Horribly low pay is pushing out my fellow authors – and yes, that really does matter

<span>Photograph: Ryan Phillips/PA</span>
Photograph: Ryan Phillips/PA

I have made a career out of being an author. It has been a great privilege to be able to do that. But I am deeply saddened that the job I love has become inaccessible and unsustainable for others – and increasingly ruled by luck.

I’m not talking about the luck that plays a part in the writing process, or in getting our work in front of the right agent or the right editor at the right time. I’m talking about the luck that comes later, once our work has been signed and contracted, and we’ve earned our way to the status of professional author. That, according to the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society’s (ALCS) fourth major round of research into authors’ incomes, published on Tuesday, is when the real luck comes into play.

Related: Writers’ earnings have plummeted – with women, Black and mixed race authors worst hit

We arrive at what we imagined would be the creative heart of an industry, but it turns out to be a room full of slot machines. Some of us are lucky enough to feed the right slot at the right time and hit jackpots of varying sizes. Others bring their own luck to the room – they can afford to feed the slots regardless of what they get in return. But what about everyone else? Who can honestly afford to stay?

The trouble with luck is that it is not a reliable foundation for a profession. Nor is it a reliable way to run an industry. Yet here we are.

When the ALCS first ran its survey of author incomes in 2006 it found that the median self-employed income of a full-time author was £12,330. In 2022 – a year in which multiple publishers have posted record profits while freelancers in all professions are still reeling from the impact of Covid-19, Brexit and rising living costs – the median full-time income has fallen to £7,000. That’s a drop of more than 60% when accounting for inflation.

There is also a more worrying, granular luck at play. The gender pay gap is getting worse – men earn 41% more than women (compared with 33% five years ago). Payment for Black and mixed-heritage authors is a full 51% lower than for white authors. Young authors earn less, as do older ones. Fewer authors than ever are receiving advances, and groups of authors who are statistically less likely to be able to support themselves through other means earn an even less affordable cut.

People are being paid less than half a living wage for their creative labour. The ALCS points to this as evidence of a global trend of the “devaluing of creative labour”. I agree – we see it everywhere: in the calls to work for nothing, in the initiatives to offer unfettered free access to creative work, in mass subscription models designed to serve corporations at the expense of creators.

The report shows a drop in the proportion of full-time authors from 40% of those surveyed in 2006 to just 19% today. This shows that we cannot keep relying on the assumption that people will find money from elsewhere to sustain their writing: many are leaving the profession.

At the Society of Authors, we have major concerns about what this means for the future of earning a living as an author. We daily offer support to writers, illustrators and translators to negotiate better contract terms or avoid poor deals, to educate them on business practices and self-promotion, and to give them the skills and knowledge to navigate a complex industry. We empower them where possible to remove luck from the equation and replace it with business sense.

But we can’t remove all the slots. Based on the ALCS’s findings, an author’s business sense alone won’t make it affordable for them to sustain their career. The report is likely to dissuade some potential authors from ever considering a creative career. Others already established are probably looking at other options and, based on the report’s findings, of the voices we lose, my worry is that they are more likely to be the ones that we most need to hear.

Writing as a profession is becoming inaccessible and unsustainable for too many. We need to start seeing contracts with fair payment, higher advances, better payment terms, better control of rights and clearer accounting, as we’ve called for in the Society of Authors’ Creator campaign.

Readers value a wide range of books and authors. Most of us don’t want our choice restricted to a small selection of books by a narrow range of authors, so we need to make this a viable profession for everyone.

With the top 10% of authors currently earning about 47% of all author earnings, it is time to spread the money more equitably to ensure that creators – the people whose work makes the industry possible – aren’t left relying on chance.

  • Joanne Harris is the author of novels including A Narrow Door and Chocolat, and is chair of the management committee of the Society of Authors

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