Skip to Content

Authors' earnings plummet

12 March 2007

At a debate on copyright organised by the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society in London last week, Maureen Duffy criticised publishers for hacking away at author earnings. New research shows that the average income for a professional writer is now a third lower than the national average wage in the UK.

Duffy, playwright and poet, and veteran campaigner for authors' rights, is the Honorary President of the ALCS and has also worked tirelessly for the Writers' Guild of Great Britain. She said that falling advances and royalty rates are forcing authors to fall back on secondary copyright payments. But with every new technological development, copyright becomes more resented by the public as a barrier to free exploitation.

Duffy issued a call to arms to protect the principle of payment for content in the digital age: 'In a time when commissions, advances and even royalties have been hacked away by corporate management… Copyright is still the only way to secure the financial return necessary to keep us writing. It is a battle we cannot afford to lose.'

Mark le Fanu, General Secretary of the UK Society of Authors, pointed out: 'The gap between successful writers and the rest is becoming inexorably wider.' The figures show that the top 10% of authors earn more than 50% of total income. The ALCS survey of 25,000 authors' income shows that the average author earns just £16,531 ($31,947) a year, compared to a UK national average wage of around £23,000 ($44,449). These figures relate to the British experience, but are duplicated across the world.

The median earnings figure for authors is just £4,000 ($7,730), well below subsistence levels. Inevitably, 60% of people who set themselves up as professional writers require a second source of income to survive.

The advice to aspiring writers has to be not to give up the day job, at least not until you are firmly established. Even then, you should be prepared to find that your writing, once for many professional authors a sure source of a modest income, may dwindle away because of the focus on bestsellers and the disappearance of the midlist. This survey dramatically shows that it is only a favoured few who make serious money from writing. The fairytale stories of unknown writers hitting it big are just that, fairytales, which the media love to present as their favourite rags-to-riches story of poor unknown writers breaking through and making a fortune.