Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Author Under-earnings

The 2014 Digital Book World and Writer's Digest Author Survey has come up with some interesting facts:

  • 54% of traditionally-published authors and almost 80% of go-it-alone writers are making less than $1,000 (£600) a year
  • Just over 77% of self-published writers make $1,000 or less a year
  • A startlingly high 53.9% of traditionally-published authors report their earnings are below the same threshold
  • Only a minority of respondents listed making money as "extremely important" – around 20% of self-published writers, and about a quarter of traditionally-published authors
  • 60% of traditional authors judged it "extremely important" to "publish a book that people will buy"

With five novels accepted by three different publishers, I have mixed feelings about this. I've certainly become more aware of the market over time. The first couple of books I wrote purely because I wanted to write. I wrote about subjects that interested me, and I switched genres over the first three novels: horror, romance and historical fiction. By novel number four, I'd found my voice, and novels six and seven (in the making) are written with a solid eye on audience.

When we say 'money doesn't matter' - that's not quite accurate. It's true that habitual writers like myself would write no matter what. Take away paper and pens, we'd probably finger paint stories on caves. It's a compulsion. 

Before anyone makes money writing, they don't make money writing. 

That doesn't mean money doesn't matter. It matters a lot: rent, food, car, clothes - everything costs money, so everyone needs money.

That said, there's a distinction between writing as a hobby, or learning your craft, and writing professionally. You wouldn't say in athletics that everyone who runs a marathon should get paid Mo Farah's wage. Same with acting, few people who tread the boards at an am. dram. performance will command Nicole Kidman's salary.

It isn't fair. It really isn't. Everyone should get the opportunity to earn a living doing what they enjoy doing. Life is very short, after all. Sadly the nine-to-five materialist culture we've embraced is an ailment of our human state. If we wanted to, as a species, we could live very differently: quit running drugs and guns and go spend the day (a lifetime) at the beach. Why not?

But, working within the system we have - part supply and demand, part rampant capitalism - writing is no different to an elite sport or a televised talent competition for those looking to make a living out of it. 

Most people who love to paint, sculpt, sing and dance put on a suit each morning and go to the office.

To break out of that, I assume you've either got to be very well connected (not what you know but who you know), extremely hard working and tenacious (you still qualify for a Young Person's Discount with the Society of Authors until you're 35), very lucky (right place, right time) or very clever (judged the market spot on).

You could say the same for any art.

Having said all that, for me personally, money earned through writing is sweeter than anything else. Even though a development contract brings in many times more than royalties, when I received a PLR cheque earlier this year for just enough to buy a second hand fridge, I leapt so high I almost hit my head on the ceiling. Earning money doing what you love has a certain magic to it.

So, yes, just like an office, the majority of desk jockey writers are under-employed, under-paid, and subject to rampant sexual discrimination, but, unlike most workers, at least we derive a modicum of perverse pleasure from the machine. 

Keep at it.


  1. The old conundrum - do you spend that first royalty cheque, or do you frame it?

  2. I like Gavin's conundrum. I also agree with your viewpoint of 'not the whole story,' i.e. that we would do it even without the money (and have), but would love to make it our living. In fact, we're aiming for that very thing, by getting better at the craft, finding our voice, and improving our business acumen! :D