Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Welcome to reality, folks

While this Guardian article on writers struggling in a constricting publishing industry is well-intentioned, they probably could have picked better examples than Rupert Thomson and Joanna Kavenna. 

Thomson’s hardship is that he has to stop renting an office on the South Bank and must now build a garret in his London home to work. Kavenna once received a ‘low six-figure advance’ on two books, but now laments that between 2007 and 2010 ‘everything changed’.

Now, I don’t want to say these writers are not in a pickle in the changing publishing environment. An advance of 100k is not as much as it sounds given that this is paid out in chunks and is likely to represent the author’s only income for a few years. However, these two are not representative of the vast majority of writers. Both of them have been able to write fiction full-time, a luxury most authors do not have and have not had for a very long time.

The industry only really supports the top few percent, those for whom six- and seven-figure advances are commonplace. Let me quote from Prospects, the UK’s official graduate careers website:

“The annual average income for professional writers aged 25-34 from writing alone is only £5,000. A typical writer earns less than 33% of the national income. Approximately 60% of all writers have a second job, often in other professions such as teaching or lecturing. Many run writing workshops (including online), and professional critiquing services, or have other part-time jobs. Only 20% of writers earn their income exclusively from writing. Writers operate in a 'winner takes all' market (similar to actors) - the top 10% of writers in the UK earn 50% of the total income.”

Yes, advances are going down and the publishing industry’s knickers are thoroughly twisted as they figure out how to deal with declining sales and the march of the e-book (something, incidentally, the industry is doing a very bad job of so far as the big houses stick to their archaic publishing models). However, the situation for the average writer has not changed significantly.

Take my case. My first novel was published almost two years ago. For that work, I received a very low five-figure advance. This has been my only income to date (although I did just sell another novel to my US publisher). I know plenty of other authors who are bobbing along in the same boat, with neither oar, nor sail nor wind to push them towards the distant bank upon which money grows on trees.

The simple fact is that your typical author relies on other sources of income. Despite winning an award and having plenty of great reviews and attention for my first novel, particularly in the US, I am not going to make a living from writing fiction any time soon, if ever. So, I make my living from writing in other ways: journalism and communications the chief culprits. I write my novels in my spare time, if I have the energy and head space after a busy day at work.

This clearly isn’t ideal, as it hampers both the quality and quantity of my output, but the only way I can go full-time is to live under a bridge and wrestle with three-fingered Jack at the bins round the back of Asda for a can out out-of-date dog food with which to feed my kids. And let me tell you, Jack more than makes up for his finger deficiency with his willingness to bite in the clinches, so I'd rather not have to face up to him again.

Some are questioning whether the current model should change. One commenter on the Guardian article, stroppywriter, said the following: “There is disenchantment amongst writers because the editors, layout artists, distributors etc. still make a living out of the books, but the authors don't.”

Is it fair that pretty much everybody else associated with the industry (and I would add agents to the list) makes a living, but the people they depend on to create the content that sustains them do not? Clearly the answer is ‘no’.

The alternative, however, would be for a publishing house to employ a stable of writers on a steady wage. How many writers would be prepared to do that? And what would it mean for creativity of authors who were then expected to churn out a book a year to feed the machine (which admittedly, already happens)?

I don’t see this shift happening. So, for the moment, if you want to be a traditionally published writer (or even your typical self-published writer—again, the top tier dominate the income in self-publishing) it is a model you are going to have to accept—unless, of course, you have a partner happy to support you in your creative poverty or are already fabulously wealthy.

So, I’m sorry you have to write in a garret now, Rupert. But you are still insulated from the reality the rest of us face.


Katy Snowball said...

I recently finished reading this long essay regarding the business of literature on Kindle, if you have a couple of hours free you may find it interesting. It was free when I picked it up.


I agree with this reviewer that the essay is 'a breath of revolutionary air.'


Anonymous said...

This is really interesting. I've just gone back to this guardian article and read through it.
A few thoughts -
50,000 for a non fiction book was not much though even in 2002. Amis got quarter of a million didn't he the same year or something? If her book took more than 2 years to write which most non-fiction would then after agent and tax she's left with, what 15,000 or 10,000 a year or something? Yes, it's not to be sniffed at but it's not a living wage.

Anyway aren't the authors saying that it's all gone down from there? in that case clearly they are doing other jobs aren't they? Kavenna mentions that journalism doesn't get paid either anymore. Less than 10,000 a year doesn't sound feasible without another job.

I think it's absolutely dead right what you say about everyone else in the loop still getting paid and writers getting nothing. And thiose other people all have pensions too!
Good luck with your writing.