Next week I’ll be hosting an event at the Wheeler Centre (with Cory Doctorow and others) discussing how writers can get paid. The vital backdrop to that event is figures out of Australia, Canada, the US and the UK showing that writers’ incomes have plummeted over the past two decades.
This post is intended to bring those figures and trends together in a single place, and to connect readers to the full reports.
Professor David Throsby and his team at Macquarie University have gathered detailed Australian author income data as part of a major Australian Research Council project. These results are based on a 2015 survey of more than 1000 Australian book authors. You can see the key findings here or the whole set of results here. The team’s methodology is laid out on p2 of ‘key findings’.
‘It’s well known that book authorship is not well remunerated
for many members of the profession’
- Australian authors reported average incomes of A$62,000, of which A$12,900 comes from ‘practising as an author’. The median was much lower – just A$2,800 across all authors – suggesting there are a small number of authors making a good living and a large number making very little indeed).
- The top 25% of literary fiction authors reported averaging A$9,000 from writing, with 70% of them stating that low earnings from creative labour prevented them from engaging in more of it.
- Nearly 20% of surveyed authors worked full time at writing, but fewer than 5% were able to earn the average annual income from that creative work alone.
- Most income came from royalties and advances, with collecting society revenue (eg Copyright Agency Limited payments) averaging just A$400 per author. That’s considerably less than the $1,100 averaged from the Public Lending Right and Electronic Lending Right (which exists outside of copyright and cannot be taken away).
- Over 37% of authors reported relying on the income of their partner. If family money is a necessary subsidy to writing, that suggests something striking about the stories that get told and the voices we get to hear.
- The survey also went on to look at how authors’ incomes had changed over the previous five years (ie since 2010). The results were mixed: ‘no change’ was reported by 40%, 15% were better off and an equal number were worse off. Almost 10% noted their financial position had become more variable. 17% didn’t know or couldn’t say. Genre fiction writers saw the biggest improvements, while literary fiction authors faced the steepest drop.
The United Kingdom
The Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) commissioned researchers at the University of Bournemouth, led by my CREATe colleague Professor Martin Kretschmer, to conduct a survey of authors incomes in 2005. In 2013 they had Queen Mary University conduct a follow-up. Those researchers surveyed 2,454 authors, made up of ‘professional authors’ (those who ‘dedicate the majority of their time to writing’) and ‘all authors’ (including ‘occasional and part-time writers’). The resulting report, ‘What are words worth now?’ was sobering:
- Only 11.5% of the ‘professional authors’ earned their income solely from writing in 2013, a big fall from 40% in 2005.
- Between 2005 and 2013 the median income of professional authors fell in both nominal and real terms. The latter dropped 29%, from £15,450 (adjusted for inflation) to £11,000. By contrast, in 2013 the Minimum Income Standard was £16,850 (marking ‘the income level considered to be a socially acceptable standard of living.’)
- Earnings of ‘all writers’ (in real terms) fell from £8,810 in 2000, to £5,012 in 2005, to £4,000 in 2013, falls of 28% since 2000 and 19% since 2005.
- In a follow-up called ‘Further Findings’, the researchers reported that the bottom 50% of all writers earned just 7% of all income, while the top 5% earned 42.3%. Like the wide disparity in average and median incomes reported for Australia, that shows there are ‘winners taking all’ and many financial ‘losers’ in the game.
Martin Kretschmer and the folks @ CREATe are now conducting another new study reflecting current data: stay tuned for those results to be released later this year.
The United States
In 2015, the Authors Guild released ‘The Wages of Writing’ with the results of a survey of US-based writers – its first since 2009. The methodology of this one is not clear in the report (number of authors surveyed, sampling type etc), but it’s stated that it was conducted by a company called the Codex Group. The report found that:
- Wages of full-time authors decreased by 30% between 2009 and 2015, from US$25,000 to US$17,500. The decrease was 38% for part-timers (from US$7,250 to US$4,500).
- The biggest declines were suffered by authors with the most experience.
In 2015, the Writers Union of Canada released a report called ‘Devaluing Creators,
Endangering Creativity’, which surveyed authors’ incomes and compared them to results of a similar study in 1998. Like the US report, it doesn’t say much about methodology, except that it ‘was circulated to Union members and other writers through their organizations and social media.’ It found:
- Adjusted for inflation, Canadian writers earned 27% less in 2015 than they did in 1998.
- The average income from writing for all Canadian writers was $12,879; the median was $5,000.This compares to a $60,011 average income ‘in the information and cultural industries’ generally.
- 45% of Canadian writers reported having to work harder to earn a living than was the case in 1998.
- Women writers earn 55% of their male counterparts’ incomes. That drops to just 49% when focusing only on those authors for whom writing was the primary occupation.
Falling off a cliff
These studies demonstrate a concerning trend of steep declines for authors’ incomes. Copyright has always been what we call a ‘winner-takes-all’ system, where a small number of creators at the pointy top reap most of the rewards. So, for most authors, making a living has always been quite a tricky and precarious endeavour. Starting from that already low base, these dramatic income drops have made it more difficult than ever. We’ll look at some of the main reasons for these precipitous declines in the following post.