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Writers' income under pressure

24 March 2008

Writers' income is under increasing pressure. The recent meanness of the British government in cutting the amount paid to authors whose books are borrowed from libraries as part of the Public Lending Right scheme has highlighted this trend.

The real situation is obscured by the fact that those authors who strike it rich tend to mop up most of the money. A study by the British Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society last year showed that although £907.5m ($1,798m) had been earned by the 55,000 authors in Britain the previous year, 50% of that money went to just 10% of the authors. This means that 5,500 bestselling authors got an average annual income of £82,500 ($163,509), while the other 49,500 authors shared the rest, earning an average of just £4,000 (nearly $8,000) each.

The moral has to be 'Don't give up the day job' until your earnings are substantial and secure, for it has become harder than ever to get your book taken on by a publisher because their focus is on bestsellers. The fantastic sales generated by the Richard and Judy show in the UK and by Oprah Winfrey's show in the US show that books, even sometimes quite challenging ones, can have a mass sale if they are well-promoted. Conversely, it has become harder to build a novel from a new author if they are not included in one of these shows or in one of the big chains' promotions.

The pressure that the Internet has placed on copyright is another threat to writers' income. People feel that everything on the web should be free and attempts to get them to pay for content through micro-payment systems or subscription models have proved hard going in the fiction and popular non-fiction areas, although academic and specialist publishing are having more success with this. Perhaps paid-for e-books will provide the answer.

There are three positive things about this rather depressing situation. Firstly, the dynamic growth of creative writing courses in both the US and the UK has offered many established writers the opportunity for paid employment. Many poets, in particular, pay their bills by teaching others how to write, an opportunity which did not exist fifteen years ago.

The second thing is that print on demand has now made self-publishing a real possibility at a reasonable cost and given every writer access directly to the market. Even though the hard work involved to make a success of this should not be underestimated, at least writers can now take things into their own hands and for some self-publishing has proved the route to sales success or to a deal with a publisher.

Thirdly, the Internet itself offers fabulous opportunities to reach a global market in a way which would not have been possible until recently. This low-cost means of getting to readers has transformed book publishing and will continue to do so, as the publishers themselves are now realising with their website developments and viral marketing campaigns. Few authors will have the deep pockets of publishers and be able to commission videos for online use, which are the current fashion. But individual authors can use their ingenuity and imagination to make their book visible on the web, as Russell Ash has done in this week's Writer's Success Story.

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