When Russia invaded Ukraine, in late February 2022, I started to have strange dreams. They weren’t exactly nightmares, but they weren’t exactly pleasant, either.

I had spent a year in the two countries, while studying for an undergraduate degree in Russian, in the early 1990s. In the summer of 1994, I took a long train journey from Moscow into Ukraine and enjoyed a dreamy summer in Odesa and in the town where the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, was born and grew up — Kryvyi Rih.

In my dreams, for weeks I kept seeing the flashes of endless fields of sunflowers, interspersed with scenes from footage from the war on the news, like a mash-up of “then” and “now”, underlining the innocence of that time with the horror of the present moment. The more these dreams woke me up in the middle of the night, the more certainly I knew I was going to write about that summer and the year leading up to it. I also knew that if I did publish any of that writing — about a place where thousands of voices are being silenced — well, there was no way I could profit from it financially, and it made me think about authors and their relationship with philanthropy.

The subject of writers and money is always an awkward one. In films and on TV, the figure of “the writer” is usually presented as wealthy, comfortable, smug even. Because it’s not very cheering to think about abject penury, writing as a professional occupation is more frequently erroneously associated with automatic fame and fortune.

When you tell people you’re a writer, the first question they will ask is: “Have you written anything I would have heard of?” Readers may think that many books are “best-sellers” but, in fact, only several hundreds of books a year out of thousands published truly earn this distinction. And yet, when it goes well, it goes really well. Writers such as JK Rowling, Danielle Steel, John Grisham, Stephen King and James Patterson have estimated net worth in the range of $400mn to $1bn.

US author Stephen King arrives to testify at the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse
Stephen King has his own not-for-profit foundation © Michael Reynolds/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Writing is a profession for which the word “outlier” could have been invented. According to a 2022 survey by ACLS (Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society), the median earnings for a UK writer are £7,000 a year. This puny figure isn’t newsworthy but it is historically worse than ever. The survey concluded: “We see a sustained downwards trend over the past two decades that seems to be associated with changes to creative labour markets in the digital environment.” The US figures are no better: the last major Authors’ Guild survey in 2019 put the median figure at $6,080 a year, down 42 per cent in a decade.

“Poverty is a form of censorship,” said the author TJ Stiles in reaction to the figures. There has never been a worse time to try to make a living as a writer. Why, then, is it that so many writers — when they do escape these unlivable four-figure sums — give their hard-earned cash away?

There is a strong recent tradition among British writers of donating money to causes that reflect their life trajectory and/or the central role of the arts in their lives.

Novelist Jojo Moyes donated £360,000 to literary charity Quick Reads to prevent its closure, in 2018. Actor-turned-novelist David Nicholls — best-selling author of One Day (also a recent Netflix hit) and currently flying high in the charts with his new novel You Are Here — has established a theatre bursary at the University of Bristol. Adam Kay, once a doctor, now a comedian and writer, has raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for NHS charities with the live shows connected to his best-selling memoir This Is Going to Hurt (also a TV hit).  

And, when it comes to the moneyed authors on the international rich lists, their philanthropic arrangements are as complicated as any Robert Galbraith plot (Rowling’s crime fiction alter ego). Many rich writers establish their own foundations as companies in their own right, whose activities quietly become as significant as their founders’ literary contributions.

Rowling, who has swung in and out of billionaire status over the past decade, has donated almost a fifth of her net worth, much of that through her own charity Lumos. Her vast philanthropic activities include donating hundreds of thousands of pounds to homelessness and domestic violence charities, £25.3mn to a research clinic named after her mother, the Anne Rowling Regenerative Neurology Clinic at the University of Edinburgh, and £18.9mn to disadvantaged children in central and eastern Europe. And these are just random examples.

‘Harry Potter’ author JK Rowling
JK Rowling, who has donated millions of pounds to charity © Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images
the facade of The Anne Rowling Regenerative Neurology Clinic
The Anne Rowling Regenerative Neurology Clinic, in Edinburgh

James Patterson recently gave a donation of $5.3mn to literacy foundations (“I was brought up to give back”). It is estimated that Stephen King — who has his own not-for-profit foundation — donates $4mn a year. Like many philanthropists, King is not always public about his activities. In a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, he said: “We were raised firmly to believe that, if you give away money and you make a big deal of it so that everybody sees it, that’s hubris.”

It’s this discretion that can make it hard to unpick the motivation behind donating money, which is a science fundraisers and charities are always trying to parse. When a global recession happens, charitable donations are likely to be squeezed.

A report earlier this year from data provider Altrata concluded that the ultra wealthy (those worth $30mn or more) “account for a prominent and growing share of all individual giving, at almost 38%.” It added: “the world’s 3,200 billionaires accounted for 8% of all individual giving.” This is known as the phenomenon of “dollars up, donors down”. It goes hand-in-hand with the philanthropic boost from the new trend among the exceptionally wealthy for “giving while living” — making sure there’s nothing left when you die.

Kerry Rock, chief executive of Prospecting for Gold, an agency that helps charities identify potential donors, says the charity sector has always relied on creatives, as they often come from backgrounds that make them open to understanding different perspectives. “People in the arts are often interested in life experience and in the lives of others,” she says. “They have often had a range of life experiences before their involvement in the arts. So they are often good at seeing the need.”

One of the biggest changes she has noticed in the past 10 years is that giving is becoming less invisible than it used to be. This, she believes, is because people with a public profile want to motivate their own audiences on social media. “There is a group that want to be seen to lead others: ‘I’m giving and I want to give others the example,’” she says. “There is more of trend away from ‘silent philanthropy’. I don’t think that’s people trying to say, ‘Look at me — I’m doing a great thing!’, it’s more, ‘Look at the difference I’m making. How about you also help?’”

Attention is something authors can create that others can’t, explains culture communications consultant Truda Spruyt. “That is something that authors have that other donors can’t bring — platform and awareness. It’s the difference between them donating as ‘individuals who just want to do something with their money’ — and wanting to ‘say something about an issue’ as an author. They might want to make it part of their brand that they are an activist or a giving person. They are the polar opposite of the people who keep their donation private.”

This will increasingly be the case, she argues, now that social media dominates reputation management. “That is a big change in terms of activism over the past five years. There is a lot of pressure on people to ‘say things about things’. ‘Why haven’t you said anything about Palestine?’ ‘Why haven’t you signed this open letter?’ There is a lot of pressure on public figures to make their affiliations known and to speak up.”

As Rock says, the biggest motivator in the charity sector is still a personal connection: this often makes the donor feel that the donation is not only essential but inevitable and logical.

This was the case for Alex Renton, author of Blood Legacy: Reckoning with a Family’s Story of Slavery, a book about his family’s historical links with the slave trade. “I realised this pretty early on in the process of researching the book,” he says, “I saw from the start that my family had been involved in denying their involvement and the material benefits. I couldn’t perpetuate that by making any money myself.”

He donated his advance (a donation matched by his publisher, Canongate) and all future royalties and associated earnings. One of the issues at the Not-JK-Rowling end of things is that, as Renton puts it, “people have no idea of the economics of book writing”. He explains: “My wife said, ‘Well, as long as you give away the profits.’ But it was a four-year research project. There were never going to be any ‘profits’. I would love to say ‘I will donate all royalties’ but that would have been precisely zero.”

Alex Renton, author of ‘Blood Legacy: Reckoning with a Family’s Story of Slavery’ © Caroline Irby

By this, he means that an estimated 80 per cent of books don’t “earn out” their advance and get to the stage of earning extra royalties, on top. His book is a case in point. That’s why it was important to donate the advance itself. I have taken the same approach with my book — the advance and any other future earnings are going to PEN International for Writers at Risk.

Renton acknowledges that many non-billionaire-funded philanthropic donations — unlike opening an entire hospital wing — will be tokenistic by their very nature and cannot really address the scale of a problem. In any case, some readers just ignore the philanthropic gesture.

“A lot of reviewers and readers wrote me angry emails. ‘So you feel regret, but you’re making money out of a book?’ And I write back and say: ‘We want to do what we can to pay back in some token way . . . ’ My family enslaved over 900 people of African heritage in the Caribbean and continued to exploit them after the end of slavery. You cannot do the audit on that damage.”

He also realised it was important to do something ongoing rather than give a one-off sum, so he founded Heirs of Slavery, a group of people whose ancestors profited from slavery and want to support reconciliation and restorative justice. His ultimate motivation is pragmatism. “I’m doing something about which I had no choice.” I feel the same way about writing a book set in Ukraine.

I wonder — with the author earnings’ surveys that churn out their alarming figures — whether the connection between writers and philanthropy is a trend that will last into the future.

Many of the writers associated with large donations are over the age of 50 and began their publishing careers at the end of the 20th century. Since then, the economics have worsened. In 2022, Penguin Random House was blocked by a US court from the proposed $2.2bn acquisition of another publisher, Simon & Schuster and, during the trial for this case, many interesting details emerged about the industry. In the US, only 50 authors a year achieve sales of more than 500,000 books and six-figure advances only go to 1 per cent of authors published.

It’s this kind of maths that has motivated authors such as me and Renton who haven’t hit the big time but want to do something meaningful. We are statistically unlikely to become multimillionaires from our writing, so whatever we can do, in whatever small way, should be done. And perhaps, to quote Stephen King, it will be good for our writing, anyway: “Money is great stuff to have, but when it comes to the act of creation, the best thing is not to think of money too much. It constipates the whole process.” 

‘One Ukrainian Summer’ by Viv Groskop (Ithaka Press) is out now. All author proceeds go to PEN International for Writers at Risk

This article has been amended to remove an incorrect reference to the year slavery was abolished in the British colonies.

This article is part of FT Wealth, a section providing in-depth coverage of philanthropy, entrepreneurs, family offices, as well as alternative and impact investment

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