Worth? Diary of a Midlist Writer Misfiring in the Gig Economy by Pete May is available on Amazon.