UK author income survey: Another publishing bombshell

UK author income survey: Another publishing bombshell

Brace for impact

The key survey revelations commissioned by the UK's Authors' Licensing & Collection Society (ALCS) -- with full details to come in the autumn -- can be expected to ratchet up an already acute sense of tension between the US-UK creative corps and the corporate entities that publish it.

And while it's easy to criticise a base of authors squabbling amongst themselves as their leadership explores the potential for labour organisation -- just two days ago, the growingly influential Hugh Howey asked Do Writers Need a Union? -- a look at the ALCS figures being debated at the House of Commons this evening in Westminster should wipe the smirk off the face of anyone who wants us to believe he or she cares about literature and its artists.

Here, in professionally gathered and analyzed clarity, is what a fast-rising force of newly empowered authors will be quick to slam as the shameful gap between the publishing industry's avowed reverence for fine writing and its willingness to pay a living wage for it.

As we hear in first comments from the Society of Authors' Nicola Solomon to The Bookseller, we are coming face-to-face with a remarkable contradiction in concepts of corporate responsibility. Here is an industry which, as Solomon puts it, knows authors to be "100% necessary to the process" -- and yet, many will say, views those authors as not worth the job security provided to day labourers and nannies.

The industry of publishing, already staggered, is taking another hit.

Echos of previous blasts We now can look back and see that the flash point for the current crisis in author-to-author and author-to-publisher relations around the Amazon-Hachette negotiations in the United States may well have been another author survey, officially released in January in New York. That survey's returns were dismal, as are new revelations commissioned by the UK's ALCS.

A quick look at highlights so far reported by The Bookseller on the ALCS study is found in this PDF at the society's site

  • In the UK, 2013 professional authors' typical annual income from writing: £11,000 ($18,800)
  • That's down from £12,333 ($21,800) in 2005
  • This puts the 2013 income at £5,850 ($10,000) below the Minimum Income Standard of £16,850 ($28,878) set by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation
  • Only 11.5% of professional writers surveyed for ALCS said they earned their income solely from writing in 2013
  • That's down sharply, from 40% of professional writers who said they earned their income solely from writing in 2005

My colleague Sarah Shaffi has the full story on the new ALCS study, commissioned from Queen Mary, University of London, and her report is here: Typical author earnings 'dropped to £11,000 in 2013'.

Her report includes an interesting point made by the ALCS about self-publishing. She writes: "A quarter of those who took part in the research had self-published, 'with a typical return on their investment of 40%.' The ALCS said the mean investment recorded by this group was £2,470 ($4,230) £500 ($856) median. Nevertheless, of those who self-published, 86% said they would do so again. 

Keep that in mind as we look at what we were hearing from that earlier survey in New York a bit over six months ago.

First shell: DBW's "What Authors Want" survey

Of everything to come out of the rich, three-day 2014 Digital Book World (DBW) Conference in New York (#DBW15 runs 13-15 January), nothing was more contentious than the results of something called the "What Authors Want" survey. Its findings were later packaged by DBW as a report titled What Advantages Do Traditional Publishers Offer Authors?

The survey drew responses from more than 9,200 self-identified authors grouped into four categories: aspiring, self-published, traditionally published, and hybrid.  There are several important distinctions between that effort and the ALCS report, the insights of which identify and comprise both professional writers (defined as those "who dedicate the majority of their time to writing") and "occasional and part-time writers."

The DBW report embraced the aspirational component common to many of the Writer's Digest vast readership from which its responses were solicited. As the Publishers Weekly staff wrote in DBW 2014: Survey Finds Most Authors Want To Earn More, "The [DBW] survey...focuses on commercial writers who are not treating their writing as a full-time job, and would like to be making more money from their writing."   

(Updated:) A clarification from Queens College sociology professor Dana Beth Weinberg: What the DBW survey presented from January forward was 2014 data, following an early release of material in December using 2013 data.


(Updated:) In terms of earnings, the survey showed what Prof. Weinberg clarifies was a median income for traditionally published and self-published writers (excluding hybrids) of between $1 and $999 (£583). It was higher, she says, only for hybrids (who both self- and traditionally publish).   


Author advances were indicated by the DBW survey results were painfully low. Less than 5% of the traditionally published and "hybrid" authors responding to the survey said they'd had advances of $20,000 (£11,687) or more. The largest group reporting any advances at all said the amounts ranged between $1,000 (£584) and $2,999 (£1,754) for those payments.

More than 60% of traditionally published authors responding to the survey reported receiving no advance at all. Zero.  

In royalties, the DBW survey easily painted the allure of self-publishing for so many writers. Traditionally published authors responding to the DBW survey said their highest levels of royalties were between 10% and 19%. Self-published and "hybrid indie" authors had the best numbers to report -- their royalties averaged out, they said, between 70% and 79%.

For all the obvious good intentions of the folks behind it, the DBW survey results touched off a firestorm of debate in a pre-conference release in December and around the conference in January.  Howey leveled an unprecedented challenge to assumptions inherent in its methodology.

The DBW survey, in 2013 as in prior rounds, had been interpreted to indicate that traditionally published authors and hybrid authors do better, on average, financially than self-publishing authors. As captured in our Writing on the Ether coverage at last December, DBW's Jeremy Greenfield had introduced the survey results at Forbes writing (note my underline):

The median income range for self-published authors is under $5,000 and nearly 20% of self-published authors report deriving no income from their writing...By comparison, authors published by traditional publishers had a median income range of $5,000 to $9,999 and ‘hybrid authors’ (those who both self-publish and publish with established publishers) had a median income range of $15,000 to $19,999.

The reason I underlined the word "published"? -- Howey flew at what he understood to be the apples-to-oranges comparison of self-publishing authors who actually put their work on the market and then may be counted as making or losing money -- and authors whose income isn't counted unless they are published in the traditional world.

In essence, he was saying that if the millions of manuscripts rejected by the traditional system were counted as financial failures just as badly selling self-published titles are, the traditionalists' income averages would be in tatters.

This was a hard point of logic to refute. Not only was the DBW survey self-selecting and not scientifically produced, but it had been proven quite vulnerable to a virulent attack as many of the "indie bestseller" authors -- who, like Howey, have earned millions of dollars selling millions of copies of their ebooks -- stepped forward to back him up. Bestseller after bestseller pointed out that she or he had never been asked to contribute their input to the survey. The most successful of the self-publishing world had been sidestepped, albeit unintentionally. And Howey had called it.

Furious debate -- and this is not too strong a phrase -- gripped the attention of the industry for weeks. (Updated:) Weinberg, herself a self-publishing and traditionally published author,  points out that she had been on board from the outset, helped devise the survey, and wrote all of the analysis presented with the results, including the December article that drew Howey's initial attention. (Here is the first of three parts from her December writings.) Her efforts seemed only to enrage the author base more deeply.

On 12 February, a month after the DBW conference, in Analyzing the Author Earnings Data Using Basic Analytics, Weinberg wrote, "I was surprised to learn of the deep animosity many indie authors felt toward this survey [the DBW survey] and its reporting." As the title tells us (and she has asked us to clarify in this update), she was examining in that article the findings of Howey's first report in his new AuthorEarnings series.

Second shell:

On the same day, 12 February, Howey would launch his own project,, dedicated to providing what he maintains is more balanced information on the earning potential of authors than the traditional industry is sharing with writers.

His opening salvo, The 7k Report, is the first of what is an ongoing series of analyses based on Amazon and Barnes & Noble online sales pages for various books.

Howey and an unnamed computer-savvy associate -- "Data Guy" is reportedly unwilling to reveal his identity for fear of retaliation from Amazon -- use code spiders to crawl over myriad sales pages and gather numbers in a one-day snapshot. The pair then use Howey's own and other bestselling authors' private knowledge of their online sales rankings -- and how those translate into dollars -- to estimate what the sales data scraped from these pages indicate in terms of sales.

On one point, Howey, DBW, the traditional industry, and all the company of the heaven we might wish publishing were today agree: we are desperate for actual, hard sales data. And we are not getting it.

The major retailers, chief among them Amazon, withhold their sales info as proprietary. It is legal. It is even normal in the corporate world. It is also anything but helpful to business struggling to evaluate its own size and activity.

So it is that one of Amazon's favorite sons, Howey, many times a Million Kindle Club selling star, unleashes his spiders on the retailer's sales pages on a quarterly basis, slowly creating a picture for us in incremental data forays. Painting by number, if you will, of a very different kind. May 2014 report - Daily Author Earnings  

In that first report, Howey wrote:

If writing your first novel is the hardest part of becoming an author, figuring out what to do next runs a close second. Manuscripts in hand, some writers today are deciding to forgo six-figure advances in order to self-publish. Are they crazy? Or is signing away lifetime rights to a work in the digital age crazy? It’s hard to know.

And in the latest quarterly report, a write-up in May -- the second quarter of the major data-scans -- he writes the kind of interpretation of his and "Data Guy's" work that makes some industry folks livid, emphasis his:

What we can’t tell with these two data sets is if we are seeing real trends or just random fluctuations, but we can say that our findings from February have now been corroborated by this second data set. Self-published authors are clearly earning as much as traditionally published authors on the largest e-book sales platform in the world. A few months ago, this seemed impossible. It is already beginning to feel like old hat.

Remember that a fully quarter of those surveyed by University of London's team for ALCS had self-published. Eighty-six percent of them said they'd do it again. 

Granted, as was the DBW survey, the information is assailable. Clearly, it's not ideal to be dependent on one-day snapshots of sales pages, the results of which then have to be extrapolated over time. Also, estimates are estimates, however cannily they may be obtained.

But in a special "Tenured vs. Debut Author Report" spun off from the May data, Howey and "Data Guy" present several findings of key interest, especially to authors struggling to decide whether holding out for a chance in traditional publishing is worth delaying the far faster route of self-publishing. Howey formulates these claims:

  • Big-5 publishers are massively reliant on their most established authors, to the tune of 63% of their e-book revenue.
  • Roughly 46% of traditional publishing’s fiction dollars are coming from e-books.
  • Very few authors who debut with major publishers make enough money to earn a living—and modern advances don’t cover the difference.
  • In absolute numbers, more self-published authors are earning a living wage today than Big-5 authors.
  • When comparing debut authors who have equal time on the market, the difference between self-published and Big-5 authors is even greater.

Ebook earnings, Howey goes on to write, "represent roughly 64% of a traditionally published fiction author's income." Tenure vs Debut report - Big Five Published Kindle eBooks

One last sit-up-and-take-notice assertion Howey finds represented in his data, emphasis again his:

If the Big 5 hadn’t signed a new author since 2009, and simply released new works from their long-established authors, they would still be making 63% of the e-book revenue that they are making today. Ownership of backlist and long-tenured authors is quite clearly big publishing’s most powerful commodity. This goes a long way toward explaining ever more restrictive reversion and non-compete clauses in publishing contracts. It also lends credence to rumors that some top-name authors are already receiving ebook royalties higher than 25% of net. Publishers rely heavily on these established authors and may be willing to violate their own most favored nation clauses in an attempt to retain them.

And this, he argues is why "authors should focus less on statistics geared toward publisher earnings and trade bookstore sales, and consider their own incomes, instead."

Time for truth and truce?

The new information emerging from ALCS is based on data from 2,454 writers, 56% male and 44% female.

And in a gracious near understatement, the novelist Joanne Harris -- who joined us Friday in our #FutureChat live discussion -- is quoted by the society as saying, "It's good to see that finally we're becoming aware of just how little the average author earns."

Yes, it is.

When seen as one in a series of major industry jolts this year, the importance of such surveys as this new one commissioned by the UK's ALCS becomes all the clearer. So do the raw nerves and hair-trigger reactions we've seen in recent days around assertions and counter-assertions relative to the Amazon-Hachette negotiations. 

We may never have been this close to actually seeing just how badly a writing career can pay.

Even the recent angry in-fighting among authors, themselves, takes on new context when you consider how truly hard their path may be. However unhappy the news from the ALCS surely seems, if we are to claim an authentic commitment to the arts and letters of our culture, we cannot turn a blind eye to either the difficulty we have in understanding how our authors are paid -- or not paid -- or to the dreadful evidence coming in anew of almost preposterously bad remuneration.

The initial information from ALCS includes these lines:

In contrast to the sharp decline in earnings of professional authors, the wealth generated by the UK creative industries is on the increase. Statistics produced by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport in 2014 show that the creative industries are now worth £71.4 billion ($122.2 billion) per year to the UK economy (over £8 million / $13.7 million per hour) and the UK is reported as having "the largest creative sector of the European Union" and being "the most successful exporter of cultural goods and services in the world," according to UNESCO.

For all our focus on the digital disruption of publishing, it seems we may need to stop, get out of our battle gear, have a seat, and start talking about not the newest but the oldest issue any professional creative endeavour can encounter: the money.

ACLS asks the right question in titling its survey "What Are Words Worth Now?"

I'll put less elegantly: Having come this far, can we possibly have so little idea how to pay our most critical people?

Charts from the DBW survey: Digital Book World: What Authors Want presentation from Phil Sexton, Publisher, Writer's Digest

Charts from the Howey reports:

Charts from the Authors' Licensing & Collecting Society:

Main image - Shutterstock: Studio 37