The story behind the ALCS author earnings survey numbers

To misquote Auric Goldfinger: Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, the third time you probably have the makings of an empirically valid trend.  Back in 2005 when the first ALCS-commissioned survey of authors’ earnings found that the annual income of a typical professional writer was around £12,300, it seemed like the low water mark. When the exercise was repeated in 2013, however, the depths were plumbed even further as the figure dropped to just £11,000. At the time there were plausible reasons to explain this fall of almost 30% in real terms. Perhaps it was a by-product of the global financial crisis? Or maybe the disruptive influences of the move towards digital were to blame?

We have recently had the initial findings from our third survey, which was conducted by the CREATe research unit at the University of Glasgow and looked at earnings for 2017. The typical earnings for professional writers have fallen again, down to just under £10,500 per annum, a further 15% drop in real terms since the last review. During the same period the creative industries have continued to buttress the UK economy, growing by 22% to a current value of £92bn. This growing rift between the generation and allocation of wealth  isn’t the only example of inequality to be found in the latest data set; the average earnings for female professional writers are reported as being only 75% of the equivalent figure for men, the widest gender gap recorded by any of the surveys.

Across the surveys, professional writers are identified as those who spend the majority of their working lives writing. A subset of this group are those individuals for whom writing provides their sole source of occupational income. According to the latest results their number has shrunk by two thirds in the dozen years since the first survey, confirming the   impression that, for the vast majority, writing is something that has to be fitted in around other activities providing more reliable income streams.   

Taking account of everyone who contributed to the latest review (more than 5,500 writers covering everyone from full-time professionals to occasional contributors), the overall median annual earnings figure has slumped to just £3,000, a real terms reduction of almost 50% since 2005.

In quantitative terms we have the makings of a trend, what we lack is the qualitative evidence to help us understand it. To assist with this the All Party Parliamentary Writers Group has launched an enquiry into authors’ earnings and hopes to hear from writers, their unions, agents and publishers. The enquiry is now open for written submissions and will be hearing oral evidence during the autumn.

The full findings from the CREATe research will be published later in the year by which time the terms for a new EU Copyright Directive may well have been agreed. The proposed Directive includes a number of measures aimed at improving the levels of remuneration received by authors. Quite what this will mean for UK writers is, at this stage, anyone’s guess.       

Richard Combes is head of Rights and Licensing at the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society.