Authors’ incomes collapse to record new lows

A survey published this week reveals that the earnings of British authors have fallen to just £11,000 per year. Should we be alarmed that so few writers can make a living from their work?

When J. K. Rowling was a single mother struggling on welfare, little could she have known that her stories about wizards, penned in an Edinburgh cafe, would one day make her millions. Today, Rowling is the richest author in history, estimated to have earned a fortune of £570 million. It has been hailed as the ultimate ‘rags to riches’ success story.

But not all authors have the same fortune. A survey by the Authors’ Licensing and Collection Society published this week has revealed that the median income for authors in 2013 was just £11,000, a drop of 29% since 2005. Only 11.5% of authors now earn their living solely from writing, down from 40% in 2005.

The number of authors able to make a living from their writing has plummeted dramatically. The average author earns well below the minimum acceptable living standard in the UK, as set out by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Writers have seized upon this news as a chance to dispel the myth that they are all paid well. Joanne Harris, who wrote the novel ‘Chocolat’, remarked this week that not all authors are ‘showered with money’. The poet Wendy Cope has also expressed anger that her poems are widely available on the internet for free, and believes that more should be done to ensure writers are paid fairly for their work.

The fate of the novel has long been a cause of concern. The author Will Self lamented in the Guardian earlier this year that books would eventually be ‘confined to a defined social and demographic group ... a subject for historical scholarship rather than public discourse.’

Some blame internet sites where anyone can put up free content and use other writers’ work without payment. They say the internet has left people with the impression that books are items of little economic value.

And publishers, under mounting pressure from the huge online book retailer Amazon to reduce their prices, are no longer able to offer the advances that once kept authors afloat. Without them, many writers will not be able to undertake more lengthy, time-consuming projects.

In a bind

If authors wish to earn pots of money, some argue, then they should get a different job. After all, no one forces them to write, and they should not blame the internet which has given thousands of people access to books at the click of a mouse for the price of a sandwich.

But others believe that we need to protect and nurture our literary culture. Many people are unaware that sharing free literature or paying so little for books is pushing authors to the brink, leaving them barely able to support themselves. We must ensure the internet has a well-regulated copyright system in place, so that authors get a fair deal.

You Decide

  1. Should authors and poets be paid more for their work?
  2. Is the internet killing off culture?

Activities

  1. Design a new cover for your favourite book. On the back, write what you like about the story.
  2. Write a short 250-word news story as if you were reporting on the events portrayed in a book that you have read recently.

Some People Say...

“Nothing a computer can do can compare to a book. Ray Bradbury”

What do you think?

Q & A

How does this affect people who read books?
Many assume that writers have it easy, and that after one bestseller they become millionaires overnight. This report shows that the reality is very different. If we care about books and authors, maybe we should be prepared to pay more to read their work.
How do authors make money?
In return for the right to publish a book, a publisher will pay the author a percentage of the price of each copy sold – this is known as a royalty. Very often the publisher will pay the author a sum of money before publication, known as an advance. When the amount of royalties earned exceeds the advance, the publisher will then pay the additional royalties to the author. This is called ‘earning out the advance’. In practice, most books never do earn out their advance.

Word Watch

J. K. Rowling
Rowling is the 13th wealthiest woman in the UK and has more money than the queen.
Median
The median is the middle number in a list of sorted numbers. The average is the sum of all the numbers in a set divided by how many numbers are in the set.
Joseph Rowntree Foundation
A British social policy research and development charity that funds a UK-wide research and development programme. It seeks to understand the root causes of social problems. It was founded in 1904 by Joseph Rowntree.
Chocolat
The novel was made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp. Harris works from a shed in her garden and plays bass in the band she first joined when she was 16.

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