Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Wednesday 16 July 2014

Professional Writers' Incomes

I learned this week that the median income of the professional writer is currently eleven grand a year.


No wonder so many writers have second jobs. By which I mean that a great many writers seem to have first jobs and then write as a hobby. I wonder if that makes them professional writers at all?

Writers have always had jobs.

It’s a travesty.

One hundred and fifty thousand new books were published in the UK in 2011 and 229 million books were sold. There’s been a lot of talk about the death of the book, about the fact that no one buys books, but that sold figure is a forty-two percent increase on 2001. So, someone’s buying books. (On a side note, if you divide sales by books published you get a figure of around 1500, so an awful lot of books aren’t selling at all).

The median income of the writer has dropped by 29% in the last decade, so the writer isn’t getting his share of the money.

It’s a thorny problem.

I wonder if it’s about that word ‘median’ and about polarisation?

Of course, I’m speculating. I’m theorising. I don’t actually know, and I’m not a statistician. I wonder if it’s about how we define professional writers?

This Article from the Guardian givesanother perspective
The Society of Authors accepts members who have self-published on the condition that they have sold 300 print copies or 500 electronic copies of their work in a year. I assume that qualifies these writers as professionals. The term ‘professional’ is, I suppose determined by the writer.

Sometimes, I call myself a writer, if asked. More often, I say that sometimes I write. I’m not going to tell you how much I’ve earned this year from writing, but I will tell you that I don’t have a first job or a second. I’ve never referred to myself as a professional writer, so far as I remember. Freelance writer is probably as far down that road as I’d be prepared to venture.

I want writers to be paid well and treated fairly. Of course I do. There is another side to this, though. And this is something I say a lot.

The point of the writer is the reader.

This is a supply and demand business. I read that Mal Peet said he could ask for a £25 thousand advance on a book. Good, lovely, wonderful. He then went on to say that his book might not earn out for five years. That means that the publisher has invested £25 grand in a book that takes five years to sell £25 grand’s worth of books, and that’s before we consider publishing costs. They’re not going to see that money again for five years. What is the use of them giving that writer another £25 grand to write another book? For all sensible purposes the book was not successful, because it didn’t sell. Mal Peet went on to say that his royalties for the second half of last year were £3 grand, so that if he lived off his royalties, his income last year was only £6 grand. Again, this suggests that his books weren’t terribly successful. He only sold enough books to earn that amount of money. Of course I don’t know what his royalty percentage is, but I’m sure his agent fought for the best possible deal. I also know that Mal Peet is an award winning writer.

The question is, what went wrong for Peet?

The answer is that his books didn’t sell fast enough or weren’t popular enough. His award suggests that he’s a decent writer. Of course, awards are given by the industry, by selected readers for all sorts of reasons that might have nothing to do with the end users. That said, Peet might still be producing good work. So, either it’s good work the reader doesn’t want, or it’s good work the reader isn’t seeing.

Either way, there isn’t sufficient demand for his stuff.

We’re talking about writers here, but the same is true of any art form. If a painter doesn’t sell a picture, he doesn’t get paid. If a musician doesn’t get booked, he doesn’t get paid, and if he doesn’t fill a concert venue, he doesn’t get booked again.

Culture has become a product, like any other consumable.

The problem seems to me to be that we all want the same thing. We all want what the person standing next to us has got. It was ever thus. Remember the seventies when we all watched the same tv shows on Saturday nights? Books are like that. Think about Harry Potter. What else did you or your kids read while that particular phenomenon was in full swing? If you only saw one film last year, was it the big blockbuster, or the wonderful indie flick no one else had heard of? If you bought one album was it somewhere at the top of the album charts?

I’m guessing the answes to those questions is probably ‘yes’.

In publishing, the mid-list is a horrible place to be, and it appears to be getting worse. Self-publishing might be to blame for some of that. Books are getting cheaper all the time and the monopolies are screwing everything down to the bone. Did you know, for example, that one of the biggest outlets no longer takes reprints? They only want to shelve new books. How insane is that? If a publisher wants to continue to print a book it has to decide whether it’s worth putting on a new cover and isbn number and reissuing it instead of just reprinting. With the advent of the social media, a lot of mid-listers are also required to do a great deal of their own publicity, which is a pretty specialist skill, and it’s time-consuming and demanding.

On the other hand, writers are choosing to take the advances they’re offered, and the royalty deals. Of course, they don’t have to. Let’s face it, many of them are adding their writing incomes to their full time earnings. They can complain all they like, but they’re spinning extra cash out of what is, essentially, a hobby.

It’s tough out there, and anyone who pretends otherwise is lying. I meet people every day who want to write, who think they can do it, and who honestly believe they’re going to make a fortune at it. Most of them won’t, can’t and won’t see eleven grand a year let alone their first million. They’re probably not going to be a prima ballerina or a fighter pilot either. Go figure.


  1. From a pure money perspective, being an author is not a good choice at the moment.

    And being an author-publisher is similarly not a source of easy money.

    However, from a not stumbling from bed to the office to the sofa to bed to the office... perspective it can be hugely rewarding.

    I am somewhat less strict than the Society of Authors. I think anyone who treats writing like a job (considers markets, advertising, risk/reward, longer term strategies, does it even when they don't feel like it) can call themselves a professional if they wish.

  2. I write grant proposals to pay my bills. The Society of Authors wouldn't consider me an author under any conditions. But in addition to a steady salary, I am able to point to my words on a page and say - that case statement supported $85,000 of a social services' organization's budget; that proposal got a five year, federal grant to address violence against women; even - that failed proposal provided a reporter with data for an article on the need for HIV prevention for African immigrants. There are difficulties with the path I've taken - I am often too tired to write creatively at the end of one of these days - but on the whole, I prefer knowing I do not have to depend on "making it" as a published author to put food on the table, or for validation of myself as a person. Paula

    1. Brava! I think you might respond favourably to tomorrow's follow-up post. Smiles.

    2. I shall look for it. ;-)