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When Has Writing a Book Ever Not Been an Elitist Pursuit?

On Tuesday The Guardian engaged in the book world’s favorite pastime.

No, not ebook-bashing. No, not baseless Amazon fear-mongering. (Let me try this again.)

On Tuesday The Guardian engaged in the book world’s third favorite pastime, wringing their hands over the supposed demise of book authoring as a profession.

Writing is in danger of becoming an elitist profession, with many authors being subsidised by their partners or a second job in order to stay afloat, according to new statistics.

The full findings from the annual Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society report into author earnings paint a more nuanced picture than the headline results from last summer, which revealed that median earnings for professional writers had fallen to less than £10,500 a year. While the average professional writer earns £10,000 a year, the mean earnings for a writer’s household were more than £81,000 a year, and median household earnings were at £50,000 per annum. “Most writers supplement their income from other sources, such as a second job or household earnings contributed by a partner”, according to the report, which analysed answers from more than 5,500 professional writers.

“There is a danger of writing becoming an elitist profession which excludes new and diverse voices,” said Society of Authors chief executive Nicola Solomon. “This report should act as a wake-up call for the industry.”

The problem with this piece, well, there are two problems.  The first is that the piece is predicated on the assumption that the only type of writing that matters is book authoring, and that things like writing for TV, movies,  or ad agencies, or reporting the news, aren’t even worth acknowledging. This is actually an elitist assumption, one that the writer of the piece overlooked.

The other problem with this piece is that it is framed with the assumption that there was a time that book authoring wasn’t an elitist pursuit.

As one commenter on the piece put it:

Who the hell thinks writers are wealthy? Someone who’s never read New Grub Street, that’s who, and not read much else. Writing has never been a well paid profession except for the tiny minority and everyone else gets to sneer at those lucky few for writing bestsellers. Writing has always had a large aristocratic contingent.

They are right. It doesn’t matter what period you look at, whether it’s  before the printing press was invented or after the typewriter was developed, book authoring has always been a hobby more than a profession.

That was true even after the book publishing industry came into being; it’s not just that only a minority of book authors could make a living at it but also that in any given year the majority of books were written on the author’s time in the hopes of selling the book to a publisher.

And yet no one involved in this piece is aware of the historical context. Instead, as another commenter pointed out, everyone seems to think book authors are owed a living simply because they are book authors:

I don’t really understand this article. Since when did artists in any field think society owed them a living? There are more than ever before. Only a few can manage to make a reasonable living from their work, and the rest of us realize and accept that we need to have back-up in the form of a regular job or supportive partner.

That is bizarre, but true.

image by Jack Baty via Flickr

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Disgusting Dude May 10, 2019 um 1:15 pm

Technical writing matters.
And pays very well.

Nate Hoffelder May 10, 2019 um 1:34 pm

It does, yes, and it is also frequently ignored.

When Has Writing a Book Ever Not Been an Elitist Pursuit? – Books in General – – The Passive Voice July 3, 2019 um 11:49 am

[…] Link to the rest at The Digital Reader […]

Kevin Barthelemy September 8, 2019 um 8:24 pm

"Researchers from the UK Copyright and Creative Economy Centre at the University of Glasgow…speculate that the need to subsidise income would contribute to a lack of diversity"

IMHO, these researchers fail to recognize the fact that the level of education required for professional writing is less likely among minorities and poor people. With minorities more likely to being poor. Being poor also leads to stress levels which are unconducive to good writing.

Also, it appears to me that many publishers, online and print, are accepting work done by amateurs, who write poorly—and who will allow themselves to be paid less for their hack writing. Lack of editing and proofreading goes along with this, too. I think this tends to edge out better, more professional writers—who expect to be paid properly.

This is only my pet theory, based on what I’ve observed over the last forty years or so. Can we blame the internet for this?

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