I think it’s fair to say that unless you’re an academic*, everyone who writes a book hopes that it’ll do well enough for them to start writing full-time. But the reality has always been that that unless your living expenses are shockingly low, or you had a wealthy distant uncle who left you an inheritance, the odds were against making a decent living as a writer.
Those odds are getting even worse now, according to a new survey by the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society of British writers. ALCS surveyed "almost 2,500 working writers," according to The Guardian, and it found that
the median income of the professional author in 2013 was just £11,000, a drop of 29% since 2005 [the last time such a survey was conducted] when the figure was £12,330 (£15,450 if adjusted for inflation), and well below the £16,850 figure the Joseph Rowntree Foundation says is needed to achieve a minimum standard of living. The typical median income of all writers was even less: £4,000 in 2013, compared to £5,012 in real terms in 2005, and £8,810 in 2000.
Not surprisingly, this translates into fewer people writing full-time: “in 2013, just 11.5% of professional authors – those who dedicate the majority of their time to writing – earned their incomes solely from writing. This compares with 2005, when 40% of professional authors said that they did so."
And this isn’t a problem that’s affecting bad writers:
James Smythe published his first novel in 2010 with an indie publisher, and he has published five with HarperCollins. He has been shortlisted for major science fiction awards, been glowingly reviewed, and won the Wales book of the year. He told the Guardian that his novels had never earned out. "Being a writer can't be treated like it's a job. It maybe was once, but no writer can treat it as such nowadays. There's no ground beneath your feet in terms of income, and you can't rely on money to come when you need it," said Smythe, who also teaches at Roehampton University.
I’m not convinced that you have to be a full-time writer to do good work: the number of people who both have careers and manage to write are too numerous to conclude that the muse only comes when you’re unemployed. We might all like to be Ernest Hemingway, writing in the mornings and fishing and drinking in the afternoons, but we’re more likely to be William Carlos Williams (physician) or Wallace Stevens (insurance). Or at best, writing full-time is something we’re able to do on one project, but not another.
But the decline is still troubling for two reasons. First, the absolute decline in the amount of money writers get for the same work makes carrying out any sort of creative life more challenging. The cushion of an advance or some royalties can make the difference between finishing the next book while your publisher and readership still remember who you are, and seeing your moment pass.
But second, it’s another sign that the publishing industry as a whole is in bad shape and getting worse. No industry in which incomes are on the decline can be considered healthy.
So don’t give up your day job. Learn how to write in the morning.
* Not to cast aspersions on my former life, or my first book for that matter. What I mean is that the academic case is different because the reward doesn’t come as a royalty check, but tenure or promotion. Such indirect payouts for book-writing are rare, though consultants who write about their work can also make money from higher fees and speaking gigs. The late, great Russ Ackoff once told me that he made more money off one day's consulting than from the combined royalties of his books (and he'd written about two dozen of them)-- but he could charge so much for consulting because he'd written those books. So if you're a partner in Accenture's outsourcing practice group (or whatever), your young adult trilogy isn't going to get you much additional social capital, or real capital.