Last year I wrote a piece about the cultural myth of what writers earn, which it transpires, apart from superstars and international bestsellers, is not very much. Ever since the piece appeared, I've developed an interest not only in the overall figure of what our words are worth but also how we earn it. Average publishing advances (doled out by salaried editors) have plummeted in recent years, with Sylvia Day's recent attention-grabbing 8-figure advance for two new novels very much the exception. Most fledgling and mid-list writers are lucky to be offered a 4 figure sum and are not only expected to deliver copy that needs minimal editing but also take an active part in marketing and publicizing their work. Personally I estimate about a third of my time is spent on author events, social media and traditional publicity.
Let's be clear - for people like me, who are obsessed with story and for whom words are their medium, writing is the best job possible. I work hard but I earn more than the national average wage while I play with my imagination and for me, that's a dream. However, I'm aware that a lot of writers don't only earn less than the national average wage, they earn far less than the minimum wage.
I'm not talking about writers who are unpublished or indeed, failed by any measure - I'm talking about people whose books have been taken on by bona fide publishers and whose work is building a steady, if not bestselling following. I write fast. I'm one of the lucky ones.
Most UK publishers are corporate concerns - our Big Four account for almost all of the UK market. The reality is that in many cases they pay the people who clean their shiny, corporate offices more than they pay their writers. This despite the fact their underfunded, if fully-salaried PR and marketing departments rely heavily on individual authors not only to actually write their books but also to publicise their own work.
This arrangement is only possible because of the huge competition for publication slots. When a writer is offered the opportunity of publication they are often so grateful that they sidestep the issue of money - and publishers don't offer much scope for negotiation. Many writers feel similarly blessed when they are invited to speak in libraries, bookshops and book festivals. Now most writers love bookshops, libraries and book festivals - I know I do. There is an industry-wide understanding that sometimes writers will appear in these venues without demanding a fee but that their travel expenses will be covered. Some festivals and libraries offer payment - oftentimes less than the Society of Author's suggested minimum fee of £150 per event but at least some recognition that writers are valued for what they do.
In my view being paid a fee is especially important when the host venue or organization charges for tickets. Lately, however, there has been a new development. Publishers and writers have been actually asked to pay to appear at events. Recently The Lady magazine charged £85 a ticket for a literary event (it included a meal) while not only refusing to pay the writer who spoke at it, either a fee or travel expenses, but also demanding the publisher involved provided over 100 free copies of the writer's latest book for goodie bags. It's a growing trend. Some festivals now charge publishers booking fees or 'sponsorship deals' for giving their authors exposure.
Most audiences have no idea this is the case and that is also in the interest of the more corporate publishers and events because, let's face it, audiences wouldn't like what's happening because it isn't fair.
The cultural myth of the rich author plays into this nicely but it's important to remember the vast majority of writers earn very little and while they do receive a percentage of the money generated by book sales, this is at least 6 months in arrears and is only a small percentage. An average paperback at £7.99 generally generates far less than £1 for the author. And in any case, not even close to everyone at an event will buy a book - a decent guess would be that around 20% of the audience might fork out for a copy. Unless the audience is huge for the writer it's almost always a loss leader. Up till now fees from events have been considered a vital part of an author's earnings and part of an understood financial ecosystem within the industry. Comedians receive a percentage of ticket sales when they appear, for example. Not so writers.
Unless they are celebrities or bestsellers authors have become the unwilling fall guys - the lender of last resort. We are expected to work for less or for nothing. The irony of one of the UK's largest book festivals (Hay) paying its writers with 6 bottles of wine (in some cases Cava) has a real sting in its tail. Almost everyone would just prefer money. With publishers investing less into marketing, publicity and editorial budgets, while due to budgetary constraints libraries and particularly smaller festivals simply aren't funded adequately from the public purse. When it comes down to it, the first thing that organisers cut is money for the writer. As a professional writer, it begins to not add up. Manda Scott, Chairperson of the Historical Writers Association put it like this: "time is money, and time spent not writing is also time spent not working on other forms of promotion that, frankly, bear far more fruit for the average professional writer." She's right!
There's been a lot of talk recently about writers taking a bold stand - lots of us are up in arms about this situation. In Australia there's a twitter account called @paythewriters and also a Facebook campaign called Stop Working For Free. Numerous writers have written outraged and weary blogpieces The Society of Authors has compiled an excellent report about Author appearances and there are murmurings about starting a Not On My Time campaign to rally authors into turning down bookings that don't pay - particularly bookings that cost them travel expenses to attend. I'm sad about that. Writing is a tough job but one of the great things about it is that you get to do what you want. I've spoken for free before because I want to support a particular event or because doing so might (heaven forfend) be fun. However the situation is reaching a point where solidarity of writers is required and Hollywood script writer, Harlan Ellis's plea of 'Pay the Writer' begins to sound like a rallying cry. I don't think it will be long until we start banding together.
And before you ask, no, I didn't get paid for writing this article.