Why Most Authors Can Never Earn a Living -- Andrew Crofts


There was another burst of indignant publicity this month about how little authors are paid. The figure of £7,000 a year has been put forward as our median annual earnings, following a survey by ALCS, a brilliant organisation that collects money on behalf of writers.

 I fear that the figure, however, while useful for giving the story a media-friendly hook, doesn’t really mean much. In the age of self-publishing, I would posit that a large percentage of the books earn their authors nothing. Just like the vast majority of paintings and the vast majority of music.

 That is not a reflection on self-publishing, which I genuinely believe to be a giant leap forward for civilisation, because I would suggest that a similarly large percentage of traditionally published books have also earned their authors virtually nothing, despite having taken many hours, months or even years to write. I have certainly had first-hand experience of writing books that earn nothing, as well as others that have earned a great deal and allowed me to continue in the business. I have never been able to predict in advance which will win and which will lose, and nor can the publishers.

 But losers there are always going to be in this race for sales. There are simply not enough customers to buy all the books that are written and not enough hours for enough people to read them. There are too many books and there are too many competing forms of education and entertainment for it to be possible.

So, what is a person to do if they want to write full-time for a living?

 I would suggest that we look at what happens with other arts and crafts, whether it is making paintings, music, clothes, jewellery or furniture. There are millions of people doing all these things for pleasure, never expecting to make a penny. Those who do want to make a living usually have to accept that they will have to compromise their standards and surrender their peace of mind by dealing with people in the world of business, who might be able to help them but will definitely want to make money from them. The jewellery maker, for instance, will need the help of outlets that range from Aspreys, (the equivalent of selling your book to a highly regarded literary publisher), to the high street chains, (mass market, commercial publishers). They will need someone to help them afford the valuable stones and to reach the potential customers. They may even need to become wage slaves in the process, (the equivalent in the writing world to being journalists, perhaps). All these people will want to influence the creative process, and all of them will want to keep as large a share of the resulting earnings as possible.

 If the very idea of compromising is anathema to the jewellery maker, then they will continue to make pieces that please them, with whatever materials they can afford, and will accept that they may never make any money. Sometimes, of course, by remaining true to their muse, their creations may find their own market, and rise of their own volition, propelled by positive word of mouth. In most cases, of course they won’t because the world is full of jewellery, (as a stroll through any craft fair or antiques market will demonstrate), and there are only limited amounts that people can wear.

So it is with books. Anyone who wants a book to read will not have to look far in order to find one, and in most cases they won’t have to pay the author because it will be waiting for them on the shelf of a friend, in a library, or available for pennies in a charity shop. How can it be possible for every book to sell enough copies to recoup the cost of manufacture and pay the author a decent hourly rate for their labours?

As a result, writers are all at the mercy of the machinations of publishers’ marketing departments and the fickle whims of the mass media, which is why books by celebrities push their way to the top of the charts and why most professional writers can only dream of bestsellerdom most of the time.  

Some people worry that the lack of financial return will mean that writing remains an elite pastime, only available to those with other sources of income. But exactly the same situation applies to musicians, and yet music is often cited as a potential pathway out of poverty. Others worry that the unlikeliness of making any money will put people off writing books. I’m not so sure. I have a feeling that knowing the odds are stacked against them will not deter people from writing any more than it deters us from buying lottery tickets.  Dreams are resilient creatures.


Peter Leyland said…
'Dreams are resilient creatures'. Yes they are Andrew, I thoroughly agree. I am just reading a book by Wallace Stegner, an American author, about an academic trying to make a living as a writer. So far so good.

Writers need readers, which as a teacher it is my life's work trying to create. I also think we need to ensure that people are aware of the joys of creativity as you mention for example in the jewellery trade.

You have raised such a big question here that my reply can hardly do it justice. Most authors I know combine writing with other careers and the growth of book fairs and festivals like Hay has been significant in the last 30 odd year - see some of our AE writers' blogs for evidence of this. In Stegner's novel the writer gets a job in publishing in Cambridge, Mass., but his wife is suffering from a serious illness. I like my bibliotherapy flavoured with realism.

Thanks for a great post. Onward and upward with those dreams.
Umberto Tosi said…
So true I wrote for money in my younger days as a freelancer, and was lucky enough to make a living at it. I even scored big a few time with major publishers. Mostly though, I got by, with help from a few day jobs whenever the market slumped. I had little choice, given kids to support.I was even a department store Santa. Now I write fiction for myself, and if some of it sells, fine. If not, fine too. I'd love to be one of those best-selling self-publishing writers I see dispensing wisdom on YouTube, but I prefer to spend my time weaving tales rather than what it takes to self-promote. It's too iffy. I put my works out there and move on to the next opus, I appreciate those who buy my works, but I'm not really trying to please anyone but myself, these days. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.
I'm with you on spending the time writing and not on promotion, Umberto - there is no point as far as I'm concerned, in giving up the daily grind of paid work just to impose another kind of grind on yourself. Unless you actually enjoy promotional activities, that is.
All my novels have earned something, though not thousands, and some sink without trace after the first few months. It's harder to get into the top 100 of your genre now than it was, but I'm glad to say my latest novel has managed to be categorised as a cosy dog mystery (not my doing but Amazon's!)so the genre is probably much smaller in terms of other books than the major ones are.

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