The typical income for a professional author in 2013 was just £11,000, more than £5,000 below the income level considered to be a socially acceptable standard of living, according to research commissioned by The Authors’ Licensing & Collection Society (ALCS).
The ALCS said the research, commissioned from Queen Mary, University of London, showed these are “concerning times for writers”. Society of Authors chief executive Nicola Solomon also said she was "very concerned" at the findings, saying that the author's share of the profits of the publishing and book retailing business was falling and pointing out: "Authors are the one person who are 100% necessary [to the process]."
Titled "What are words worth now?", the research report was based on findings from a total of 2,454 writers, of which 56% were men and 44% women. It showed that in 2013 11.5% of professional authors, defined as those who dedicate the majority of their time to writing, earned their income solely from writing.
This is a drop from the 40% who earned their living from writing in 2005, when the typical income for a professional author was £12,330.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a development and social research charity, says that single people need to earn at least £16,850 before tax to achieve a Minimum Income Standard (MIS), the amount considered to be an “adequate” income.
The ALCS said because earnings from writing fall “way below that standard, it is not surprising that the number of full-time writers is…declining sharply”.
The typical income for all writers, including professional authors and those who class themselves as occasional and part-time writers, was £4,000 in 2013, the same as in 2005, but a drop from the £6,333 typical income in 2000.
Owen Atkinson, chief executive of the ALCS, said: “These are concerning times for writers. This rapid decline in both author incomes and in the numbers of those writing full time could have serious implications for the economic success of the creative industries in the UK.
"If writers are to continue making their irreplaceable contribution to the UK economy, they need to be paid fairly for their work. This means ensuring clear, fair contracts with equitable terms and a copyright regime that supports creators and their ability to earn a living from their creations.”
Novelist Joanne Harris commented: “It’s good to see that finally we are becoming aware of just how little the average author earns. Not everyone can be a high earning, high profile writer but all creators should have the right to be paid for what they do.” Poet Wendy Cope said: “Most people know that a few writers make a lot of money. This survey tells us about the vast majority of writers, who don’t. It’s important that the public should understand this – and why it is so important for authors to be paid fairly for their work.”
The survey also looked at contracts and self-publishing.
Of the respondents, more than 69% said their contracts allowed them to retain copyright all or most of the time.
“Retaining copyright puts authors in a much stronger position in terms of negotiating where and how their works can be used,” the research said. “The best contracts clearly set out which rights authors are retaining or transferring.
“It is becoming increasingly important for writers to prove their ownership of rights in their works in order to secure key sources of income.”
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, £500 median. Nevertheless, of those who self-published, 86% said they would do so again.
The SoA's Solomon said: "Author earnings are going down and the number of people working full-time as writers is falling because they can't make a living from it. It's very concerning. Publishers' profits are going up - our concern is that authors are getting a smaller share than they used to. In retail, we can't forget that what is happening with retailers, and Amazon particularly - the drive to give a bigger share to Amazon will impact on authors because of [Amazon's high] discounts. Amazon says it is giving cheaper prices to its customers, but if you see it pushing the producers out of business, that is not a viable business model."
She added that the SoA was concerned about the terms and conditions being offered by publishers on continuing share, and that the 25% royalty rate commonly offered on e-books "doesn't adequately reward authors and is giving publishers a disproportionate share."
Full details from the ALCS author earnings research will not be released until the autumn.