9 July 2014

Stand by for a tune on the world’s smallest violin: There’s cheerful news for authors this week in a survey by ALCS aka The Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society – the body that disburses writers’ Public Lending Right money (the fraction of a pence we get every time someone borrows one of our books from a library). The survey reveals that the median annual income of UK professional authors in 2013 was £11,000. That’s less than the minimum wage and a drop of 29% since 2005. The number of printed books sold – as opposed to ebooks – also dropped by almost 10% in the course of the year and the number of independent booksellers in the UK fell below 1000 for the first time.

The survey also disclosed that just 11.5% of those who call themselves ‘professional authors’ earn the majority of their income from writing, compared to 40% eight years ago. As Will Self commented in The Guardian, ‘You’ve always been able to comfortably house the British literary writers who can earn all their living from books in a single room – that room used to be a reception one, now it’s a back bedroom.’

For those of us earning above the median income (whoopee!), things are even worse. From my experience, publisher’s advances for everything except celebrity books or TV-tie ins are about 50% less than they were five years ago and that doesn’t just apply to my own books (sob) but to all the other authors I’ve spoken to recently.

We’ve no more right to be immune to recessions than plumbers, shopworkers or any other trades of course, but in my more cheerful moments, it does make me wonder if the decline in publishing is becoming terminal. Whistling in the dark, we’ve all reminded each other for years that “There’ll always be a market for good stories, whatever the medium,” but what if all the short attention span public really wants in the future is more amusing kittens on Instagram or Snapchat, or a few more celebs who spell their names with “Ks”?