The Real Lives of Writers 1

Say the word “writer” and most people think of best-sellers like James Patterson or EL James. But according to a new survey by the ACLS ( Authors Collecting and Licensing Society), an organisation in Britain that monitors author’s royalties and incomes, the median income of a professional writer last year was Β£11,000. This is a pitifully small amount of money to live on. Indeed, it is Β£5000 less than what is considered viable for a minimum standard of living. Worse still, it represents a drop of nearly 29% since 2005. To put that into perspective, that means that while prices have risen steadily, the average author has earned roughly one third less in 2012 than he or she did before. We are not talking amateur or self-published writers here, either. Note the word “professional.” These are writers whose full-time job is writing. I count myself among their number. And know what years of dedication, hard work and caring, in the best sense, goes into our work. So, how did this come to pass?

My own case is perhaps illuminating. I have been a reasonably successful journalist and author for most of my life. I have written for most of the world’s best publications ( you can see a full Bio in the About section of this webiste) and have been the author of two books. I count myself one of the lucky ones. I have travelled the world, met fascinating people, written stories on subjects as diverse as art forgery and sheep ranching in Patagonia. I have stayed in amazing hotels on magazine expense accounts, had backstage access to incredible concerts or plays and have never been bored. But for most of my life I have lived a hand-to-mouth existence as a freelancer, living from cheque to cheque, often in debt, almost always on the edge financially. Now, at the age of 63, despite a lifetime of hard work, I find myself living on a very low income. I don’t own a house. I don’t have a pension or savings. I pretty much have the clothes I walk around in- and a large number of books.

The recent survey shows that the situation is not getting better, but worse. How has this happened? I think one reason is that the space in which literary fiction or non-fiction can be published has greatly shrunk. The publishing industry is now dominated by giant, global corporations, like Bertelsmann or Hachette, for whom the bottom line is everything. In the past, editors would take a punt on a book they loved, even if they weren’t 100% convinced that it would be commercially successful. Now, editors are answerable to marketing teams who are obsessed with finding the next Big Book. They have huge overheads, in terms of corporate offices and staff. And if a book doesn’t have Best Seller written all over it, they are likely to pass. the explosion of digital publishing, and self-publishing, has also meant that there are mountains of books for sale, many of them for as little as 99 cents. Prices have declined, and with them advances. In the late 90’s, for my first book, The Poet and The Murderer, I received an advance of just shy of 6-figures. Today, I am not sure the book would even be published.

What can be done? One thing that should happen is that writers should be paid more for their work. as anyone knows, who has done it, writing a book or a long article requires a great deal of hard work and time, but the wages we receive are far less than a plumber or an electrician. There also needs to be a change in attitudes. A notion still exists that writers should accept low or no fees for appearances on the radio, or at literary festivals ( let alone their travel costs) because they are getting “publicity” and should be glad of the “exposure.” I sometimes write for a flagship BBC radio program. But the fee I receive does not even cover my train fare to London to record the piece. The same applies to the plethora of literary festivals that have sprung up in recent years. many are extremely profitable. But authors are expected to appear for free – and pay their own travel and accomadation.

These things need to change so that writers are rewarded for their work in a way that is commensurate with the time and effort they invest in creating books that give pleasure and inspiration to millions of people. As the poet, Wendy Cope, said:Β  ” 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.”




About sworrall

Writer with @Natgeo; author of The Poet and The Murderer; and the forthcoming Starcrossed: A Romeo And Juliet Story in Hitler's Paris (2022)

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One thought on “The Real Lives of Writers

  • Simon Barnes

    I’ve got more than 20 books on the old CV, and I can say with authority that writing is a pain. Also a joy. You do it because you really can’t help it. In fact, you’d do it even if you weren’t paid. Still, it’s a shame we let the publishers know that.