Thursday, 10 July 2014

The Decline in Authors' Income

This week we read that the average income for authors has declined. A typical author now earns around £11,000, not a living wage. At different times blame for authors' declining remuneration has been thrown at the reading public, television, teachers, the end of the net book agreement, Waterstones undermining independent bookshops, amazon ousting physical bookstores, charity shops - but perhaps the problem now lies not with readers but with writers themselves. 
The number of readers may be fairly steady (in our obsession with writers has anyone researched this?) What is clear is that the number of writers has grown hugely. These days it seems that everyone wants to be published - traditionally published, self-published, hybrid, any which way published. Agents are inundated with manuscripts flooding in from hordes of talented hopefuls. Creative writing courses are proliferating. 
There must be a limit to the number of authors the reading public can support, and perhaps we have reached it.
Then there is the vexed question of quality. Of course not every traditionally published book is any good, and there are many brilliant writers who self-publish because they are unable to find a publishing house prepared to invest in them. Some self-published writers are very successful. I have no problem with them per se. But the traditional model did impose a strict limit on the number of books it was feasible to publish each year. With self publication, there is no restraint. Anyone can upload a manuscript and be a 'published author'. If enough people are 'published', the title becomes meaningless. 
Most of us are able to speak. We don't all believe we should therefore be recognised as orators. In the same way, literacy doesn't automatically guarantee the ability to write a book. A vast number of people have confided to me their ambition to become authors. They are just waiting to think of an idea so they can write their book. This attitude concerns me deeply. F Scott FitzGerald said, 'You don't write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say.' It's a crucial distinction. Authors are not merely people who can write. The talent to write well is a prerequisite of being an author. But to define authors as people who write is a misrepresentation. 
Authors are story tellers. That is what authors do. Writing is the medium. In an illiterate society, authors are the people spinning tales out loud, because they have stories to tell. Authors in ancient civilisations were the creators of myths, weavers of legends that were told in verse, which allows an oral tradition to be passed on more easily from generation to generation. 
This year I'm very very grateful not to fall into the category of a "typical author", but next year, who knows? As an author currently earning a comfortable living from writing fiction, I can only hope that more people take time off from writing to read more... and hopefully to keep buying my books!

28 comments:

Derek Thompson said...

I've also met people who want to be an author without necessarily wanting (or needing) to become a writer. I think, for many people, it isn;t even about the money. Not at first, anyway! But the thrill of seeing your words on the page, available to all, is a seductive one.

Authors earnings are a whole other ball of beeswax. It's impossible to compare like for like. As you say, you're doing okay at the moment, but I'm sure that wasn't always the case and, alongside your new writing, you have to spend time on promotions, etc. Speaking as a freelancer and fledgling novelist, people don;t see all the unpaid hours that go into any success!

Leigh Russell said...

It's only about money, Derek, in terms of earning the freedom to write full time. But if it's about the "thrill" of seeing your name in print then something's seriously amiss! We write because we have stories to tell. It's "an inexplicable compulsion". And no, I've only been earning enough to live on comfortably for a couple if years - and my first book was published in 2009. It's been a long haul! Good luck with your journey!

Charles Gramlich said...

I think that's a big issue. There are so many writers, so many books.

Leigh Russell said...

A big issue indeed, Charles. And growing daily!

Leigh Russell said...

I can't decide whether that's a good thing or not...

Gordon Brice said...

You are certainly not a "typical author", Leigh and are unlikely to ever be called that. Yes, there are too many authors for readers to follow and it is likely that most readers will support authors who are not only good storytellers, but who are communicative with their fans. The personal touch always goes a very long way. You tick ALL the boxes and will remain successful.

Leigh Russell said...

Very kind of you to say so, Gordon! I do my best.

Val Ewing said...

Oh gosh, I'd love to be a paid author too and dreamt about it as my father did.
But truthfully it takes hard work and so much dedication and effort to write a book worth reading.

I enjoy being able to self publish kid stories for my grand-kids, but I have no aspirations to become a world renowned author.

Leigh Russell said...

Thanks for commenting, Val. An interesting perspective. I wonder what a "typical" author is these days?

Bernard Lee DeLeo said...

Competition and passion produce the best product, not limiting the number of participants to raise wages. The old liberal gateway of agents and publishers blocking the way to the marketplace is now ancient history. Writers can now hire reasonably priced editors, illustrators, and formatters if they don’t wish to do it themselves. If they take into consideration they’ll be paying 60% of their earnings if they ever do barge through the rusty hinged traditional gateway to the marketplace, they get no marketing, no promotions, and no sales reports. They get a list indicating what they should do to promote their book… and very little else. It’s a new day in the writing and publishing neighborhood, and there’s no going back. :)

Leigh Russell said...

been able to afford) all the support - editor, proofreaders, publicist, production team, designers, publicist, translators... but I suppose that presupposes authors still want print books, audio books, foreign sales, distributors, and everything else the traditional model offers. The advent of ebooks really does change everything. If self- published authors ever start hitting the big time (think JK Rowling, Dan Brown, James Patterson, EL James) and don't go to publishing houses, then the publishers won't survive. But who wants to do all that for themselves? Publishers do a lot of hard graft. Don't be fooled into thinking they don't. See my next post, Bernard, for my views on this kind of blanket publisher-bashing. "A list indicating what they should do... and very little else" is nonsense, in my experience. I'm sure there are lazy and ineffective publishers, but mine is pretty good. And hey, none of us is perfect. I think some authors possibly have unrealistic expectations.

Leigh Russell said...

Sorry, Bernard - I don't seem to be able to edit my comment - I somehow left the first line out.

Without my publisher how would I have been able to find (let alone afford) etc etc

***Maybe that's why, unlike you, I need a publisher!***

Bernard Lee DeLeo said...

Most of us out here in author land have day jobs, Leigh. The editing, formatting, and cover creation 'can' be done by outside agencies if needed. I love every aspect of producing a novel, so when you ask who would want to do all that themselves - well... that would be me. As to 'nonsense', I've contracted two novels to publishers, and the 'list' is exactly what I received for the 60% off the top. I'm happy for you with your publishing experiences, and I didn't bash anyone. I stated the reasons mainstream publishing will vanish or change to be nearly unrecognizable soon. Yes, if mainstream publishing wishes to make a 'star', they certainly have the resources to do it, but they seldom do.

Leigh Russell said...

Bernard, I suppose the difference between hiring in a whole team yourself (apart from the expense - and I do prefer to be paid for my writing, rather than to pay others) is that my publisher really cares about the end product. It's his reputation on the line along with mine, after all. So we work as a team. I write the books. My publisher looks after everything else. It works for me, but I understand there are many authors who are happy to deal with the whole process, and I take my hat off to them. My point is that with an unrestricted number of self-published authors around, traditional publishers have come in for a lot of criticism, and in my opinion it's not always justified. Mainstream publishers are all keen to produce 'stars' but it's not that easy, with so many books coming onto the market every day, it's getting harder for everyone, publishers and self-published alike. If traditional publishers vanish, what hope is there that self-published authors will be read, or that books will survive at all? The novel has only been around for a couple of hundred years. It may not survive for much longer.

Bernard Lee DeLeo said...

The criticisms are justified, and they are a two way street. Mainstream publishers have been bashing self-publishing since its inception. As I've stated, your post was about the decline of wages because of an increase in the number of authors. I answered as best I could as to why. The market is no longer controlled by mainstream publishers. That is simply a fact that will not be changing. The answer is not to restrict author numbers. The marketplace will filter writers who neglect their quality control. Amazon gives a very generous free 'look inside' feature for readers.

I'm happy to compete with anyone in the market place. If I can't produce a product readers enjoy, they won't buy it. I am extremely pleased I am no longer kept away from the market by mainstream publishing sentinels.

Leigh Russell said...

Well, I'm afraid that's very true, Bernard. Mainstream publishers have been - and still are? - contemptuous of self-published authors, as they fight to protect what they see as 'their' territory. But of course the internet has opened everything up. And yes, let's hope the marketplace does filter out writers who churn out rubbish. Sadly it isn't always the case that talent is recognised or rewarded, or even appreciated. But you're right that mainstream publishing sentinels are missing a trick if they try to keep talent from the marketplace. I'm only afraid this is going to backfire on all of us, published and self-published alike. What we need to do is encourage young people to read!

Bernard Lee DeLeo said...

Actually, I have an anecdotal story of good news in the young reader category. My grandson, who is twelve, and all of his friends, read everything they can get their hands on in the vein of 'Harry Potter', zombies, vampires, etc. They will move on to all genres as they age, but they won't be reading them in hard copy form. They are digital age, and no putting that genie back in the bottle.

Leigh Russell said...

I agree with you there, Bernard, and that aspect of technology is fantastic. It makes books so accessible. And as long as kids are reading, that's all that matters. I know lots of kids who read on kindles and tablets - and as you know, there are authors earning a tidy living from sales of ebooks. My own books sell far better electronically than in print. Ebooks are the future, no doubt about it. Of course the danger there is that amazon have a massive share of the market, and they are now publishing their own books... which will impact on publishers and self-publishing alike. It's all changing.

Bernard Lee DeLeo said...

I agree with you there. Amazon has fourteen imprints under its banner I'm aware of. They are signing up authors with a definite goal in mind. What they can't do is make them write. One of the lessons learned from past experience is writers write or they disappear, especially on the Amazon market. The day of the reclusive writer has ended. We produce on a steady basis or we risk vanishing on the market. That 'Brave New World' cliche is certainly present in today's publishing business.

Leigh Russell said...

I'm not sure "we produce on a steady basis or we risk vanishing" is always true, Bernard. Harper Lee never wrote a second novel because, as she herself said, how do you follow that? Some authors' output suffers because they are under pressure to keep producing books, and then there are authors who spend years writing one brilliant novel. I don't think there are any rules in this game, Bernard, other than to write and hope for the best. That's all any of us can do.

Bernard Lee DeLeo said...

I am afraid you are referring to an age of writers long past, Leigh. In this day and age, a writer produces or drops off the grid. I don't make the rules. It is simply the way things work in today's writing marketplace. You can quote every writer back to Homer, but it won't change the way things work in writer's world today. :)

Leigh Russell said...

That is certainly true of blogs, Bernard, but not at all the case for authors. Steinbeck is no longer "producing", and nor is Conan Doyle or Christie... do I need to go on?

Bernard Lee DeLeo said...

As I pointed out: ancient history. You keep naming authors no longer alive for some reason. That was then. There were one hit wonders back in the day, but no longer. If an author in today's world wishes to make a living doing it, he or she must produce on a steady basis, or fade away in name recognition and sales.

Leigh Russell said...

Well, I'm not sure Conan Doyle or Steinbeck could be called "one hit wonders" - and as for Agatha Christie...! But of course you are right, Bernard, things are changing. One of the shifts is clearly that people no longer read as much as they did in the days before television and the internet with its multifarious sources of entertainment. But I don't agree that authors necessarily "fade away" if they don't write incessantly. There are many bestselling authors who sadly found recognition only after their death, like Stieg Larsson to name just one.

Bernard Lee DeLeo said...

Again, Leigh, I am writing about live authors only... in today's world.

Also, I believe we are reading as much or more than we ever have. Total Amazon sales in fiction and non-fiction have gone through the roof. How could that be if people weren't reading?

Anonymous said...

Hm. I'm not so sure it's a question of "Finite number of authors the reading world can support."

Isn't it likely that, since it seems like everyone who wants to be a writer is publishing, that includes a lot of not all that readable writers?

If 50% of writers simply aren't that good and would have been making below average, then of course income will drop when you go from having 100 writers to 200.

Sheryl Nantus said...

If I might ask - Bernard, who were these publishers you contracted with and gave you no support?

I see on your profile you used AuthorHouse, a notorious vanity press for some of your works - I'm not surprised you had such a rough time.

Thank you.

Leigh Russell said...

Well. Yes, anonymous. You are probably right... harsh but true...