The shock of the fall

What do authors really earn? Public perception tends to veer between polarised clichés: you’re either a bestseller courting Hollywood or an impoverished artiste. But what’s the real story? 

In 2007, when ALCS last attempted to answer this question with the publication of What are Words Worth? the world was a very different place. Amazon’s Kindle was only a month old, BBC iPlayer still in its beta phase. This final sounding from the analogue age echoed the Society of Authors’ survey Love, Not Money, conducted at the turn of the century: for many, words aren’t worth much; the typical professional author (i.e. those dedicating the majority of their working life to writing) made £12,000 per year.

So are authors better off in the digital age? Far from it, is the unequivocal message from The Business of Being an Author, a new, ALCS-commissioned study published this week by Queen Mary University of London. The news that professional authors’ earnings have diminished is unsurprising. The shock lies in the fall: 29% in real terms. Yet more worrying is an apparent exodus by full-time practitioners: eight years ago, 40% relied solely on income from writing, now only 11.5% do. In any other industry alarm bells would sound, but this isn’t any other industry: it’s a profitable one. Can a creative industries sector worth £76bn really afford to pay its talent 13% less than the minimum wage?

Wealth distribution among authors is hopelessly unequal: the top 5% get 42% of the pie, the crumbs for the bottom half amount to 7%. The report also confirms perceptions about advances: fewer authors are receiving them, and 44% of those that do noted a decline. The opportunities of digital are evident in self-publishing: encouraged by a typical return on investment of 40%, a quarter of respondents had self-published.

The digital content boom is unlike previous mechanised revolutions because the workforce is indispensable.Barring spectacular advances in artificial intelligence, the creative industries will always need creators. Hopefully policymakers will keep this mind, starting with the unfolding EU copyright debate. If they do, our next survey might be a more uplifting read.

Richard Combes is head of rights and licensing at ALCS