Don’t really believe this about writers, sorry

According to a survey of almost 2,500 working writers – the first comprehensive study of author earnings in the UK since 2005 – the median income of the professional author in 2013 was just £11,000, a drop of 29% since 2005 when the figure was £12,330 (£15,450 if adjusted for inflation), and well below the £16,850 figure the Joseph Rowntree Foundation says is needed to achieve a minimum standard of living. The typical median income of all writers was even less: £4,000 in 2013, compared to £5,012 in real terms in 2005, and £8,810 in 2000.

I agree that “books” for the average author don’t make money. My royalty cheque this year was £60. However, to say that “book earnings” equals “writing earnings” seems most strange. As an example, my best month of the past 12 beat that annual median they quote handily.

And there’s also the point that why the hell should authors make a specific level of living? We’re all, rightly, subject to the test of the market: what are people willing to pay for the output of our labours?

And this grates too:

The ALCS described the new figures as “shocking”. “These are concerning times for writers,” said chief executive Owen Atkinson. “This rapid decline in both author incomes and in the numbers of those writing full-time could have serious implications for the economic success of the creative industries in the UK.”

Smythe said that many blame the numbers of books published for the decline in author earnings, “and it’s true, shelf space is at a premium”.

If there’s many more books being published then that must mean more are being written (or at the very least, that a greater portion of those written are being published) which makes it rather difficult for there to be fewer writers about.

Don’t these people do numbers?

36 comments on “Don’t really believe this about writers, sorry

  1. ‘…Smythe said that many blame the numbers of books published for the decline in author earnings, “and it’s true, shelf space is at a premium.’
    In an age of electronic publishing does the concept of ‘shelf space’ have any meaning?

  2. diddums, guess they’ll have to find other ways to supplement their income, or even get different jobs.

    Is it me or do I find creatives to be the most whinny and entitled layer of professions?

    The amount of musicians I know, pros and semi who moan above and beyond reasonable levels is astounding. I think they believe market laws don’t apply to them and haven’t worked out that creatives work like a de-facto business and there is no right for people to pay for your lifestyle and earnings.

    I don’t want to see creatives I like be unable to do what they do, or in some cases do less because they have to get a part-time job. But its not really up to me, I pay for their produce but if not enough people value it as I do then, well, tough.

  3. Tim,

    I was going to ask you this question in a PM but as its germane others might be interested.

    My son has just been asked by a friend who works for a policy organisation to write a 5,000 word essay for £350. The subject is relevant to his degree. He hasn’t done any professional writing but they have seen a sample of his degree essays.

    He wont be credited when it is published but he can put it on his CV, not that he is aiming for a career as a professional writer.

    Does that seem about the going rate under these conditions?

    Thanks,

    Simon

  4. Maybe they are writing what people aren’t willing to pay so much for reading.
    I used to know an author, he got just a few thousand pounds a year from his two books – he didn’t write them to make money, he wrote them for others to share his interest in the subject matter.
    Perhaps writers should cater to their audience rather than expecting to find an audience somewhere that agree this is a good book/article or whatever.

  5. That’s well under professional writing rates. Local newspaper is £70 odd per 000 words, technical press £150 to £250.

    However, entry level and all that, first time around, I would say grab it. Put it the other way around. He’s a student, he’s doing something relevant to his degree and it’s not going to take longer than two days (if it does then writing really isn’t for him!). £20 an hour isn’t bad money these days.

    Further, whether or not one wants to be a professional writer it’s a very useful string to have to one’s bow. A reputation, however small and in however restricted a circle, for being able to turn out the required amount of prose, on subject and on time, is a very useful attribute indeed. Leave aside those who reach the upper circles of the professional world and think of someone doing well, in the top 10% but not by much. On, say, £50k a year. A reasonable professional income, not a top notch one. It’s not actually all that difficult, with some practice and application over some years, to be able to supplement that with an extra £5k a year with a modicum of writing. One column a week somewhere in the technical press (and that technical press is vast, much larger than the consumer press we generally read) will manage that at perhaps 90 minutes work a week.

    And getting there is all about making contact with editors who have noted that you turn in work on subject, on time and to length. Something that is done by simply doing it.

    Obviously I’m rather talking from personal experience and freelancing for a livelihood (although I done well at it) is fraught with stress. Doing it for a bit of extra spending cash is, if you can actually do the job, one of the easiest ways of making money I’ve ever come across. Everyone who can write, just like everyone who can do sums, simply assumes that everyone else can do it. They must be idiots if they can’t: but it’s rarer than you think and getting a reputation for being able to do it is a reliable earner.

  6. @BwaB,

    That’s a reasonable fee given:
    – Customer is probably a non-profit
    – Customer will get it done in India on opendesk or such if no local writer is prepared to work for the money
    – Provider knows the background and presumably has to do little research
    – No other specialist knowledge, language skills etc. are required
    – Most newspapers pay proportionately less (your typical Mail whine tends to be rather less than 500 words) for articles
    – Provider has no experience, credentials, or proven ability to write coherent English
    – “Interns” are falling over themselves to do meejah and pollysee work for free. For years.
    – Aptly demonstrates why few people can make a living at any kind of writing.

  7. How many of the authors are really just vanity publishers?

    It strikes me that writing is the same as most other pastimes, especially sport. There’s a few who make mega bucks, a number who make a good living doing something they enjoy (say Championship and Div 2), some who can scrape by but enjoy what they do and then many more who do it because they enjoy it, they may make a bit of money out of it.

    The latter part its how I describe my wife’s art: its a bit more than a self financing hobby.

  8. Rob Harries,

    “The amount of musicians I know, pros and semi who moan above and beyond reasonable levels is astounding.”

    I read something the other day in Spotify’s statistics that they add 20,000 songs to their catalogue every day. When I worked in a record shop, we got something like 50 new singles every week.

  9. Thanks Tim and BiG, useful to know and I’ll pass it on (although he does occasionally read this blog.

    I should have been clearer, he got his degree a year ago so this is just a sideline as he sorts himself a career.

  10. I used to know an author, he got just a few thousand pounds a year from his two books – he didn’t write them to make money, he wrote them for others to share his interest in the subject matter.

    Quite: it’s called a hobby, albeit one that pays beer money. I play the guitar in a bluegrass band, you can imagine the revenue we get from that (hint: it’s a nice round number). Most of these “authors” and “musicians” and “artists” complaining about low wages are doing no more than pursuing their hobby and expecting somebody else to pay for it.

  11. I can second Tim’s comments about the technical side seeing as one narrow aspect of that is the day job. £50k would not be an unusual salary as a (junior-ish) full-time writer, reflecting the fact that people with the relevant technical background, ability to ask the right questions, and to communicate in written English are quite rare.

    This will remain the case as long as demand for quality remains, and who knows how long that will be. Some other communications fields (notably translation) have been hollowed out by Indian schoolboys and other bottom-feeders because for most customers (even those prepared to pay good money for a quality source document) only care about the price.

  12. John: Surely, writers […] earn a pittance in the hope they will be the next J.K. Rowling.

    I think today J.K. Rowling would probably like to be the previous J.K. Rowling.

  13. Hmm, a few florins from my own experience.

    At the bottom end of my current role, all you are is a technical author (with some special shiny bits and access to some obscure documentation.) Contract roles at £400 a day are readily available for that level of person.

    When I was writing for the technical press – a couple of page article on a subject of current controversy – I was being paid £190 for a couple of thousand words. That was four or five years ago.

    Writing textbook chapters – I think I got $2400 for two. About 10,000 words.

    Writing the current book – frankly I expect to receive enough to buy a case of wine. If I’m lucky, a case of decent fizz.

  14. When I first started taking an interest in eBooks about fifteen years ago this kind of attitude was very common. It seems to have almost died out by now — although obviously not entirely. It’s clearly based on the assumption that creatives are special snowflakes; nobody argues that people should still be well paid well for making, say, buggy whips, just because they can.

    Still, one problem for authors with the increasing range and variety of eBooks is that they now have to compete not only with their contemporaries but with writers from the past. In the age of print it was rare to find anything written more than ten years ago in a new-book shop, and people like me who enjoy reading things written between, say, 1910 and 1960 had to spend a lot of time grubbing through second-hand book shops. Now I have access to more old books than I could read in ten lifetimes. Every modern novelist could quit tomorrow and it wouldn’t bother me for an second. We are approaching a genuinely open market.

  15. Says Will Self:

    “My own royalty income has fallen dramatically over the last decade,” said the award-winning author of novels including the Booker-shortlisted Umbrella. “You’ve always been able to comfortably house the British literary writers who can earn all their living from books in a single room – that room used to be a reception one, now it’s a back bedroom.”

    Right… so what does that tell us about demand for the books being written by “British literary writers”?

    As a consumer, I’m delighted at the quantity and range of books available, cheaply and conveniently, via Kindle. There has never been a better time for readers than now.

    And so what if most writers aren’t writing for a living? Was Geoffrey Chaucer put off writing by the lack of fat royalty scrolls? Did having to work for a living stop Will Shakespeare from putting quill to paper?

    “This rapid decline in both author incomes and in the numbers of those writing full-time could have serious implications for the economic success of the creative industries in the UK.”

    Like what? Will the coke dealers go bust if we don’t buy more Will Self books?

  16. “Don’t these people do numbers?”

    What’s missing is the number of writers and the number who actually support themselves by writing.

    Yes, “more books being published” probably means more money for writers in total, but if it is spread between more writers it can mean fewer actually grabbing enough to make a living.

    It’s that democratisation of the internet thing again.

  17. Of course the real issue here isn’t that we now have more choice, its that we are choosing to read the wrong books.

    What they really want is to issue a Guardian approved reading list from Guardian approved authors and that will be our choice. Failing that we have to pay for the Guardian approved author’s preferred lifestyle as a tax on choosing to read what we want.

  18. In the age of print it was rare to find anything written more than ten years ago in a new-book shop, and people like me who enjoy reading things written between, say, 1910 and 1960 had to spend a lot of time grubbing through second-hand book shops. Now I have access to more old books than I could read in ten lifetimes. Every modern novelist could quit tomorrow and it wouldn’t bother me for an second.

    The same is true for music, at least in my case. I’ve listened to about 2 acts from the past 15 years, AFAIK.

  19. “If there’s many more books being published then that must mean more are being written (or at the very least, that a greater portion of those written are being published) which makes it rather difficult for there to be fewer writers about.”

    No.
    Electronic publishing is publishing without the sunk costs of editors, printing and promotion, and hence has flooded the market with crap. But “Dead Tree” publication has always served as a filtration/editing mechanism that always weeded out not only true dross but also the material that was perfectly suitable for publication *were it not for the fact that it is simply generic.* As in, an editor knows there are a dozen other novels and writers out there with the same idea, and who often have better audience recognition than an unknown. whose work should get the print-run? These people were always about, it is simply that their work never got presented to an audience.

    “And there’s also the point that why the hell should authors make a specific level of living? We’re all, rightly, subject to the test of the market: what are people willing to pay for the output of our labours?”

    Possibly because they have done some actual work to prepare their stories that doesn’t simply involve typing and the regurgitation of factual knowledge that you’ve acquired earlier in life, as in literally going and doing personal research, on say, viral infection, the history of the chemical industry, the lives of Howard Hughes’ personal assistants, for instance, none of which you thought you needed to know when you sat down and decided to write a comedy story about the motives of a recluse. It effectively constitutes a sunk cost which they know cannot be avoided if the product is to be any good, and for which you need a living to be able to perform. You cannot just use stuff from your own life history, because eventually you will run out of life history to draw upon.

    The real problem though is the following matter: There is also the formidable premium upon the readers’ time that does not exist in other entertainment media.

    Most people are not readers by habit. Your audience has to actively concentrate upon page after page….To slowly realise that the story you’re telling is just a load of generic rubbish. With films and TV though, they just mentally check out and start doing something else, as it plays in the background, and if it is a TV show, they don’t tune in for the next installment. Commissioning editors and showrunners in US television can tell you if a show is going to work within as little as 5 to 13 episodes simply by looking at audience half-lives.

    – Bloke in Germany – There is no significant demand for quality among mass audiences because they do not consume large enough amounts of any particular genre to see what qualify is. Fifty Shades Of Grey proves this – It’s not even particularly good by the standards of erotic/slash fiction, it became simply “that mucky book that everyone’s heard of,” and is their only exposure to the genre.

  20. I’m amazed that such lofty persons get excited about mere grubby money. Oh wait, it’s their money.

  21. Possibly because they have done some actual work to prepare their stories that doesn’t simply involve typing and the regurgitation of factual knowledge that you’ve acquired earlier in life, as in literally going and doing personal research, on say, viral infection, the history of the chemical industry, the lives of Howard Hughes’ personal assistants, for instance, none of which you thought you needed to know when you sat down and decided to write a comedy story about the motives of a recluse.

    But therein lies on of the skills of a good author: the ability to make minimal information go a long way. I read somewhere that Martin Cruz Smith visited the USSR for something like a week to research Gorky Park. The way he describes Moscow in winter would have you believe he lived there for a period.

  22. Andrew S Mooney,

    “There is no significant demand for quality among mass audiences because they do not consume large enough amounts of any particular genre to see what qualify is. ”

    I’ve made a general observation about this in the past. The top 10 grossing movies in any year are generally not a bad set of movies. You can argue that there are better films than Frozen, Iron Man 3 and Despicable Me 2, but they’re all pretty good examples of their genres. And the reason is that audiences know the good from bad and recommend the good stuff to their friends (billion dollar movies occur because of long box-office runs, not big opening weekends), and yes, people will take a gamble on an odd recommendation, especially if it’s on TV or DVD.

  23. “said the award-winning author of novels including the Booker-shortlisted Umbrella”
    Always reckoned the appearance of “Booker shortlisted” in the blurb indicated – not worth reading. “Booker prizewinning” not worth reading the blurb.

  24. B(n)iS – same goes for genre fiction, like the Hugo and Nebula awards these days. It’s a clique giving prizes to their pals.

    Most of the winning books are absolute shite.

    The last Hugo winning novel was “Redshirts” by famous mangina John Scalzi.

    Scalzi is a good writer, at his best he’s sort of like a Diet Robert Heinlein, but “Redshirts” wasn’t anywhere close to being the best sci fi novel of the year. However, the social justice warriorettes who run the awards committees love him and his pudgy male feminism, so he wins prizes even for his weaker stuff.

    The recent Nebula awards resulted in much rejoicing among the Twatterati that none of the winners were straight white men, which tells you all you need to know.

    If Kindle is draining money out of the pockets of such people, destroying their ability to control what gets published, and rewarding writers who actually deliver what the book buying public wants, all the better.

  25. I can tell you that this article is pretty much par for the daily whinging I get from the fellow writers in my chosen field.

    The sense of entitlement is breathtaking.

    They are unable to understand why they should not be able to just write what they want and earn a very good living from it. Needless to say, those who moan the loudest are also the most vociferous socialists. Filling Facebook and email with hymns of praise to Galloway, Glenda Jackson, and The Green Party.

    The idea of thinking about what their readers (as opposed to themselves or their peers) might like is utterly alien to them.

  26. Tim Newman,

    “The same is true for music, at least in my case. I’ve listened to about 2 acts from the past 15 years, AFAIK.”

    Back in the 1980s I worked in a record shop and we would have the occasional person coming in asking for an old album. We had a big red book of what we could get and quite often, a record was “deleted”. The record company still had the masters, but had no stock in the warehouse and so little demand that they were no longer pressing it. And a lot of that stuff wasn’t that old – 5 year old albums could be “deleted”. CD was less of a problem, but it still happened.

    I’ve bought things from Amazon MP3 that never appeared on CD – they were vinyl 12″ singles that were never pressed again or on CD, but MP3 has so few costs, the record companies have stuck them up there.

  27. Isn’t this a bit apples and pears, if you compare incomes against median earnings then surely the amount of hours worked should be taken into account? Did those earning £11k a year put 9,000 hours into their writing?

  28. Seconding what Richard said.

    > If there’s many more books being published then that must mean more are being written (or at the very least, that a greater portion of those written are being published) which makes it rather difficult for there to be fewer writers about.

    Sorry, Tim, you’ve screwed up there: the piece doesn’t say there are fewer writers, but refers to the “decline in … those writing full-time”. Whether that’s a bad thing is another matter, but they’ve not got their numbers wrong.

    I think some of you are being quite unfair here. Yes, literary fiction is an unreadable self-aggrandising pain in the arse — and I cannot recommend more highly this David Mamet piece about exactly that. But I know some freelancers who write mostly magazine stuff, who’ve been doing it for years, one of whom is well known and popular and successful, and they say the market’s getting tougher every minute. The market’s full of Web publishers offering people “the chance to be published” a.k.a. work for free, and, sadly, there’s an endless supply of naive amateurs willing to accept those terms. Of course it doesn’t lead to rewarding careers for them where they get paid to write; it leads to the publishers having to move on to a new eejit when the existing ones become less naive and start asking for money.

    There are lots of things to be said about this, and you might well take the attitude that it’s fair enough, too much supply, too little demand, etc, whatever. But it is simply not true to say that the writers who are suffering are all writing head-up-the-arse unsellable shite, because they’re not.

    Rob Harries,

    > The amount of musicians I know, pros and semi who moan above and beyond reasonable levels is astounding. I think they believe market laws don’t apply to them and haven’t worked out that creatives work like a de-facto business and there is no right for people to pay for your lifestyle and earnings.

    Some musicians are like this, yes. But rather a lot of them are complaining not that the world owes them a living but that their output is being stolen on an industrial scale. Are we really going to start describing mass copyright infringement as “market laws”? Seriously? No, there’s no right to have people pay for your earnings, but there emphatically is a right to have those people who choose to take your product fucking pay for it. Musicians have always understood that it’s a tough business to make a success of, obviously. The reason they are pissed off is not that they’re making shite that no-one wants to listen to and don’t see why they shouldn’t be rich on the back of it, but that, even if they make excellent music that thousands or tens of thousands of people love, they will not usually see a penny as an entire generation of consumers have grown up believing that music should never be paid for. I would have thought capitalist free-marketeers could see plenty of reasons to object to that, but apparently not.

  29. Squander two

    Theusic business fucked themselves up by not offering legal alternatives online. Same goes for the movies – where I live I still can’t get decent legal access to movies. If you work against your customers instead of with them that’s what you get

  30. These are the people who look upon Atlas Shrugged and thought the looter’s plan was a good idea and worth implementing.

  31. I find it difficult to believe that in many years, being nothing like a full time writer (and excluding the document production that is an aside of the main job), I have earned more and Mrs SE certainly has, than the median full-time writer.

    Even though I might be generally considered within the scarce few “with the relevant technical background, ability to ask the right questions, and to communicate in written English” (and she does okay, even if her written English is hampered by the relics of some fairly drastic 1970s educational faddery.)

    As an aside, when she did her teacher training, the utter failure of the fads she was subjected to was one of the subjects discussed in class. And she de-anonymised all of the people who were called out for utter scorn in the (still 1970s educational faddish) academic study. Still, that was only 4 years worth of kids in three Midlands comps whose ability to do English and Math was utterly ruined in the name of “educational science”. And peeps are complaining about Facebook’s antics?

  32. Emil,

    Do you live in 1998?

    At no point did I say anything about record companies. The discussion is about musicians. And the world is now awash with legal ways of purchasing music.

  33. The market’s full of Web publishers offering people “the chance to be published” a.k.a. work for free, and, sadly, there’s an endless supply of naive amateurs willing to accept those terms.

    I understand that professional porn actors/actresses are making the same complaint.

  34. Emil,

    For some reason I missed this yesterday.

    > where I live I still can’t get decent legal access to movies.

    You live somewhere Amazon refuse to deliver DVDs? I had no idea such places were left.

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