Pete May has successfully sustained a writing career for over 30 years, by cleverly mining his own passions and preoccupations. But the money ain't what it used to be, he tells Caroline Sanderson.

Writer and journalist Pete May’s first book, The Lad Done Bad: Sex, Sleaze and Scandal in English Football, co-written with his fellow journalists Andrew Shields and Denis Campbell, came out in 1996. Since then his lifelong devotion to football and to West Ham United in particular, along with his Essex heritage, his love of TV series Doctor Who, and his penchant for the scenic glories of the Lake District (as described in his most recent book, Man About Tarn), have provided rich material for further books, blogs, articles, events and media appearances. However, despite the eclectic and unusual subject matters that inspire his writing, May’s current annual income of around £11,000 coincides with that of the typical professional author according to ALCS’s 2013 survey, What Are Words Worth Now?

May is a hybrid author with both published and self-published titles to his name. He began his writing career as a freelance journalist over thirty years ago and he has continued to contribute regular features to magazines and newspapers, including Loaded and the New Statesman whilst writing more books such as West Ham: Irons in the Soul and the splendidly titled Sunday, Muddy, Sunday; his account of Sunday league football.

Twenty years ago his annual earnings were around double what they are now. But in recent years with dwindling advances and royalties for books, and budgets for freelance contributors to newspapers and magazines slashed or non-existent, May has had to find other sources of income. As with many writers, this includes some teaching. In his case the sports journalism course at the London College of Communication, “it’s only two to four hours teaching a week, plus a day of preparation for each class. But it provides regular income during the academic year”, he tells me.

“I have adverts for my books down the side of my blog and I’m also signed up to Amazon Associates, so I get a little cut of income if anyone buys my book on Amazon.”

Other sources of professional income include blogging which May has been doing for the past eight or nine years. Initially intended as a marketing tool for his books, he has two blogs: one on West Ham, Hammers in the Heart, and another on all things Essex, The Joy of Essex. “If you blog on Blogger, you can sign up to AdSense. It works as a base, even while I’m asleep, someone might click on my blog ads and a bit of money comes in. I have adverts for my books down the side of my blog and I’m also signed up to Amazon Associates, so I get a little cut of income if anyone buys my book on Amazon.” May creates new blog posts, including West Ham match reports, every couple of days. “It keeps you in the habit of writing when you’re not getting other commissions”, he says. He has also done occasional PR work and benefits from the odd media request, for example a paid appearance on BT Sport talking about West Ham after his book Goodbye to Boleyn came out in 2016.

May’s largest advance was the £15,000 he received for There’s a Hippo in my Cistern, his book about his misadventures on the eco frontline published in 2008. But such advances are now a thing of the past. His most recent book, Man About Tarn: How a Londoner Learned to Love the Lake District is published as a Kindle Single and has already garnered praise from both Julia Bradbury and Stuart Maconie. Amazon commissioned the title and paid for the cover and the editing, but there was no advance. May will however get 70% of the selling price for each copy sold.

The downward trend in May’s earnings over the years is also borne out by the 2013 ALCS research which found that the earnings of the typical professional author had fallen by 29% since 2005. His wife Nicola Baird is also a journalist, writer and blogger as well as an editor and lecturer. “She earns a bit more than me which helps. And she also understands the precarious life I lead.” Even so, they have supplemented the family income by renting out a room in their house in North London two or three nights a week – “that would be my advice for any writer with a spare room.” May sadly admits that he probably wouldn’t have been able to stay afloat as a working writer without an inheritance from his late parents. “They left me enough money from the sale of their house to pay off the mortgage on our house in London. If that hadn’t happened, I really would have struggled. If you’re just starting out as a writer and you’ve got a mortgage or a lot of rent to pay, it’s really difficult.”

Pete’s income sources during 2016/17

In a bid to maximise his income, May keeps a close eye on all his books, old and new, looking for new ways of making them pay. “For example, my book Sunday, Muddy Sunday went out of print so I got the rights back and published it on Kindle Direct press and as an ebook. So if it sells any copies now I get a couple of quid each time. And when I self-publish my work as an ebook, I also try to do a CreateSpace print-on-demand version, like I did with my book Whovian Dad: A Doctor Who Fan’s Travels Through Time and Space. You get a couple of quid that way as well.”

Despite the difficulties of making a living May, at the age of 58, remains committed to his writing career and we conclude our conversation on an upbeat note. “Even though I think I’d earn more moving books around Amazon’s warehouse than writing my own, I’m really lucky to be doing something that I love. I am lucky in that I work my own hours, and I’ve been around for my kids growing up as well. Things like that have made a big difference. I think that sometimes you’ve just got to be brave and keep writing.”

What are words worth in 2018?

Results from 2013’s What Are Words Worth Now? found that the median income of professional authors had fallen from £15,450 in 2005 to £11,000 in 2013. In addition, the number of authors earning a living solely from their writing had dropped from 40% in 2005, to 11.5% by 2013.

The author earnings findings from our most recent survey completed in February 2018 will be announced in June. Such data is vital in enabling ALCS to continue to make the case for fair terms for authors in copyright law, licences and contracts.

Photograph © Kimi Gill