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Are Writers Really Earning less than They did 9 Years Ago?

320300354_a8e1ce5eef_b[1]A new survey report was released in the UK this week which appears to show that writers are eaning an average of 29% less in 2013 than they did in 2005. The report comes from the ALCS, an authors' rights group in the UK, and includes details like:

The typical (median) income of the professional author has also fallen dramatically, both in real and actual terms. In 2013, the median income of the professional author was just £11,000 [$18,834], a drop of 29 percent since 2005 when the figure was £12,330 [$21,111] (£15,450 [$26,450] in real terms). According to Joseph Rowntree Foundation figures, single people in the UK need to earn at least £16,850 [$28,847] before tax to achieve a Minimum Income Standard (MIS).

That sounds bad, right?

Not necessarily. I’ve read the report (it was only 12 pages long), and I have serious doubts that it accurately reflects what writers are earning.

For one thing, the report is only 12 pages long and doesn’t include the original survey questions or granular details on the survey group. Respectable organizations (the Pew Research Center, for example) would include this info, and without them the ALCS report is more of a propaganda piece than a survey report.

And that’s not my only concern. I’ve read the report, and I think the survey group was skewed towards older writers, and towards book authors.

If you look on page three of the report you’ll see that 2,454 writers were surveyed, and that 83% of the survey group reported their ages as 44 or older. A full 29% are over 64 years of age. Tell me, does that strike you as a representative sample of all the writers in the UK? I can’t find data to the contrary but based on my gut feeling I would say no.

And speaking of a skewed survey group, the LACS left an important detail out of the report. They say that the survey group totaled 2,454 writers, but they do not say how many are book authors vs freelance journalists, bloggers, etc. As everyone knows, writing a book pays a lot less than (for example) writing for an ad agency or other business. So if the survey group skewed to book authors then it probably does not reflect the state of all writers in the UK.

Unfortunately, we don’t know that for sure. The closest the report comes to answering this point is to say that 69% of respondents retain the copyright for their works, and that 57% have sought a reversion clause in their contracts. That suggests they are either freelancers or book authors, and that would seem to change the importance of the detail concerning the number of professional authors (writers who spend their full time writing) having dropped:

For the majority of people, their ‘profession’ and the way that they earn money are one and the same thing. For writers however this is increasingly often not the case. In 2005, 40% of authors earned their income solely from writing. By 2013, this had dropped to just 11.5%.

The report doesn’t explain the drop; it merely mentioned it and predicts the death of western civilization should it continue.

All in all, this report looks less like a true survey of writers and more like a hatchet job from a group with an axe to grind. I suggest that you ignore it.

found via TeleRead

image by gadl

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Mick Rooney July 10, 2014 um 5:23 am


The full ALCS survey is not due to be published until later this year. The 12 page report released yesterday is just a summary report, so I don’t think we were ever going to get a complete breakdown of the respondents at this stage. Though, I do agree, the results looked skewed, and the summary makes the point that a large proportion were professional writers, notably, members of the Society of Authors UK, the Writers' Guild of Great Britain and the National Union of Journalists (NUJ). I suspect the average age membership of those well established organisations is in the 40+ grouping. Also, the three researchers extracting the data for ALCS are all academics.


Richard Herley July 10, 2014 um 8:22 am

"ALCS" is the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society, based in London and collecting fees (e.g. from photocopying) on behalf of British writers. The membership comprises mainly professional authors and journalists who are entitled to receive such fees by virtue of having published, usually, in the main stream — newspapers, magazines, journals, trad-pubbed books. The invitation to participate in the survey, AFAIK, was issued only to ALCS members via the newsletter and website. Thus those self-publishers (like me) who responded are in the minority.

In my experience, writers publishing books through traditional channels have always been abominably paid unless they happened to get lucky. I don’t think it’s propaganda: ALCS are a reputable organization, but obviously the results speak only for the sample they took.

The collapse in such writers' income is a logical result of the changes in trad pub and journalism attributable to the move to digital.

joe sixpak July 10, 2014 um 11:33 pm

writers have been making less constantly for the last 30 years

Victoria Strauss July 11, 2014 um 11:01 am

I’m really surprised how vehemently this report is being attacked, especially from the self-publishing community. One of the central tenets put forth by self-pub evangelists is that trad-pubbed authors make less money. Since this report seems to support that claim, should it not be welcomed with open arms?

Nate Hoffelder July 11, 2014 um 11:23 am

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I don’t like this report because what I have seen so far looks like a hatchet job. ALCS sponsored a survey on some unknown group and then used the data as a club to beat UK creative industries.

I am addressing it on the point it claims to make about writers as a whole, not just book authors. While I agree that the survey group was probably focused on book authors, we simply cannot say that for sure.

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