I write historical fiction. I've been a full-time professional writer for almost 20 years. I realized early on that being an author is a hugely misunderstood job. Because there are no pay grades and very little structure, people make interesting assumptions about the profession. The writer is a mysterious figure, wandering lonely as a cloud, fired by inspiration, or perhaps a cocktail or two. Writers have it easy. If you write a bestseller or have your book made into a movie, you'll never have to work again, or so the myth goes.
When my first novel was optioned for film in 1999 the common response was "Off to Barbados?" The option was for £3,000 - this remains a fairly average figure for that kind of deal. In fact, the perception at the Society of Authors (which acts as a union for writers) is that in real terms, writers' incomes have gone down over the last 10 years. The industry values publishers, editors and publicists (who are paid reliable salaries) but when it comes to writers, there are so many people who want the job, that conditions are tough. At publishing houses writers aren't even treated as part of the team. It was interesting last year when Random House made record profits from 50 Shades of Grey, that it decided to award a bonus of $5,000 (just over £3,000) to everyone working in the US arm of the company. They did not include their writers.
This decision stems from the underlying belief that writers are artists and artists should be doing whatever they do for love alone. Money sullies art and damn you for having bills. From figures compiled by the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society it is easy to see that for every JK Rowling or Ian Rankin there is a huge swathe of scribblers whose sales don't merit even a living wage. Conversely, the top 10% of writers earn over 50% of the total income. Like all the creative industries, it's a winner take all game.
For publishers, the hunt is on to find those high earners so they commission more books than can possibly make it - and see what sticks. In the UK something just under quarter of a million traditionally printed books are published annually. Set that against the fact that the average first novel sells something in the order of 1,000 copies and you can see what writers are up against. Although given a (usually) small advance by a publisher, a writer still has to earn that money from sales.
So how much does a writer have to sell to make it?
Average earnings in the UK were around £26,500 in 2012. To make this amount on a book contract for a paperback edition selling at £7.99 that pays 10% a writer would need to sell 33,166 copies a year. And that's if the book isn't discounted as part of a 3 for 2 promotion, for example. That is a lot of books! To put it in perspective to get to number one in the UK paperback chart last month you'd have needed to sell almost 20,000 copies a week. This means that going to number 1 doesn't even earn you the national average wage (and that book may have taken the writer months or even years to produce). The odds of making a mint are very long - writing is a risky profession. And like most jobs in the UK there is a glass ceiling. Female writers on average earn only 77.5% as much as their male counterparts. Their books are also less likely to get reviewed in the traditional press or for that matter win awards (apart from the prestigious Women's Prize for Fiction, set up expressly to try to redress that balance).
In 2005 (the latest figures available) the mean (average) figure that a professional writer-of-books in the UK earned was £28,340 but because there is such a huge bias at the top of the table, the median figure is far more telling. £12,330. Well below subsistence levels. As I said, it is the view of the Society of Authors that figure has now gone down in real terms. All this, I suppose, sounds like a complaint. The truth is that in the last several years although I haven't reached the dizzying heights of that top 10%, I have done better than the mean. My books get reviewed in the national press. I love my job and it's exciting to see the popularity of my books growing. Like all writers I live in hope that perhaps one day I'll make it big and at least on the way I'm enjoying what I do. After all, it can take several books to get your break.
There's a larger issue though, than simply one writer (even if that writer is, well, me). Books have a vital place in our culture. They are the source of ideas, of stories that engage and stretch the imagination and most importantly, inspire. The digital revolution has wrest a little control away from corporate publishers and white, male, middle-aged critics, but the financial value put on the job of the writer and the misconceptions around that make it extremely difficult to enter the profession. If we don't value the people who inspire us (and money is one mark of that) then what kind of culture are we building?
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