Following its previous survey of the income and work prospects of UK professional authors, entitled “What Are Words Worth?”, the Authors’ Licensing & Collecting Society (ALCS), Britain’s central clearing house for authors’ rights and payments, has released a fresh study based on 2014 data for writers’ earnings and contractual terms, rather than 2013 data. The survey, “The Business of Being an Author: A Survey of Author’s Earnings and Contracts,” found, as the BBC highlighted, that UK author incomes are “at breaking point.”
The survey, conducted with Queen Mary College in the University of London, which as the ALCS correctly states, “is one of the UK’s leading research institutions with an equally enviable reputation for teaching excellence,” found that “in real terms authors earn 19 percent less today than they did in 2005,” with full-time professional writers 8 percent down over the same period. However, if you remove the small number of writers in the 2,454 surveyed who earn the vast majority of total authorial income, the situation is far worse – “a drop of 29% in real terms since 2005. This means that a professional author is earning less than the minimum wage from his or her writing.”
The income disparity between the bestselling authors and the rest, in fact, is huge. “The top 10 percent of professional authors (those earning £60,000 [$89,750] or more) earn 58 percent of all the money earned by professional authors; and the top 5 percent of professional authors (those earning £100,100 [$149,580] or more) earn 42.3 percent of that money. The bottom 50 percent (those earning £10,432 [$15,604] or less) earn only 7 percent of all the money earned by all writers cumulatively.” Additionally, “17 percent of all writers did not earn any money from writing during 2013. Further, of those writers, 98 percent had had a work published or exploited in each year from 2010 to 2013.”
The ALCS wasn’t slow to point out the glaring disparity between these figures and the performance of UK’s arm of Big Media. “The creative industries are thriving, generating £76 billion [$113.6 billion] per annum, yet professional writers have seen a near 30% reduction in earnings in recent years,” the society’s head of rights Richard Combes said to the BBC. The BBC’s own arts editor attributed this to the saturation of the market by more authors writing than ever before – an explanation I absolutely don’t accept. If so, you’d have to ask why the publishers are doing so rosily if they’re flooding the market with books that no one wants to buy – and the ALCS doesn’t refer to any mushrooming of author numbers.
Perhaps writers feel themselves disadvantaged when arguing terms: when it comes to their bargaining position, “writers have a picture of the industry far bleaker than is actually the case,” the ALCS found. But in any event, publishers can’t be ignorant of the progressively direr straits of most UK writers – they certainly have zero excuse to claim ignorance after the last 2013 report. So why aren’t they doing something to help out the people they rely on? In July 2014, the Society of Authors declared that “the terms many publishers are demanding are no longer fair or sustainable.” Since then, it seems that things have only got worse.