The real issue for authors

On Tuesday, ALCS released the headline findings from a major piece of research (the first since 2005) into what the typical UK author now earns. It’s an understatement to say that the survey “What Are Words Worth Now?” made concerning reading.

As The Bookseller reported: “Only 11.5% of authors earn their living solely from writing. In 2005, this figure was 40%. Authors' incomes are falling in real terms: the typical annual income of professional authors has fallen to £11,000, a figure far below the level identified by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, as necessary to achieve a socially acceptable standard of living (£16,850)”.

We need urgently to find answers to some straightforward questions. How can we ensure that writers can continue to earn a living wage in this swiftly changing media landscape? How can we best support them (via copyright for example) so that they can continue to make their invaluable contribution to the UK creative industries? (which, by the way now contribute a staggering £8m per hour to the economy).

So I can’t help but ask why it is apparently so difficult to have the sensible, reasoned, debate we desperately need about the real economic future of writers without it being hijacked by a focus on the few who appear in the Sunday Times Rich List.


Don’t get me wrong. It’s not J K Rowling’s fault that the Daily Telegraph’s report on this week’s Authors Licensing & Collecting Society (ALCS)  debate at the House of Commons about how to achieve a fair deal for writers could not resist putting her clickbait name in the headline (“JK Rowling’s ‘little story about wizards’ makes it hard for authors’, says Joanne Harris”).

Actually, Joanne Harris – an articulate participant in the debate – didn’t say that that. What I remember her saying (I was there) is: “It’s a real job. We’re trying to make a living like everyone else”.

Those present at the debate also heard Richard Hooper, charged by the government with masterminding the so-called “Copyright Hub” recommended in the Hargreaves Review of 2011 make a plea for better data (“finding out who earns rights is a data problem”). They heard poet Wendy Cope recall the well-meaning woman who told her “I loved your poems so much I photocopied them for all my friends”. They heard Richard Mollet of the Publishers’ Association call for more common terminology in author contracts. And much more besides. There were differences of opinion about the best way to ensure a fair deal for authors whilst allowing fair access to content for all. But the debate was bracing, and set thought-provoking balls in motion that we need to keep rolling.

Please then, can we stop this obsession with the tiny minority of writers who have made a fortune from their work, and/or those who look hot in their author pics. Please can we also stop dissolving into factions of the bestselling, the midlist, the self-published, the Hampstead-dwelling, those who like to write cheerful stories and those who prefer to write grim ones. And instead take a proper and considered look at the future of the entire profession of writing.

We writers are nothing special. We do a job which many of us are lucky enough to care passionately about. The vast majority of us don’t earn any more than you do (and possibly rather less).  We don’t even ask to earn a lot more. But you’ll all be poorer without us. And not even a wave of Harry Potter’s  wand will bring us back once we’ve had to give up what – if we’re not careful – will cease to be a real job.


Caroline Sanderson is a writer and associate editor of The Bookseller, and editor of ALCS News.