Even for the many extremely talented authors out there, making a living from their trade is not easy. Write On! asked Neal Zetter, the widely published children’s poet, to pass on the secrets of his success.
WO: How would you describe what you do in more detail?
NZ: I am an author using my comedy performance poetry to develop communication (writing and presentation skills) and confidence in 3-103 year-olds. As my eight books are aimed at children, I am in primary and secondary schools virtually every term-time day, running fun poetry writing and performance workshops, performing myself and staging Q&As, book sales and signings.
WO: When did you start?
NZ: I wrote my first poem at six years old, started to receive some kind of regular income from my poetry in 1989 (when I staged my first performance) and became a full-time poet/author in 2005.
WO: How do you sustain a living from your work?
NZ: Contrary to popular belief, most poets and authors are not rich! To raise and sustain a profile and a modest income, I have always tried to be many things to many people and rarely turn away work. I performed my adult poetry in West End comedy clubs from 1989-2002, then ran my own comedy club for many years, which I also compered. At the same time I was running workshops (and still do) for schools, school-excluded children, adults with mental health and/or drug and alcohol issues amongst others, also people with brain injury, those with learning difficulties, the homeless, abused women (in a women’s refuge), offenders, elderly and those with dementia, people learning the English language and many more community groups and arts organisations.
WO: But it seems you spend more time in schools – why is that?
NZ: Sadly, due to government funding cuts, much of the adult work has dried up in the last ten years, although I still do some. Fortunately for me, though, my first book was published at a similar time and my publishing career grew from there; I now have eight books and three more in the pipeline. And schools are far more interested in booking a poet/author than just a poet, as encouraging reading is top of almost every school agenda.
WO: So how do you spend an average week?
NZ: I work in schools four days a week in term-time, taking Wednesdays off for writing, new business, invoicing, admin, emails, etc. I try and take school holidays off too, apart from in summer, when I work staging children and family shows in libraries, take part in various literary festivals, or work with adult groups.
WO: What is the main advice you would give to a writer wishing make a living from it?
NZ: It’s not an easy path. To be a success at anything you have to work hard. When I started, I used to spend days phoning schools, hospitals, libraries, community groups and arts organisations asking for work. Eventually it paid off and now most of the work comes via repeat business, recommendation, people Googling me or my websites, etc. I don’t really ‘cold call’ any more.
So you can see, you do need to be a strong sales person with a business head. Just being a great writer with a book or two will not be enough. As I am running a business, I need to be able to put together business and lesson plans, market myself, assist clients in funding bids, organise my invoicing, chase payments, develop my website (with my Web Manager) and run my Twitter account.
I have seen top authors unable to engage an assembly or classroom full of children or teens, cope with challenging behaviour, deal with demanding Headteachers, be sensitive enough not to take over a teacher’s territory, but to work alongside them. You must be a strong people manager and an effective communicator too. Luckily for me, I developed most of these transferable skills in my previous 27-year career in local government PR, where I also learnt a lot about how public sector budgets work and am aware of the sensitivities surrounding them during the recent times of austerity.
WO: How do our readers find out more about you and your work?
Contrary to popular belief, most poets and authors are not rich! To raise and sustain a profile and a modest income I have always tried to be many things to many people and rarely turn away work.