Saturday 9 April 2022

"Are you rich?" SPOILER: No (Anne Rooney)


I'm going to continue the theme started by Dawn yesterday with her excellent post on school visits: being a professional, being paid. This doesn't just affect the authors who are or aren't paid, it affects everyone. It determines who can write and so which books you see on the shelves. It's the elephant in the diversity room, and gets into a lot of other places, too. It's quite a nimble elephant, though a very large one.

For those of you who are not authors but readers, librarians, teachers, parents, here's a brief (simplified) rundown of how authors are paid. There are two basic models. 

The author might be paid a flat fee for a book, in which case they are paid, say, £1200-£3000 depending on the length and complexity of the book (we're talking children's books here). 

Alternatively, they will be paid an advance against royalties. This means that ultimately they will be paid a percentage of the publisher's takings for each copy sold (not a percentage of the cover price). It's likely to be 8-10% maximum, but if there is an illustrator the royalty is split, so each will get 4-5%. If a book sells for £7.99 (call it £8), the publisher's income from the book might be £4 (or a lot less), so 5% is 20p per copy. An advance is an advance payment against royalties. So if an author has an advance of £1200, that covers 6000 copies sold at 20p per copy. Most books never earn out the royalty so the author never gets any more than the advance. If their royalties eventually add up to more £1200, they begin to be paid the extra (this is likely to be years later and can't be depended on). Big names will get a higher advance, but they still won't get more money until the advance has been earned back in book sales. CAVEAT: many publishers sell a lot of books for far less than the cover price. Bulk sales to book clubs, discount shops like Books Etc, are at very low prices and often also pay a lower percentage royalty. 

Incidentally, flat fees and advances have in general not gone up — and indeed have often gone down — since I started writing children's books more than 20 years ago. With publishers I work with continuously, I usually manage to push them to an increase about every five years. The standard fee now for a book I was paid £2000 for in 1999 would be between £1350 and £1750, most likely £1500. (Actual figures, not adjusted for inflation.)

Looking at a recent royalty statement, I see I was paid £5.42 for sales of 250 copies of a book in a 'specials' deal. That's 2p a copy. It's less than I would get if someone borrowed it from a library (about 8p per loan). This is the kind of book a child might read in school, or pick up in the library as it's produced by a big publisher that sells directly into schools and libraries as well as bookshops. The rate can be less than 1p per book when the books are parcelled up with other titles in massive deals to Chinese publishers. Of course there are authors who earn a lot, but they are very few and far between. I know plenty of big-name chidren's authors who have other jobs because you can't raise a family on this level of pay. 

Most children's authors do paid school visits and rely on that income. Many make more from visits than from books. The books support the visit income, not the other way round. That's why it's vital they are paid properly for visits — no income, no more books. It's also why many authors bring their own books to sell: they will get more than 2p a copy if they have bought them at a discount from the publisher. 

What does the writer do for this money? They will do the writing, make revisions in line with the publisher's suggestions, suggest which pictures should be used or drawn, check the pictures, usually twice or more if they are commissioned illustrations, and specify changes as needed, and they will check the final pages (arranged text and pictures), again usually twice. If they are on a royalty contract, they will also be expected to do a lot of free publicity. On a flat-fee contract, they might be expected to do it but probably won't as it won't increase their earnings and takes away the time they could be earning by writing another book. It's arguable whether publicity pays back on a royalty contract — an hour of publicity would have to sell, say, 100 copies to get back £20. Will a blog post that takes an hour to write yield 100 full-price sales? Unlikely. 

Income here is turnover, not earnings. Authors have expenses that aren't paid for by someone else. If you go to work in an office, your employer has paid for the computer and software you use, the heating and electricity in your office, the fast broadband, the phone bill, the stationery. You don't have to spend unpaid hours reading contracts, sending invoices, chasing payment, contacting helplines when stuff doesn't work, ordering things you need. If you have to go on a business trip, you don't have to pay your own train fare. I pay over £1000 a year just in software licences and domain hosting. That has to be paid even if I don't write a single book, as not having them would mean I couldn't write a single book. (Though that doesn't apply to someone starting out, who could write their first book in Open Office. This is because I have established relationships with publishers and work on a lot of books with a very high level of illustration.) 

Looking at 2018-19 as the last normal, pre-pandemic year, my expenses were around £3000 for the year. There is, of course, no sick pay, holiday pay or anything else. Suppose a person wanted to earn the average UK wage of £26,000 pa (Feb 22 figure). They would need a turnover of, say, £29,000. At £2000 a book, that's nearly 15 books a year, more than one a month — one-and-a-half a month if you take out 8 weeks for bank holidays (8 of them), holidays (4 weeks) and a bit of time to have covid. Once you are established, there is a trickle of income from PLR (public lending rights, from library loans) and ALCS (from photocopying) and royalties build up over time if your books earn out. But books also fall out of print and aren't reprinted (no more sales) and library and school copies fall apart and aren't replaced (they buy new books) so you have to keep producing new books. 

This is why there is not much diversity in children's publishing, just as much — if not more — than because of lack of diversity on editorial boards. People who have no independent source of income, or another job, can't afford to be published writers. Most writers start by writing in their spare time, but if you are already working two jobs and perhaps raising children in poverty, where is that 'spare time'? If you are worried about paying the bills, or kids being bullied, or that your flat is damp, no amount of talent will get you the head-space and time you need to perfect and sell a book. And writing the book is only about half the time the book takes (see tasks involved, above). Most professional children's writers I know have an earning partner or a pension or another job. I don't, but that's unusual. 

There is no easy solution to this. It isn't that publishers should just pay more to their authors (though authors should benefit more from the cheap, bulk deals which are drawing sales away from full price books and benefiting only the publisher). Looking at that book I used in the example, that earned £5.41 for 250 discounted sales: the total income to the publisher for that book in all sales is £34,000, of which I have had £1,750, so pretty much the 5% royalty rate. (This one hasn't actually sold many on cheap deals. It's quite a recent book, so discount sales will likely come along later rather than early in its life.) That's for 12,500 copies, so the publisher's takings are about 50% of cover price. It required a photoshoot, had in-house editorial costs, was printed, shipped, stored, had to cover a portion of the overheads for premises, staff, utilities, marketing and so on. The publisher is not raking it in on this title, and I'm not being particularly short-changed. 

The real problem is that they are getting as much for a book as Costa gets for a cup of coffee. We don't value books and we don't value the people that produce them. We can't expect people from under-represented groups, who are often already struggling, to produce all the books we need to have a truly diverse offering, just as a passion project. We need some more creative solution to the problem than publishers and agents specifically inviting people from under-represented groups to submit to them (though that is a good thing, too). To say people feel that 'authors don't look like me' is (while possibly true) to skirt around the real, intractable issue. Writing doesn't pay. To get to the point where it does — or, rather, might — takes a long time and a lot of work. (And even then it can be taken away at a stroke if the type of book you write is no longer fashionable and publishers no longer want it.) Work that has to be subsidised by other work, or a supportive other person. You don't fix the problem of under-representation by making the under-represented people pay for representation. Something else is needed. 

If you're interested in more detail of how authors make a living (or don't), ALCS has produced a series of interviews with writers called 'My Writing Living. I've done one, too, here

 Anne Rooney

My course on how to write children's non-fiction, with the Institute of Continuing Education (ICE) at Cambridge University runs from 11 July

Out now: Miles Kelly, Dec 2021

Curious Questions and Answers about Rainforests


Penny Dolan said...

Thanks for posting this excellent analysis, Anne.

Joan Lennon said...

Yes, thanks for this, Anne.

Unknown said...

Very well summed up, Anne. I have now worked in c.n.f. for half a century, partly as an editor but mostly as a writer with no other source of income. The status, respect, working conditions and financial rewards for writers (and artists) in c.n.f. have consistently declined over that period, most notably with a downward lurch c15 years ago. When I did school visits as part of careers initiatives, kids were all ears – until they realised the pay was so appalling. My time is running (?has run?)out now, but I do feel that publishers might learn from the treatment of authors in the past if better books are to be published.

Jenny Vaughan said...

That is absolutely excellent, Anne. So many points apply in general to other parts of the 'creative' industries. We are expected to live on air and for ever (pension? What's that?).

Andy Seed said...

Yep, bang on the money (or lack of it) as usual, Anne. I will share this with some of my non-publishing friends who still think that authors must be raking it in...

Ciaran Murtagh said...

Great post. I started writing TV and books at more or less the same time and get paid the same amount to write an 11 minute episode of TV as I do a 22,000 word book. Depending on the publisher I’d have to write 4 book bag books to earn the same.

Over the decade or so I’ve been a writer earnings for TV have increased and there is progression of sorts within the industry. There are active initiatives to be more inclusive and diverse - usually percentages of staff on a production, conditional on funding, not just ‘wouldn’t it be nice if…’

For all those reasons, as the main earner for my family there’s a reason I write far more television than books and why writers keen to write for children and young people from any background, would find TV an easier world to access.

Paul Dowswell said...

Thank for this, Anne. Brilliantly put.

Stroppy Author said...

That's really interesting, Ciaran. Perhaps I should explore TV... (not really. I don't even have a TV so clearly couldn't start writing for it :-)

Andrew Preston said...

Some things that came to my mind...

1. "This means that ultimately they will be paid a percentage of the publisher's takings for each copy sold (not a percentage of the cover price)....."

Net takings or gross... ? Why ?

2. Perhaps writers aren't valued, and the income per book has reduced. However it seems to me that the internet, ie over the last 20/25 years, has greatly expanded the opportunities for a writer to earn in other directions. You mention school visits. There's self publishing. And let's face it, your post here, now, is a giant plug for you. and your offerings. There'd be none of that 20 + years ago.

Life is change. I suppose what I'm really asking is whether, all things considered, things are really worse for writers now compared to then ?

3. £3000 worth of software.... As I recall from somewhere, your earnings run at around £40 to £50K a year. You are industrially prolific. In that scenario, £3K seems a not unreasonable level of business expenditure to make life easier. In my own previous life as a freelance programmer, my business expenditure to deal with upwards of 1000 miles a week driving to client premises ( no internet ) mostly entailed expensive, fast, comfortable cars. A necessity of the job. A Fiesta just wouldn't have worked.

4. In the US, long ago, actors who reckoned they were being scr*wed by the big movies moguls eventually set up what became 'United Artists'. Also in the US, I understand that it's now common for screnwriters to contract for a percentage, rather than just hired on a fixed fee.

Why, in the UK, do publishers have such a grip ?

Hilary Mckay said...

Brillliantly put together, Anne, thank you.

I've been working as a writer for more than 30 years. My first advance was £1000, my most recent offer, 30+ years later (Barrington Stoke) was £2,000.

I could never have begun except that I was in full time work as a chemist for the first 7 years, and after that have managed to make an average of around 20-25k a year(before agent's 15% and expenses) (less these last few years).

If I could change anything about publishing it would be the secrecy around advances, royalties, etc. And the enormous amount of work a writer is expect by their publisher to do for nothing- since it counts as publicity.

Paul May said...

You describe the reality of a writer's life brilliantly, Anne, but I can't believe that the answer to increasing diversity in children's publishing is more expensive books. Unless, that is, we see vastly increased spending on public libraries and on school libraries. Then everybody wins. Authors get paid more, more people from every walk of life have free access to a wider range of books and all for the cost of a few billionaires' London houses and superyachts.

Lionel Bender said...

Anne, an excellent and accurate insight into the life and financial situation of, I believe, almost all the 75+ UK children's (nonfiction) book authors I have worked with with over many years. For the 75+ children's authors I've worked with in North America, their situation is much better. But then the children's publishing market over the Pond is far bigger, buoyant, and more creative than here, in many different ways. The big driving forces on children's publishing there are the worlds of education (school and home learning) and creative arts — forces that are weak on children's publishing here.

Stroppy Author said...

Hi Andrew
Thank you for your comments. I’ll try to answer your points
1. Generally net – so they subtract returns and so on. I’m not sure what the ‘why?’ relates to. Why do they pay in this way? So you get a percentage of their takings, which is lower than a percentage of the gross sales or the cover price
2. It depends how you look at it. I’d say being paid less for the same work 20 years on is definitely worse. School visits and so on are not writing, they are activities that subsidise writing. If I wanted to spend my time in a school talking to kids I’d have trained as a teacher. Self-publishing offers a great opportunity for people to get their books out there if mainstream publishers don’t want them. If you self-publish and want to make money from it, you have to do a lot of marketing. If I wanted to spend my time doing marketing, I’d get a marketing job and earn more. Self-publishing is even more precarious as a way of making a living than traditional publishing, and a person starting out is unlikely to make much money quickly, if ever. The whole point of this was about how the conditions in publishing disadvantage aspiring writers from under-represented groups. If they don’t have money/time to support themselves to write a book, they won’t have money/time to support themselves to do the production and marketing as well as writing the book, so I don’t see how self-publishing helps there.
As for this post being a massive plug — many posts here get relatively few views. People put in time to write them for little exposure. You can't tell which will be popular, so that's a gamble anyway. I don't think many people will buy a book because they liked a blog post (especially one that doesn't even mention the type of books I write). But many of my books are flat fee so it doesn't make any difference to me how many copies sell (in terms of the few extra that might come from blogging - obviously if they never sell any I won't be commissioned again). My customers are not readers but publishers. And if anything my blog posts will annoy publishers more than woo them.
3. You’ve misunderstood my point. The bit about expenses is part of an explanation to people used to income from an employee that being self-employed involves a lot of expenses they won’t necessarily think of, so to earn £26,000 you probably need a higher turnover than that, and that you have to cover your own holidays, sick pay, pension etc. I am perfectly happy with the level of my own expenses; that was never the issue. This isn’t about my income, as someone established in my career. Though it is still true that for most people it doesn’t pay well enough even when they are established. It is about barriers for the very people publishers are trying to attract as under-represented. Even if we accept that most people will have writing as part of a portfolio career, it’s still biased towards educated middle-class people. If I needed to pick up extra work, I would turn first to a university, or doing consultancy, or mentoring, or private teaching. I wouldn’t be an overnight shelf-picker in a supermarket. That means it will be better paid, so it could support poorly paid writing. If the other work you can get is paid at minimum wage, you can’t do it half time and write the rest of the time if writing doesn’t pay. By the way, I don’t mean ‘doesn’t pay’ because the writer doesn’t manage to place the book. It’s about books that do sell to a publisher but don’t earn much for the writer.
4. Good question. I’d say it’s because they largely control the distribution channels and have a marketing budget (however small). They want to earn back their investment if nothing else. Yes, there’s Amazon, but there’s a huge tail of self-published books that earn very, very little — lots of noise for someone who needs to get their book noticed. A publisher will try to sell the books they publish. Amazon doesn’t care what it sells.

Stroppy Author said...

Paul, no I don't mean we should put up the price of books! Though books are now too cheap (cheaper here than elsewhere in Europe) but there's no going back on removing the net book agreement. It would be great if there were more funding for libraries and schools to buy books. I don't know what the solution is. I can't see one, though there is certainly some tinkering that would help (massive discount sales, for example).

Stroppy Author said...

Hilary, I'd forgotten agent's commission! Yes! To get your £26K income you actually need closer to £35K because your agent takes 15%

Shoo Rayner said...

Hi Anne. Hope you are well? Yep that sums it up. I made a video explaining how and why author earnings have gone down and down since I started 35 years ago.
I’m proud to have raised a family as a full time children’s author. But it has been really hard work sometimes writing and illustrating 15 books a year while trekking the country ( and world) visiting schools. In reality i’d never recommend it as a career and always feel a bit awkward when teachers say, “There you are children, you too can be an author when you grow up.” Im thinking, no… be a hedge fund manager! But I'm privileged to have been to so many places and met so many interesting people while being my own boss and having been allowed to go down rabbit holes of interest to satisfy my endless curiosity. No other job really gives you that freedom.
All the best!