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Can Writers Earn a Living in the UK?

In Discussion by Dennis Abrams

By Dennis Abrams

pencil on a keyboardWriting in the Guardian, Allison Flood notes that according to newly released statistics, the number of writers able to earn a living from writing has dropped significantly over the last eight years, “and the average professional writer is now making well below the salary required to achieve the minimum acceptable living in the UK.”

A survey commissioned by the Author’s Licensing and Collecting Society of nearly 2,500 working writers shows that the median income of a professional author in 2013 was just £11,000, down 29% since 2005 when it was £12,330 (£15,450 if adjusted for inflation) and far below the £16,550 figure that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation “says is needed to achieve a minimum standard of living. (The median income for all writers was far less: £4,000 last year, £5.012 in 2005, and £8,810 in 2000.)

In addition, according to the survey, in 2013, only 11.5% of professional writers (defined as those who dedicate the majority of their time to writing) were able to earn incomes based solely on writing – in 2005, 40% of professional writers said that they did.

Award-winning children’s book novelist Mal Peet told the Guardian that his income from books has “dwindled really significantly” over the past four years. In the past, he told the paper, he had received royalty checks of up to £30,000 over a six-month period. In the last half of last year, his royalties for all his books totaled just £3,000.

“My direct income from sales is abject – literally abject,” he told Flood. “There’s been an absolutely radical decline in my income over the years. I do live by writing, but that’s because I have got a backlist of educational books which keeps on selling, and I have a pension, and I have to go on the road. Because I have a certain reputation, I can ask for a £25,000 advance, but then you spend a year writing the book, and £25,000 is a loan against sales and you can easily spend five years earning out. So that’s £25,000 for six years.”

And then there’s James Smythe. He published his first novel in 2010 with an indie publisher, and has gone on to publish five more with HarperCollins, and along the way has received rave reviews, been short-listed for major sci-fi awards, and won the Wales book of the year. Even so, he told the Guardian that “his novels have never earned out.”

“Being a writer,” he told Flood, “can’t be treated like it’s a job. It maybe was once, but no writer can treat it as such nowadays. There’s no ground beneath your feet in terms of income, and you can’t rely on money to come when you need it.” Smythe teaches at Roehampton University.

ALCS’s chief executive Owen Atkinson described the new numbers as “shocking.” “These are concerning times for writers. This rapid decline in both author incomes and in the number of those writing full-time could have serious implications for the economic success of the creative industries in the UK.”

Smythe acknowledged that there are those who put the blame on the sheer numbers of books being published for the decline in author incomes, “and it’s true, shelf space is at a premium.”

But, he told the paper, “…if you sell, you’ll get more money next time around. If you don’t, then you’ll earn less. In most jobs, you work hard, and you deliver results. Unfortunately – and this is out of everybody’s hands – working hard in publishing guarantees no such results. You could write the best book in the world, and it could still sell dismally. My publishers are great, in that they believe I’ll write something that pays off. So I get to keep doing this. But one day, if I fail to deliver results, that will change. Why would you keep paying somebody money for no gain?”

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.