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Writers struggle to make a living

14 July 2014

A new study just published by ALCS (the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society) has shown that the typical income of a UK writer is just £11,000 ($18,815) a year. The figures show a sharp decline in the number of full-time writers.

In 2013 11.5% of professional authors, defined as those who dedicate the majority of their time to writing, earned their income solely from writing. This is down from 40% in 2005, when a typical writer's income was £12,330 ($21,090). Worse still, the typical income of all writers now is just £4,000 ($6,841), a paltry amount and well below the minimum wage.

This pattern must be similar to what is happening in other countries and relates to changes in publishing, discounting of books - which means that authors get less - and probably also the fact that so many writers are trying to establish themselves.

Novelist Joanne Harris commented: "It's good to see that finally we are becoming aware of just how little the average author earns. Not everyone can be a high earning, high profile writer but all creators should have the right to be paid for what they do."

Poet Wendy Cope said: "Most people know that a few writers make a lot of money. This survey tells us about the vast majority of writers, who don't. It's important that the public should understand this - and why it is so important for authors to be paid fairly for their work."

This ALCS survey has sparked off a lot of debate in the press. Will Self, who wrote in the Guardian in May about how "the literary novel as an art work and a narrative art form central to our culture is indeed dying before our eyes", because "the hallmark of our contemporary culture is an active resistance to difficulty in all its aesthetic manifestations", found the new statistics no surprise. "My own royalty income has fallen dramatically over the last decade. 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."

A fairly new writer, James Smythe, published his first novel in 2010 with an indie publisher, and he has published five with HarperCollins. He has been shortlisted for major science fiction awards, been glowingly reviewed, and won the Wales Book of the Year. He told the Guardian that his novels had never earned out. "Being a writer can't be treated like it's a job. It maybe was once, but no writer can treat it as such nowadays. There's no ground beneath your feet in terms of income, and you can't rely on money to come when you need it."

According to the pragmatic Smythe, "the industry works the way that it always has, just with tightened coffers". So "if you sell, you'll get more money next time around. If you don't, then you'll earn less. In most jobs, you work hard, and you deliver results. Unfortunately - and this is out of everybody's hands - working hard in publishing guarantees no such results. You could write the best book in the world, and it could still sell dismally. My publishers are great, in that they believe I'll write something that pays off. So I get to keep doing this. But one day, if I fail to deliver results, that will change. Why would you keep paying somebody money for no gain?"