In a recent YouGov UK poll 60% of the 15,000 people surveyed said their dream job was to be an author.
This news, no doubt, came as a huge shock to the UK's writing community and as a writer myself, I wonder if it emanates from a gaping misunderstanding about the real-life circumstances of most people in my profession. It's almost a year since I wrote an article about the cultural myth of what writers earn and it seems that myth is still firmly in place despite the facts. A survey taken last year by the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS), revealed that the number of full-time writers in the UK has declined over the last ten years, which is no wonder when you consider that in the same period the typical income from writing of professional authors decreased by a huge 29%. The same survey clearly demonstrated that in 2013, the average annual earnings of authors fell far below the salary required to achieve the minimum acceptable living standard, while the wealth generated by the creative industries equated to a soaring £8 million per hour.
Since the survey was published these shocking figures have not been addressed by the publishing industry, in part because of the huge misconception that writers have it easy. The public sees a small percentage of highly successful writers earning top advances and assumes that kind of money is normal - something, it would seem from the recent YouGov findings, that people aspire to. This aspiration is part of the problem. If 60% of people want to write for a living a good percentage of them are trying to. Writers are generally not valued by publishers because they have floor-to-ceiling slush piles from hopefuls, all vying for a handful of slots in a publication schedule that often runs two or three years ahead of itself. If a publisher buys, say 30 books a year at an imprint, the truth is they only need 1 or 2 to make it big and the rest don't matter. In this respect, they are engaged in a kind of intellectual gambling exercise and we seem keen to let them. The upshot is that publishers don't have to pay the minimum wage, never mind the living wage - if one writer doesn't accept their lousy offer, another will.
For many years most authors have subsisted on decreasing advances subsidised by event fees and journalism - what is whimsically referred to as a portfolio career. However these sources of income are not stable and what is worse, slam the doors of the industry in the faces of the less well-off. It's always been difficult - all the creative industries are - but now even well-established authors are feeling the pinch. As the mid-lists have been decimated, and the power of publishing houses has grown, the writer's share has demonstrably diminished.
Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat, wrote a blog piece recently about the disturbing practice arising at some book festivals, where authors are not paid for appearing. Her rallying cry was taken up by the Bookseller and the Society of Authors, which recently published guidelines about the level at which authors should peg event fees. As Ms Harris pointed out - try to get a plumber to fix your boiler for a bus fare and a take out curry and see how far you get. It's a difficult case to make when it's routinely assumed that authors are making a fortune from sales.
And that is perhaps the rub. While an author's pay comes principally from book sales, a typical percentage on a paperback hovers around 10%. Any advance is only an advance on those royalties, so the writer earns nothing until they've paid back whatever the publisher subbed them at the beginning. Writers are paid differently in other industries. In film, a fee is paid for the rights the production company take (an 'option'), this scales up as the script nears production and in addition there are fees payable per screening. By contrast, in publishing the writer's pay is predicated solely on a percentage of sales. In addition writers are paid six months in arrears - sometimes longer. I spoke at a publishing conference recently where the large audience was incandescent at the discounts that have become normal to secure supermarket deals (their money) but when it was suggested they might pay writers in line with the way they pay their other creditors (30 days), the immediate reaction was 'then the percentage the writer gets would have to come down.'
The upshot that a large part of the financial risk in any publication is being borne by the writer and that's not fair because a book's success is not only down to the writer's work. We are absolutely reliant on everyone else involved doing a decent job, although unlike everyone else, we don't get paid a salary. If the PR person makes a mess of a press release or a sales executive fails to effectively distribute an individual title, the publisher does not come back to them and say 'We haven't made our money, so neither do you.' Everyone except the writer gets paid regardless. Monthly. In practice the cleaning staff at large publishing houses are often paid more than its authors. It's an unsustainable situation in the long run and the ALCS poll shows it's getting worse.
I'm lucky. I do better than the average. I love my job. Sharing stories is the most fulfilling way I could spend my time. I love public speaking and I'm happy to be available online to readers. But this issue is more important than an individual case (even if that case is me.) What we are doing in not supporting writers even to the degree of a living wage and for that matter, in focusing only on the very few high advances paid, is supporting an unsustainable situation and turning away talented people from an industry that for centuries has defined our culture. Books benefit everyone and authors should be valued for writing them in a host of practical ways, including financially. It might be a wonderful job - hell, there are reasons that 60% of people would like to do it - but we need to make it sustainable because if we don't, it's not ebooks that will destroy the industry or the closure of libraries, it's the systematic undervaluing of the very job without which the stories we treasure would not exist. Please, ask if the author you've paid to listen to at a book festival this summer is getting paid. We need your support and in return we'll take you somewhere magical, because that's what stories do. That's why it's so important.