The Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) recently published details of research into authors’ earnings. The study was conducted by the CREATe Centre at the University of Glasgow which found that the future of writing as a profession is under threat. But authoring isn’t under threat any more today than it ever was. People will always want to read and writers, whose imagination is their trade, are very good at reinvention. The ALCS figures, particularly the reduction in fulltime authors’ median earnings from £12,330 in 2006 to £7,000 in 2022, are alarming. But they do not tell a complete story.
Rapidly evolving digital technology has provided an environment for new commercial models within publishing. Technology has spawned a world of new opportunities throughout authors’ supply chains, primarily in online services and tools to support writers. Unfortunately this has helped to drive down average earnings.
The online publishing eco-system is a dynamic adjunct to the traditional publishing industry. It is one that publishers readily exploit without much investment. Hordes of online service providers from authors and copy writers to reviewers, filter and sift new talent at their own risk and to the benefit of publishers. These new players offer fee-based publishing opportunities and fee-based prizes in every imaginable category. New writers can today self-publish without much difficulty, because the technology and the people are there to grease the wheels. These business models did not exist in the same abundance in 2006.
There is a mutual dependency between the digital environment and those who inhabit it. And this is where publishers feed, either directly or via the agent community. That they can exploit the vanity of potential authors is a given. We are all keen for the attention of a commercial publishing contract that might take our careers in a new direction. And today there are so many more of us offering raw material: supply outstrips demand.
The online eco-system hosts all manner of writerly services from software and online courses, to review sites, editorial services, printing and publishing services, marketing, blog tours and publicity. The enormity of this opportunistic system, enhanced and amplified with a host of social media channels, means that anyone who fancies their chances as an author can present themselves as such. Authors are the raw material, rather than their work. Those who are good at the online gig (and patient enough to get good at it) are rewarded by traditional publishing in the end. Top selling titles based on blogging and websites with huge followings are massive successes. Publishers put money into these writers, knowing that their risk is mitigated.
The fall in authors’ average earnings between 2006 and 2022 reflects the brutal facts of supply and demand. Today’s economic landscape is much less favourable, as the ALCS data shows. There are so many more active authors and agents in our industry now and most will work for much less money than was likely in 2006. Back then there were far fewer writers actively pursuing success, and publishers were far hungrier.
Mainstream publishers today can and do focus on what are likely to be successful products, usually from credentialled writers. Mostly publishers are very good at doing this, as the astonishing turnover and profit figures confirm. The writer’s profession is about opportunity and yes luck. But luck has nothing to do with the inclination of mainstream publishers to turn away from reduced risk investments. That is never going to happen. Luck plays a part at all points in the publishing supply chain, from the writing and commercial attractions of a work, through to whether or not the paper costs for printing it on is within budget. The reliability or not of ‘luck’ is precisely what makes it luck. And there is nothing lucky in the success of top selling titles. They succeed because publishers put the money behind them to make sure that they succeed. As with celebrity tomes, the publishers of work that started life as a high profile blog already have a defined market.
Earning a living as an author has never been easy. Oscar Wilde wrote in a letter to one Mr Morgan that ‘the best work in literature is always done by those who do not depend upon it for their daily bread’. That was in 1885 and today’s publishing economics keep it that way.
The relationship between authors and publishers is changed. Publishers no longer want to recognise that support for authors is their responsibility. And why should it be when raw materials for new products are so readily available, the risk so much less and the profits so much more? The traditional contract between authors and publishers is broken. Authors need a new more compelling and sustainable model, one that authors themselves should dictate. This ought to mean opportunities for ambitious publishers keen to disrupt and reinvent their industry. Let’s hope it does.