Starving authors in their garrets

The reality of being a writer has been laid bare in a new report highlighting the low earning many endure for their art.

A study, conducted by Queen Mary, University of London, showed just one in ten authors can afford to earn a living from writing alone, a drop from 40 per cent just a decade ago.

A typical professional writer, it found, earned just £11,000 annually; less than the minimum wage.

Yes, and? Writing books just doesn’t make money, except for those very few stars. Never has done by the way. Which is why everyone who does write them does something else as well: journalism often, but can and sometimes is anything at all.

My last annual royalty statement was £60 I think. Rather less than the daily wage of scribbling journalism. Always been that way too.

43 comments on “Starving authors in their garrets

  1. Is this not an artifact of Amazon and other e-publishing. Several of my friends have “published” books via Amazon and consider themselves authors even though it is no more than a hobby to them. Before e-publishing there would have been a lot less authors.

  2. No, it’s always broadly been true. The average first time title sells maybe 300 copies. Been that way for decades.

  3. “just one in ten authors can afford to earn a living from writing alone, a drop from 40 per cent just a decade ago.”

    Sounds like the Kindle store is doing the job then. Lots more people are able to publish books which means that the available cash gets spread around. You can see why some established authors have a problem with Amazon.

  4. I think some people see an opening to claim that they should be handsomely remunerated by the state to crank out the sort of deathless prose that all of 5 people would pay to read in a given year. It’s ART you see…

  5. As able subeditors have vanished. I implore gunker to stay away from publishing. In an ideal world there would be “fewer authors” and “less pendantry”.

  6. I wrote 60 thousand words of a comedy travel novel. It was going to be my way out of IT and into a life of luxury travel. It was going quite well until I read the statistics on the earning power of the average author and decided to stick with the world of IT, which is one full of tragic comedy.

  7. Best to be a technical writer of some sort – writing for an audience of 5 can be very handsomely rewarded.

  8. Telegraph subs still shit, I see.

    A study, conducted by Queen Mary, University of London,

    Really? The study was conducted by Queen Mary from the University of London? I didn’t know she was an academic. Or alive.

  9. Does this mean lefty authors favour division of labour as opposed to Marx’s idea that we hunt, fish, herd and criticise without ever being defined by those activities?

    Isn’t being an author, office temp, supply teacher and journalist the living embodiment of those ideas he put forward?

  10. I use kindle unlimited a lot for books. Basically reading for a small monthly payment.
    Rarely buy books these days, have gone from over £12k a year in spending on books to under £100.

  11. Martin Davies – how on earth do you find the time to read 12k worth of books per year? An impressive habit though I suspect ‘er indoors may have other ideas about it.

  12. Weep for all the authors of shit books unable to make a living from writing. Weep. Weep for all of them, and the pub singers, the Sunday morning footballers and every other fucker in the land who does something for fun which a tiny minority are good enough at to make a living from it.

  13. MyBurningEars – I’m a slow reader.
    Thats probably somewhere between 300 and 500 books. The technical and academic books are a bit more expensive than the fiction. Some of the books are of interest to the missus.

  14. At uni someone pointed out that any idiot in the pub can comment on a football match, only a handful of people are employed to do so on TV. Will the media complain about 1 in 100,000 people who do comment on football matches ever making any money from it?

  15. Best to be a technical writer of some sort

    Yup. That’ll be my retirement plan because, in many ways, it’s what I do already. I once wrote a procedure on how to replace the flare tip of this, and I still get people telling me how easy to follow it is. Companies charge tens of thousands for this type of thing.

  16. At uni someone pointed out that any idiot in the pub can comment on a football match

    Sky used to have a fans’ commentary option, where a fan of each team would do the commentary. It was utterly, abysmally, unbearably, atrocious.

  17. You should weep for me Rob. I’ve played cricket all my life, never got a penny for it. I would definately get much better if I could just play cricket all the time but I have to work. While those tiny numbers of professionals get the opportunity to help me their craft everyday I cant. Perhaps the government should legislate to ensure more ‘equality if opportunity’ to allow average cricketers to become good. Otherwise we will always have just a small number of great cricketers at the top and the less talented toiling, never getting the chance to be better.

    Note: insert any other highly skilled/ competative creative profession in place of cricket and that is what everyone is saying.

  18. “Best to be a technical writer of some sort”

    But most people don’t want to do that. The reason why singing and acting are mostly financially destructive (add up the cost of lessons, travelling to rehearsals, getting teeth straightened etc) is because they’re people’s idea of fun. Same as being the new Ian Fleming/Jilly Cooper/JK Rowling.

    I tell you what’s a rare skill, though. Being able to write a really solid murder mystery story. Something where the whodunnit not only confounds you, but where you also realise that all the information was there but you just couldn’t see it. Most writers either make it too obvious, or throw a deus ex machina in to tie up the story.

  19. I concur stigler.

    I’ve thought while many a pulp murder mystery or fun genre novel might lack ‘artistic depth’ (as guardian commenters might grumble) I’ve thought it a fantastic skill to write a clever, thrilling and entertaining story. Now that is worthy of the same praise as other ‘more serious’ novelists.

    With regard to deus ex machina, it happens a lot. Mainly because I think endings are hard to produce and otherwise plausible endings are anti-climatic.

  20. Rob Harries,

    “I’ve thought while many a pulp murder mystery or fun genre novel might lack ‘artistic depth’ (as guardian commenters might grumble) I’ve thought it a fantastic skill to write a clever, thrilling and entertaining story. Now that is worthy of the same praise as other ‘more serious’ novelists.”

    The last few books I’ve read are Before I Go To Sleep by SJ Watson and the 2 Thomas Cromwell books by Hilary Mantel. The latter are basically a novelisation of history. That’s just not particularly difficult. Take the established facts, work out bits that fit in between, speak to some historians to check it’s OK. And it’s very well done for what it is, but I think it’s at a whole different level of skill to thinking for an idea for a plot, developing it, characters, ending and so forth.

    But I’m convinced Bookers are like Oscars. No-one wants to vote for a great piece of entertainment – they want to show off their own status.

  21. The Stigler – people loved ’24’ when it came on TV as it was full of twists, turns, unexpected stuff and stuff you could see pointed at xx but was not.
    Same with ‘scream’ as a movie – the twists and turns were good.

    Have read quite a bit of murder mystery, some poorly written stuff around that does not hold attention.

  22. @ Tim Newman
    The guys who *really* understand their subject can explain things clearly*: if you can you are worth the tens of £k and you should do some in your spare time before retiring (provided it doesn’t incolve trade secrets). If you’ve got a teenage son, try drafts out on him (mine spent more time correcting my grammar than pointing out where I was using jargon, but was still the best sounding-board – not that I was writing scientific papers: just one came within shouting distance).
    * I was given just one of my father’s scientific papers to read (partly because some were written before I was born) and I could understand it despite having given up Chemistry after ‘O’ level under the misapprehension that I had done relatively bady.

  23. Before e-publishing there would have been a lot less authors.

    I’m not sure that’s true. I remember a study a few years ago where the average income for an author was a few hundred dollars, and the median income far less (possibly even zero?), because it included many who’d only sold one short story that year, or had sold a book five years ago and were still working on the next. Many of these studies seem to contain a lot of ‘authors’ who’ve never even finished a book.

  24. @ The Stigler
    My wife was a historian, but now *earns* a living (and really earns it – she works pretty nearly the hours that I used to do for half the inflation-adjusted pay) and her view (and that of Simon Schama, but I trust her more) is that Hilary Mantel’s books are mainly fiction which occasionally dovetails with history. Both say that Ms Mantel writes entertainingly, which is the purpose of a novel – truth?: that’s for boring old science-siders like me.

  25. With regard to deus ex machina, it happens a lot. Mainly because I think endings are hard to produce and otherwise plausible endings are anti-climatic.

    This is especially true with films. Any idiot can get an audience hooked at the start of a film, but carrying the, through to a satisfying conclusion is fiendishly difficult. It’s why The Sixth Sense and The Usual Suspects are so highly rated.

  26. The Stigler – people loved ’24’ when it came on TV as it was full of twists, turns, unexpected stuff and stuff you could see pointed at xx but was not.

    I found it woeful.

  27. The guys who *really* understand their subject can explain things clearly*: if you can you are worth the tens of £k and you should do some in your spare time

    As I said, I’m pretty much paid to do that now. I’m not much of an engineer but I’m very good at explaining what I’ve done or am about to do. A lot of engineers aren’t, and I do well because of it.

  28. “but I’m very good at explaining what I’ve done or am about to do”

    Then the obvious first manual is “How to be a Successful Husband”

  29. Tim,

    God, yes, 24 was embarrassingly bad. I agree with you: plot holes are fine — if the direction is good enough to carry the viewer past them without noticing.

    The bit you forgot to mention: the scene in which one of the cameramen walks right into shot for a few seconds. The set is dark, and the screen of his camera is glowing. It’s not like a microphone boom hovering into view for a sec; it’s just blatant staggering incompetence. I honestly thought it was a character sneaking up, about to attack, and had to rewind to double-check that, no, I really was supposed to pretend that this guy was invisible. Unbelievable.

  30. I honestly thought it was a character sneaking up, about to attack, and had to rewind to double-check that, no, I really was supposed to pretend that this guy was invisible.

    Did you spot the blonde in the submarine in Das Boot?

    Crew in the shot isn’t exactly rare, at least at the cheaper end of the movie business. I spent months editing a movie where I only spotted the guy standing in the background of one shot at the first cinema screening. We couldn’t afford to fix it, and no-one else ever noticed them, because they hadn’t seen the movie a hundred times and were still following the story.

    You can probably spot half the crew members of the B-movies of the 70s and 80s if you keep a close eye on reflections; not so much these days, as they’re too easy to remove in a computer.

  31. I would have brought Chandler up before the “man with a gun” advice was mentioned; he was a master of absorbing prose that managed somehow to be both dense and spare. His fellow Old Alleynian, Wodehouse, had a simailar level of skill as a wordsmith deployed in an etnirely different direction.

    Mamet’s entirely correct in his estimation of O’Brian and Le Carre, though I haven’t read George Higgins. Bernard Cornwell is perhaps a tier below O’Brian, but still a damn readable writer. And the late Sir Pterry was a tier above.

  32. BIW,

    Yes, that, although I think that’s been filmed on a narrower TV and so the worst of it has been cut off. In my memory of it, the cameraman was a lot more central.

    Edward,

    I actually get really annoyed by people who watch films looking for mistakes and continuity errors instead of story. It’s like reading a book and stopping to triumphantly proclaim “Aha! A typo!” Which is why errors so gobsmackingly bad as that one in 24 piss me off: I want to be able to ignore them and get on with the plot, but they make it impossible.

    The bad acting, bad script, bad plot, bad direction, and bad music didn’t help.

  33. “Nicola Solomon, chief executive of The Society of Authors, said…”

    That’s the gig to aim for.

  34. re:Rob

    Why do you think leftist read Atlas Shrugged and thought the looter’s idea is grand? Rand have a whole section dealing with State mandate minimum consumption of approved ‘art’ work?

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