Well Met: Shaun McCarthy, Playwright & Educational Writer

In the first of a new series profiling ALCS Members and how much they earn from which secondary sources, we meet playwright and educational writer, Shaun McCarthy.

Who are you?

Shaun McCarthy, and I’m very pleased to meet you.

What do you write?

I am – now – primarily a professional playwright for stage and radio. Before I was a playwright, I was a poet.

There’s no money in poetry being published but I was fortunate enough to support the bad habit of writing poems by being appointed to a string of diverse writer in residence and other writing posts within community arts. This was back when such posts were, if not common, far more widespread than they are today.

Up until a couple of years ago I also wrote study guides to plays that were set texts on various examination boards for schools in the UK.

Do you have a ‘day’ job?

For several years now a person or persons unknown to me in Scandinavia have been photocopying my A Level study guide to Tom Stoppard’s ‘Arcadia’

Currently I have three.

I run Hooligan Theatre Productions, a small organisation I created solely to promote and develop my own work. Mainly supported by Arts Council grants and box office receipts when we have a show, it allows me to work with actors to develop new plays and to work with partners such as other theatres to produce work.

I teach creative writing via various part-time, short run and summer schools for Oxford University’s Continuing Education Department. I am writing a new degree in ‘professional creative writing’ for the University of the West of England. I also have a number of annual ‘week or two’ jobs teaching creative writing in Europe: I have just returned from running half a dozen play writing workshops in Geneva.

Finally, I am a Royal Literary Fund Fellow and gain some income from various activities they generously promote to gainfully employ writers.

Where have you been published?

My four pamphlets/collections of poems were published by Hippopotamus Press and University of Salzburg Press.

I have around twenty study guides in print, from Pearson Education, Hodder, York Notes and others.

ALCS provides me with a few (a happy few, to misquote Henry V) thousand pounds each year to make life more interesting.

Have you ever self-published?


Which platforms – if any – have you used to distribute your work?

I did start preparing some unpublished but produced scripts of plays for Kindle, but I got bored and gave up! I am not sure if the sales would have repaid the effort.

How did you hear about ALCS?

From other writers in the educational resources sector.

For what sort of uses of your work do you receive royalties from ALCS?

My ALCS income is derived from educational establishments photocopying my study guides. I find the details of what is copied fascinating. For several years now a person or persons unknown to me in Scandinavia have been photocopying my A Level study guide to Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. Thank you, whoever you are, bent over the busy photocopier in the Nordic twilight.

How consistent has your level of ALCS income been over the years?

It has declined slightly from its high point about five years ago, maybe by 15%. This, I think, is because the number of study guides I have in print has declined. Looking back over breakdowns of earnings from the last few years there is no consistency in how the total fees are made up. Each statement total is partly made up of small sums from a range of titles that have been available for some time. Then there are always one or two titles that earn upwards of £1,000, and once or twice, just over £2,000 each. But titles that feature as top earners do so for no more than one or two years, then they fall back and are – so far! – replaced by something else. There is no accounting for why titles suddenly earn money. They are not the most recently published, nor the ones that are just going out of print. I have no idea.

How important are your ALCS payments in terms of your overall income?

ALCS provides me with a few (a happy few, to misquote Henry V) thousand pounds each year to make life more interesting. The business model that derives from my creative practice could support me if all ALCS funds dried up, but some of the nicer things of life, a short holiday or two , a nice piece of (reproduction) classic Danish furniture or, currently, a probably insane plan to learn to ski aged 62, would have to go. Being very British and not mentioning figures, ALCS averages out annually to deliver roughly one tenth of my total income (and I certainly don’t qualify to pay higher-rate tax!).

There seems to be some idea that either we are so well paid that we don’t need every stream of income we currently earn…

Which is your highest-earning work?

That study guide to Tom Stoppard’s magnificent and intelligent play Arcadia. It’s a big, dense, complex play: fun and funny, and then at the end, utterly, utterly tragic. Perhaps having chosen such a daunting classroom task, teachers need all the help they can get. So they buy my study guide!

Which is your most surprising source of ALCS income?

I was asked to write a study guide to Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale. Not, on the face of it, a promising gig as it is not likely to be a popular choice in schools! Yet for the last few years it has returned around £100 in fees every six months. I have a meal out on it. (But I don’t, as happens in the meal in Chaucer’s tale, poison my fellow diners.)

Are you aware of any potential threats to your ALCS income, for example educational exceptions?

Yes, very much so. I despair at the endless assaults upon the income of writers that come from all sides. I fear we are going down the road sadly already trodden by people who make and distribute music. There seems to be some idea that either we are so well paid that we don’t need every stream of income we currently earn; or that writing is a vocation and we would do it anyway, so why bother to pay for the plays, stories and poems we all enjoy?

What does the future hold for your area of writing?

Making work and getting it into production in the UK is going to become increasingly difficult if cuts to government funding for the arts continue, and if, as is happening, theatre becomes the preserve of a middle or upper-class, privately educated social group lacking diversity of background, ethnicity, experience etc. I certainly don’t fit that group.

However, I can’t imagine not writing, even if all sources of publishing, production and income dried up. Even if for me ‘from page to stage’ becomes ‘from page to bottom drawer of the filing cabinet’. I had an idea for a new play this week, and am now on page 20 of planning the structure, devising the characters etc. It is not written to commission, but with Hooligan Theatre Productions getting funding regularly, albeit in small amounts and for specific projects, I can pretty much be assured that something will happen with the finished script, even if, as is more than very likely, it never has its name in lights in the West End.

Useful information

How much is the average writer making?

Published in 2014, ALCS commissioned research What Are Words Worth Now? lifts the lid on the average writer’s income, showing a sharp drop in earnings since 2005. Read the research here.

Educational writers – do you know about copyright modernisation? Here’s why you should.

Copyright ‘modernisation’ and education exceptions in Canada have had a devastating effect on writers’ incomes, particularly those working in education, or whose work is being reproduced in educational anthologies. John Degen, novelist and Executive Director of The Writers’ Union of Canada, explains how similar proposals could affect UK writers. Read more here.