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Dubai authors must help balance the books

A grant system could be the way to nurture homegrown literary talent

Many authors dream of writing full time free from distractions but the reality is often very different woman writing on laptop minimalist Monstera Production/Pexels
Many authors dream of writing full time, free from distractions. But the reality is often very different

At the annual Dubai Litfest last weekend, there was a real buzz in the air as local would-be authors eagerly pitched their manuscripts to potential agents and publishers. 

Emirati children’s author Ebtisam Al-Beiti proudly launched her latest book, A Dragon Called Blue. While she was lucky enough to be able to leave her job as a teacher two years ago to write full time, Al-Beiti warns those eager for a book deal to be cautious about rushing to do the same.

“You have to have a side hustle. I would recommend anyone that wants to do this to not leave their permanent employment and to do it as a hobby,” she said.

We’ve all read those press reports of debut authors receiving six-figure advances from big global publishers, topping the bestseller lists and going on to fame and fortune on a par with James Patterson and JK Rowling.

Without sounding like a killjoy pessimist (but we are, after all, a business website), the chances of retiring on literary riches are about as likely as winning American Idol or Ireland taking home the World Cup. The reality is very different from the dream and part of a wider problem facing the modern publishing industry’s business model.

A 2023 US survey found that about half of authors win an advance of less than $10,000 and only about a quarter get into six-figure territory. In terms of earnings, a survey in the UK in late 2022 reported that British authors earned an average of just £7,000 ($8,777) a year from writing books, down from £10,497 in 2018 and £12,330 in 2007.

Ebtisam Al-Beiti, third from right, was able to leave her job to write full time but advises aspiring authors not to give up their day jobEmirates Literature Foundation
Ebtisam Al-Beiti, third from right, was able to leave her job to write full time but advises aspiring authors not to give up their day job

While Al-Beiti was lucky to be in a position to leave her job, a few local experts at Dubai Litfest gave an insight into what the financial picture is like for authors in the city and the wider Gulf.

“There is a tendency for aspiring writers, which I particularly notice in Dubai, to think that getting published is a quick route to money and fame,” says Michael Lynes, an author and chair of the Gulf Chapter of the Crime Writers’ Association.

Lynes said all wannabe authors “have to ally your passion and your creativity to facing the fact that almost all books are commercial failures”. 

Alex Shaw, an international bestselling author and co-editor with Lynes of the recently launched Arabian Noir anthology of short stories, was slightly more pragmatic: “Any author can live off their writing if they sell enough books.”

Shaw points out that sales in the region are not enough, and most local authors rely on US and UK sales to make a living. 

“Apart from those lucky enough to be sponsored by their spouses, many authors are generally not writing full time, in the sense that they have a day job which pays the rent,” Shaw said.

You have to have a side hustle. I would recommend anyone that wants to do this to not leave their permanent employment and to do it as a hobby

Ebtisam Al-Beiti

Allison K Williams, a Dubai-based writing coach and author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book said book royalties account for about 30 percent of her income. 

She was surprised that the amounts quoted in the US and UK surveys weren’t lower, adding that an advance of $100,000 wasn’t “quit your job” level as it is usually paid in multiple stages, often more than a year apart.

Luigi Bonomi, a London-based literary agent with clients in Dubai, said he has authors who are still earning big advances and royalty cheques, but he believes the industry needs to change and publishers should focus their marketing budgets on a smaller pool of books.

“What publishers are doing is throwing volume, huge volume out there. That’s not a sustainable model,” he warned.

One of his clients, British writer Lucy Strange, signed her book deal while living in Dubai, before moving back to the UK in 2015. Now a bestselling author, she says it would not have been possible without financial assistance from the UK government.

“The Arts Council grant I received gave me a huge and much-needed boost at an early point in my career, when – despite the success of my first book – neither advances nor royalties gave me enough income,” she says.

Dubai announced last month that, as part of the AED208 billion ($57 billion) Dubai Social Agenda 33, it will be investing AED6.4 billion in the arts and culture sector. Many authors I spoke to said the money should be put into an Arts Council-style grant system similar to the one that cultivated Strange’s success.

“New publishing houses need to be funded to help grow and promote homegrown talent,” Shaw says.

When all is said and done, the literary classics of the future will not be possible if authors cannot make a decent living. And wouldn’t it be great if one of them came from the Middle East?

Shane McGinley is news editor of AGBI

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