The Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society has issued its annual survey on author incomes, and as reported by The Society of Authors, reveals that median earnings for UK authors have declined by 60% since 2006. “In 2006, median author earnings were £12,330. In 2022, the median has fallen to £7,000, a drop of 33.2% based on reported figures, or 60.2% when adjusted for inflation.” I assume, without knowing anything about the numbers, that a similar situation prevails in America.

Numbers like this are hard to interpret*. Many, presumably the vast majority of authors are making virtually nothing from their writing, and are probably perfectly content for this to be the case. They probably never expected to make any money from their books, and are unsurprised when this turns out to be true. Others, however, look on their writing careers as a sort of job choice, so the fact that their income goes down is of existential importance. In 2006 40% of authors reported earning all their income from their writing. In 2022 the percentage had dropped to 19%.

Now there are of course different types of contract that an author and publisher can negotiate, but the most common form is a royalty agreement whereby the author gets paid a percentage of the sale of every copy of their book. Advances against royalties do no more than change the timing of such payments (and guarantee the author against the risk of failure to reach a certain sales quantity), but these are becoming rarer, and in any case don’t affect total earnings. To the extent that an advance will take income you might have made in year two and moves it to year one, the reduction in advances will negatively impact the earnings of successful authors. They are however irrelevant to the mass of authors at the bottom of the sales pyramid. Royalty income, as a percentage of the price of each copy, is clearly dependent on sales. A 10% royalty on a retail price of £20 gets you £2; sell a million copies and you’ve got £2,000,000. Sell 500 and you’ve got £1,000.

ALCS doesn’t reveal any income details, but they are not, as far as I can see, complaining about reductions in royalty percentages. In other words, income reductions are due to sales reductions. It may look bad that while publishers are experiencing a banner year, authors’ income continues to plunge. But what this has to mean — and by “has to mean” I am effectively saying “is mathematically certain” — is that book sales are now being made over a larger number of titles than previously, so that each author makes less off their writing, while the overall pool of authors makes more. This is entirely consistent with reports of the unexpected popularity of back-list during the pandemic. So a bigger royalty pot is being shared by more writers. However if you’ve had a pay cut it’s no comfort to know that wages for the whole company have increased!

The Society of Authors warns that these “findings raise serious questions about the future of writing as a profession”. But surely there has never been a time when the profession was able to support more than a few members in any condition better than penury. Grub Street has always been tough work environment.

Any thought that such a crisis in author earnings might have a negative impact on the course of literary history should of course be resisted. But one cannot deny that someone like D. H. Lawrence was able to make enough to live on by his writing, and it is no doubt harder to do so today. But that, I do believe, is mainly due to the increase in the number of active authors diluting the pot. To some extent society has recognized the problem and is dealing with it through grants and subsidies.

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* Recognize that such a drop in the median income could be caused solely by a large reduction in the earnings of a single top author. — I’m not suggesting it is, but mathematics is mathematics, and the mean is the mean, not the average.