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Culture

How much do authors earn?

28 Oct 2023 6 minute read
Library books

An author

“You’ve done ever so well” a distant relative tells me, proudly. “Sooooo well. I follow you, I’ve seen. But maybe you should just – stop now.” Whoops. This follows a wry remark from a friend about how I would soon be upgrading to a mansion now I’m a successful writer, and various jibes from others about me no longer having time for them now that I’m famous. Owch.

Friends I am so sorry! I was just trying to help promote the events that kind people, at considerable effort and expense, organise in order to bring writers and readers together. But I only have one social – a Facebook page for people I actually know (or at least might bump into locally). My friends are broke too. Sharing was maybe not the greatest idea.

Illusion

The half-jokes made me slightly uneasy. Like when someone declares that farmers are ‘always moaning even though they are actually loaded’. That weary feeling. But I get it. I wince every time I press publish. I too, am sick of the sight of my own photographed face. And now I have accidentally contributed to an illusion that writers are comfortably off. Wealthy even, perhaps a tad famous – and happy with the latter. Gaaaaah.

The reality is more like this. Fame? No thank you. Fortune? Ha ha ha ha ha! Happy? Very much so, apart from the occasional shock . . . But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.

Have you ever been exasperated by bad writing? By shoddy research or impossible-to-follow instructions? Conversely, have you ever been enlightened, entertained or even moved by something you have read? If so then you might think that writing has value.

Yet few writers make significant income from books. Most authors I know supplement their book-writing with other jobs, often elsewhere in the literary world – in bookshops, libraries or universities. Many of them also have children. Ye gads. How do they do it? Really, I am in awe.

I cannot seem to multi-task when it comes to writing. It absorbs me. I over-research. Sentences wake me up in the night. So how do I supplement my income whilst writing books? (OK one book. It took a long time.) Um, I write other stuff.

For eleven years I’ve been contributing regularly to a magazine who pay well. Their fees range from £120 to £700 depending on the length of the article. There are far fewer of the latter, which take me at least three weeks to complete – an excellent rate for such enjoyable work. Most word work is less lucrative. I happily spend four days on a £50 article.

Once the Student Loan Company tried to take money from my account (unsuccessfully – it was empty) because they assumed I was lying about what I earned – which was less apparently, than what the government says you need in order to survive.

This interesting financial situation has been possible because of two things. One – living in a tiny space with super-low living costs. Two – having a supportive partner with a low but regular income. Periodically I offer to get a proper job so he can have a turn at being creative. He always says no, and I always think that when I’ve published a book I’ll be more self-sufficient and maybe then he might.

Dwindling

My book came out late last year. Since then my regular magazine work has been dwindling because the magazine has hit a rocky patch. This is devastating for the editorial team, half of whom have lost their jobs, and only unfortunate for me – fees from events (the ones I slapped all over Facebook) have countered the shortfall. Anyhow I had income from the book (for which I had been paid a small fee in 2022 – the equivalent of two or three magazine articles) to look forward to. Or so I thought.

The book is a bestseller for the publisher. Nevertheless, this is a small Welsh publisher. I knew that sales would be in the hundreds rather than thousands, and that income from royalties (about ten percent) would therefore be low. I figured that this autumn (one year after publication), I would receive between £1,000 and £1,500. Duh. While I was right about the book sales I was wrong about payment.

Shock

Last week I had a shock. I learned that my fee prior to publication was not, as I had assumed, an outright one for my work and the right to publish it, but an advance against royalties. This is standard. But being muddled by how magazines work, I hadn’t understood. The discovery (that there’d be no royalties coming my way till that advance had been exceeded) hit me rather hard – for a few days.

The dismay was not just that I am worse off than I thought. That my income has not improved. That this is so unfair on my partner, I vowed to quit writing if it wobbled him.

It was also the realisation that your work has almost no wealth worth in this world. Humiliated, that’s what I felt. This I am told, is what farmers feel when their sales don’t cover production costs. I don’t know how cultivating soil and paragraphs has resulted in this parlous state – maybe all producers are just rubbish at selling.

Bestseller

Luckily this is not by any means, the whole truth. I am happy. I have been exceptionally lucky to have landed with a publisher whose staff are lovely to work with (and who work really hard to sell books). I am over the moon with the response from reviewers and readers, and that my little book is on a bestseller list, niche though that list may be. I like that it’s niche. Every assignment, every invitation to speak, is an honour. And largely, my friends have put up with my over-promoting rather fabulously.

Moreover, I am in an extraordinarily privileged position that allows me to commit to work that I love, and does have value (I think), just not the financial kind. I have very low living costs. And a partner, who on hearing about my royalties muddle, was as upset as me – for about a minute. After which he said “Don’t worry my love, we’re alright. Just keep writing. Just keep on writing.”

So I started with this.

How much has my book earned me? Let’s assume that I’ve earned out the advance on my royalties, which I think might be true (though I won’t know till the end of next March).

If I include money received for events at which I’ve talked about my book, I have earned 44p an hour – but this is an over-estimate because it doesn’t include the time spent preparing for, travelling to, and attending those events.

Looking at sales alone, my hourly rate so far has been 25p.


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Diana Powell
5 months ago

I’m sure this resonates with so many writers, sadly. Writing is definitely a labour of love – or something we have to do. So we must keep doing it – and yes, it has value!

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