The subject of the debate was outlined in an article in yesterday's Guardian: Authors' incomes collapse to 'abject' levels. There are several things wrong with the article, not least its concentration entirely on literary fiction as though that represents all, or even most, books. Most books are non-fiction. Most novels are not literary. But never mind. The survey behind the article actually asked writers of all types of books, even if the Guardian didn't. If you want to read the non-journalised account of the research, it's on the ALCS website.
|The Poor Poet, Carl Spitzweg, 1839|
The survey gives results for professional writers, which it defines as those who spend most of their earning time writing. That's a useful distinction because if the figures were distorted by people who wrote one book five years ago, it wouldn't be very helpful. But it also points out that the proportion of professional writers who can earn a living from writing alone has fallen from 40% to just 11.5% - most of us have to take on another job, or other freelance work. It wasn't clear whether 'income' meant 'turnover' or earnings after expenses have been subtracted (but before tax has been subtracted). To compare with people in employment, it should be the latter. Most people don't have to pay from their own pocket for the electricity they use in the office, the computer and software they use, and their office phone bill. If it's turnover, the situation is even worse as the cost of the items we have to pay for to do the job has gone up as our income as gone down, so they represent a greater proportion of turnover. - there's less left after paying for them.
There is little general sympathy for writers because we do a job we like and other people believe they would like to do. (It's odd that the same doesn't apply to other people who like their jobs, such as surgeons and landscape gardeners.) Those unsympathetic people probably imagine sitting at a desk in Tuscany for an hour or two each day 'penning' great stories when inspiration strikes. Yeah, right. Dream on. I work a standard 35-40 hour week and none of it is in Tuscany.
I'm principally a children's writer and this blog is about children's writing, so I'll focus on that. It's not a matter of simple market forces. We are not makers of slide rules crying because the world has moved on to calculators. Nor are we writing books people don't want to buy. That sometimes happens - it's an occupational hazard. We spend a long time developing a book and a publisher doesn't want it. Fine - if I've written an unsaleable book, I don't expect to be paid for it. The crux of the matter is that we write books that publishers do want, that do sell, and we are the only link in the chain that doesn't earn enough to live on. Printers and in-house editors haven't seen their income drop. The ALCS report found that professional writers earn only two-thirds of the amount considered to be a living wage. We can't live on the money we earn from the books we write. That average figure is less than a 19-year-old friend of mine earns working in a DIY shop - and his income will go up as he gains experience, not down.
Why should you care? Because if authors can't afford to live on their writing, they won't write as much. Yes, someone will still write fantasy series or some other type of fiction they feel like writing (probably not a writer with years of editorial input building his or her skills, though). But who will write the reading scheme stories, the reluctant-reader novels, the remedial maths texts, the books about space, dinosaurs, tractors, One Direction (God forbid we should lose those)? No one ever dreamed of sitting at a desk in Tuscany writing a comparison of fourteen types of digger, but that is exactly what might fire the imagination and love of reading of a five-year-old. If we kill off professional children's writers, our children and grandchildren will be the collateral damage. It's true - You don't know what you've got until it's gone.
aka Stroppy Author
Latest books: Off the Rails and Soldier Boy (reissues), Ransom, June 2014
Go Figure: A Maths Journey (4 titles), Wayland, June 2014
Mega Machine Record Breakers, Carlton, May 2014 (does not include a comparison of 14 different types of digger)