Some alarming numbers about the falling number of full-time career writers in the UK, and the falling incomes of writers of all kinds, have emerged courtesy of the Authors’ Licensing & Collecting Society (ALCS), Britain’s central clearing house for authors’ rights and payments. Their study “What Are Words Worth Now?,” a survey of almost 2500 working writers commissioned from Queen Mary, University of London, found that “in 2013, just 11.5 percent of professional authors (defined as those who dedicate the majority of their time to writing) earned their incomes solely from writing. In 2005, 40 percent of professional authors said that they did so.” Furthermore:
The typical (median) income of the professional author has also fallen dramatically, both in real and actual terms. In 2013, the median income of the professional author was just £11,000 [$18,834], a drop of 29 percent since 2005 when the figure was £12,330 [$21,111] (£15,450 [$26,450] in real terms). According to Joseph Rowntree Foundation figures, single people in the UK need to earn at least £16,850 [$28,847] before tax to achieve a Minimum Income Standard (MIS).
The ALCS immediately draws the obvious contrast with the fortunes of the UK creative industries, currently enjoying annual revenues of £70 billion ($120 billion) a year, at a growth rate five times that of the wider economy over the past three years. Yes, while writer incomes fell by one third, creative industries grew five times faster than the broader economy. Could it be that the two are connected?
The report continues:
If unchecked, this rapid decline in the number of full-time writers could have serious implications for the breadth and quality of content that drives the economic success of our creative industries in the UK. Whilst the amount of money authors are earning from digital publishing has increased, overall, the survey found that authors’ incomes are falling in real terms.
Are Amazon, ebooks, piracy, and pressure from media groups to produce unpaid content to blame? I’m sure some will make that case, but I doubt it, in the narrow sense at least. For one thing, as the ALCS report states:
Self-publishing is becoming an increasingly successful venture for writers. Just over 25% of writers have self-published a work, with a typical return on their investment of 40%. Unsurprisingly, 86% of those who had self-published said they would do so again.
For another, as the data shows, publishing companies are now doing just fine thank you post the digital disruption era, with better sales and higher profits than ever. Yet there’s one insidious way in which technology has helped drive down writers’ incomes, though with a lot of help from old media groups. Newspapers and periodicals have been in trouble, meaning less income for writers from casual journalism. And the paper tiger of free online content has likely been used to scare authors into submission and accept worse payment terms or no payment at all for work they used to be paid for. “Digital publishing is now the third-largest sector in terms of financial importance to writers,” notes the ALCS report, but I sincerely hope that that proportion of their income fully reflects the value of the work they do.
Much as I hate to give any credence to the antiquated and regressive opinions of Robert McCrum, I can see why he regrets the world whose passing he bemoans. But I know who I’m inclined to blame for it. All you have to do is follow the numbers.