What do authors earn? (or: don’t give up the day job)

Authors have always earned badly, but the latest data from the Authors Licensing & Collecting Society confirm that was bad has grown much worse.

The median income of a professional author in 2013 was just £11,000. The last time we had a sensible estimate of the same thing was back in 2005, when median incomes was £15,450 (in inflation-adjusted terms). That represents a fall of 29% in eight years. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation states that, “Single people need to earn at least £16,850 a year before tax in 2013 for a minimum acceptable living standard,” implying that authors are currently about £6,000 short of that income. Couples with two children are thought, by the Foundation, to need to earn £19,000 each, which means that our poor old author is £8,000 away from the bare minimum.

And that’s the good news. A professional author is one who earns at least 70% of his or her income from writing – but most authors earn so very little from the pen that they can’t possibly afford to go professional. The median income-from-writing of all authors is now £4,000, compared with just over £5,000 in 2005 and more than £8,000 in 2000. (All data is inflation-adjusted.)

Now, I’m not complaining personally, both because I myself am lucky enough to earn a fair bit more than the median author and because we all came into this game voluntarily. If we wanted to be accountants or acrobats or foresters or assassins, there’s nothing to stop us switching.

I should also say that the ALCS survey represents only traditionally published authors and there is mounting evidence from the US that self-published authors – or rather, those writing genre fiction – may do at least as well as the regularly published kind. Those who want to dig into the data can do so via Hugh Howey’s magnificent author earnings report here. And if you want some of the industry chatter you can get it here.

All this being said, I do think the current furore over the Amazon-Hachette spat is kind of weird. Loads of big name authors are bashing Amazon for being horrible to authors. And, to be sure, Amazon has maybe the worst public relations management since, erm, Bhopal. But the facts hardly suggest that, from an author’s point of view, Amazon is the big problem. Specifically, I’d note that:

  • Authors’ incomes have been declining in real terms since long before Amazon became a major factor. They declined because publishers paid less for the same thing, a process which continues today.
  • Amazon pays e-royalties of around 66% (ie: 70% less a few deductions). Publishers pay one quarter of that amount.
  • Amazon makes all books available to all e-connected buyers, which is to say to pretty much everyone. That has hugely expanded the size of the potential market for the typical author.
  • Authors are not, as a group, very impressed by their publishers’ performance in terms of marketing or interest in their authors opinions.
  • Retailers have always had forceful negotiations with their suppliers – and they’ve been perfectly happy to use their retail strength to sway things in their favour. Barnes and Noble played that game with Simon & Schuster recently, and drew no fire from authors for doing so. Why Amazon isn’t allowed to do the same thing with Hachette is simply not clear to me.

I’m not at all surprised that publishers are upset and angry at the way Amazon is currently using its heft – but I do think it’s odd the way authors assume they can identify the good guy and the bad guy here. Truth is, the issues are much more tangled.

Oh, and the good news? The good news is that really good writers can still make really decent money – and that the job is lovely, a delight, a pleasure from beginning to end. The opposite of work. I’m a writer and I love it.

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  • Stephen Mark

    Another interesting blog, Harry. It’s very useful to have a factual, evidential view on what is often merely an emotional ‘bash Amazon’ outporing. It is a shame, however, that the creation of any artform is, in the main, so poorly recompensed – bearing in mind its importance in our culture, our lives.