“Shocking but not surprising” – author incomes in the UK 2022

To Parliament for the launch of an ALCS report on writer incomes.  And I used to nip in for work reasons and it is worth remembering what a strange building Parliament is.  Kind of Hogwarts. 

TLDR It is very tough living on writer incomes and much worse than even ten years ago.

ALCS is a body which collects secondary use income for authors, and they also commission the Uni of Glasgow to run an independent study of author incomes. 

The headlines are that the typical (median) author who works on it more than half their working hours has seen their income drop 60% in real terms since 2009.  That author currently gets £7000 a year from writing, which was said to be ‘shocking but not surprising’. Writing is paid a lot less than the minimum wage (and the amount of time required unpaid to promote the book is extraordinary.)

The number of writers for whom it is their full-time job has dropped from 40% in 2009 to 19% this year.

The creative industries are around £100bn.  Less and less of that is going to the author, under increasingly tough contract terms and a worrying tendency to offer contracts which have no upside if the work does very well.

MP Giles Watling spoke passionately about the importance of the creative arts. An actor and producer in a former life, he said that young actors are notoriously poor, but their careers tend to build.  He said that what the report showed him was that authors can’t assume the same will happen for them.

Amy Thomas who led on the research said that reward was very unequally distributed, with one percent of authors getting a quarter of total earnings, and the top 10 percent getting just under half the total earnings. Women, the very young and very old, and ethnic minorities were significantly less well paid.  She said this was ‘a profession approaching a tipping point’.

A freelance journalist and author listed all the different things she did to make a living. Freelance rates have barely increased in ten years and she can’t tell young writers to ‘demand what they are worth’ because they won’t get the job.

During lockdown, we read, we watched, we listened. Were the writers seeing the benefits of this? Does it matter that authors are largely juggling the writing around other jobs or caring responsibilities – that the system favours those with private incomes and /or partners in secure middle class jobs? It is not a system set up to reward working class voices, for example.

I don’t write just for the money.  I write because I enjoy the creation. It feels like my purpose in life. I enjoy people reading my work. But to be really good, and to stand any chance of having time to do it, I have to work hard and work within this difficult market.

The industry in the broadest sense relies on people of passion and creativity who do it because they love it, and who are over-optimistic about the returns (or cushioned against them).

There’s no obvious policy fix. Researchers investigate the world, other people must find solutions, or just shrug.

A Universal Basic Income would be great, exploitation would continue but we could still live.  Ireland gives writers a significant tax break.  France prevents book discounting in theory protecting small bookshops and authors incomes, although the impact of that might be less positive than you think.  A campaign of public shaming around some of the worst practices might work – it has begun to stop literary festivals expecting authors to appear for free.

Making payment at the time the writers’ job is done would also be a start. After all, when you get a dress or jacket drycleaned, you don’t ask the drycleaner to wait for payment until a month after you wore it.

Author: Stephen Cox

London PR consultant and interim, with 30 years experience across not for profit sector. Former Great Ormond Street Hospital/Chelsea and Westminster. Critically acclaimed novels Our Child of the Stars (2019), praised by Guardian, FT, Daily Mail and Grazia, and Our Child of Two Worlds (2022)

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