ALCS Report: The Business of Being a Writer

Martin Reed

Martin Reed

Martin leads the SoA's Communications team. He oversees our strategic communications and campaign-based activities, including PR, social media, events and partnerships.

The Authors Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) has published a worrying report on author’s incomes and contracts. The report states that ‘for the majority, writing remains a low earning profession. The survey found that the median (typical) pre-tax net earnings which professional writers obtained from their writing (£11,000) was a little over 40% of the national average median earnings (£27,011).’

Daniel Hahn, Chair of the SoA, said: ‘Anybody interested seeing in a future with books in it should be profoundly troubled by what today’s report is telling us.’

President Philip Pullman called the situation ‘nothing short of a national disgrace’:

In the past ten years, while publishers’ earnings have remained steady, the incomes of those on whom they entirely depend have diminished, on average, by 29%. While bankers and hedge fund managers (who do nothing that can be understood) gather in more money than can be imagined, the work of authors (who give delight, or knowledge, or consolation) is rewarded on average with little more than 40% (£11,000) of the national median earnings. While Amazon makes earnings of indescribable magnitude by selling our books for a fraction of their value, and then pays as little tax as it possibly can, the authors whose work subsidises this gargantuan barbarity are facing threats to their livelihood from several directions: from publishers’ increasing habit of letting backlists disappear while concentrating largely on proven bestsellers, as well as from the government’s obvious disinclination to do anything to help keep the library sector alive.

The Society of Authors exists to help all authors, and to argue strongly for the value and importance of a thriving literary culture—something this country used to pride itself on, with good reason. The writers of the books that we know people love to read cannot earn a living by going on tour, filling stadiums night after night, and then signing books at the door. Our business doesn’t work like that. We’re not demanding special treatment: just pointing out the need for simple financial justice.

Potential changes from government also cause extra concern for those who earn a low income from writing. It is proposed that the self-employed should be tested as to whether, in the opinion of DWP officials, they are ‘gainfully self-employed’ and must prove that their earnings are above a ‘minimum income floor’ (MIF) every month. The MIF is equivalent to 35 hours a week at a minimum hourly rate (approx. £11,000 a year, which is exactly the median income of professional authors). If they fail to reach that target in any month, their Universal Credit will be cut. One member, who wishes to remain anonymous, explains how worrying this situation is for those in a position like herself:

Ian Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit plan would have the effect of forcing the low-income self-employed in the creative industries – those on intermittent and unreliable income, who form the base of the pyramid which peaks in JK Rowling or (choose your own acclaimed artist or writer) – into an impossible situation. As the minister, Esther McVey, has said: ‘If you earn less than the MIF in any month, UC will not bridge that gap.  This will encourage you to grow your business and make sure it can support you’. 

Without the teeny but vital support I currently get from WTC, there could be months when I have nothing to live on.

It doesn’t mean I’m not working full time, 35 hours a week or more, as a writer – I am. All those things that we do which don’t result in immediate earning come into that category. Organising and running workshops, pitching ideas, liaising about projects which might get commissioned, doing little bits of time-consuming work as a mentor (paid and unpaid) or tutor, and thinking – on the page – aka Actual Writing; short term, medium term, and long term writing, often without any contract, for stories and books which might eventually result in publication. I’d call that ‘growing my business’, but it would be hard to quantify why it works, because this business is not like a series of shops all selling baked beans.

If the Government keeps trying to tidy up the margins where individual creative workers exist, undermining the base of that splendid and much admired pyramid we are all building together, it misunderstands the structure of our creative industries.

The top 5% of professional authors (those earning £100,100 or more) earn 42.3% of all the money earned by authors, while the bottom 50% (those earning £10,432 or less) earn only 7%. Chief Executive Nicola Solomon responds to the disparity in earnings:

While it has always been the case that a handful of writers earn a large amount and the rest much less, it is saddening to see that the inequality is increasing. It supports our observations that publishers are tending more and more to concentrate on safe choices and celebrity brands, sometimes at the expense of supporting backlist and midlist authors who sell steadily but more slowly.

It also concerning to see the difference in earnings between genres. It is notable that in the areas where income is lowest terms and conditions are worst. Non-fiction writers in general, and particularly academic writers, fare badly in comparison with fiction. Academic writers are less likely to have received advances and fiction writers are more than twice as likely to retain their copyright than academic or travel writers. We have long been concerned that the worsening of terms in academic and educational writing is leading to a decline in writers in these fields as it is simply not worthwhile to write the type of quality books for which Britain is renowned and which contributed to the huge export sales of British books last year.

Finally we were concerned that only 53% of professional authors take advice before signing a contract. The SoA offers members a free contract checking service and the results of this study show that proper reversion clauses and other sensible contract terms can lead to an increase in authors’ incomes so it is always well worth seeking advice before signing.

The Business of Being a Writer provides more insight and detail following last year’s headline findings which showed that the typical author’s income has fallen dramatically in real terms since 2005. The study was commissioned by ALCS, carried out by Queen Mary’s University and was supported by the SoA.

Further Reading

Read the key findings of the report >>

Read the full report >> 

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