The Research Into Author Incomes

wpid-1404820284073.jpgI’ve mentioned this before, but it’s worth reconsidering this week.

The Authors Licensing and Collecting Society is a marvellous organisation that helps authors by collecting odd amounts of money. For example, I recently had some few pounds because someone in Germany had been copying pages from one of my novels for use in classes in a school. The ALCS has an interest in how authors are remunerated.

And the news is, even worse than ever.

Yes, there is a nice lady called JK Rowling; there’s another called Martina Cole. There are men like Ian Rankin, Sandy McCall Smith, John Grisham, James Patterson, and all of them earn stratospheric amounts. In the same way, the legal profession has some QCs who can afford yachts, some architects can afford private jets, and musicians can afford mansions on both coasts of America to go with their properties in the UK.

The top percent of people in any profession seem to be hugely well remunerated. This is the case in almost every profession: whether  lawyers, architects, musicians, and authors, you can bet that the top 5 percent will take pretty much 80 percent of all the income for their field.

Yes, there are authors who earn ridiculous sums. However, the reality for most is nearer Grubb Street.

In the late 1990s the Society of Authors asked all their authors about their incomes. To the horror of very few, it was learned that while the national average wage was £21,000, only 5 percent of authors earned above £30,000. Three quarters of all authors earned less than the national average. Worse, two thirds earned less than half that, and fully one half earned less than £5,000. Those were considered pretty abysmal numbers.

However, in the ALCS’s report this week, we learn that the average writer’s income has dropped by almost 30 percent since 2005.


The sudden increase in sales of books on line and the sales of second-hand books in charity shops have both had a huge impact. Authors now see their books being resold up to 12 times on second hand markets. Many people make money from them in this way – the authors don’t. Authors see ebooks appearing and then reappearing for free downloads as criminal gangs and the unscrupulous spread other people’s efforts for nothing. Why? Well, writers all earn too much, don’t they … No, they don’t.

But as well as this, there is the collapse of the retail stores in high streets. We are told that since Google and Amazon provide books on the internet, this doesn’t matter. But it does. Massively. With a local book shop, you can wander and browse. You can pick up books at random and see what you think about  them. However, with books on the internet, Amazon and Google will keep track of what you’ve looked at in the past and present you with books to consider. So, if you have been a keen buyer of John Grisham and Jeff Deaver, you won’t see a sign of a Michael Jecks title being presented to you. You’re in the wrong markets for an historical, after all. That is why sales of mid-listers have declined.

In short, support your local bookshop. If you don’t, you lose the wonderful spread of books that have been available, because while the author may well have moved his or her books into electronic formats – the sad fact is, you’ll never find them. You’ll still keep on receiving the same type of books in the same genre you’re already buying.

The full details of the research can be found here in a PDF download.

And now, if you want something to cheer you up a little after that misery … I have a new YouTube video up which answers some of the more common questions I’ve had in recent weeks. Hope you enjoy it! If you do, please hit the button to give it a thumbs up, and do please subscribe to my videos, because subscriptions are my substitute for achievement in the video world!

Oh, and if you have any questions, please put them in comments here, on YouTube, or on my Facebook page here. And you can “like” that, too, if you want!


26 Responses to “The Research Into Author Incomes”
  1. Jack Eason says:

    Yet another excellent post and video Michael – thanks :)


    • Many thanks, Jack!


      • Marilou says:

        I have always had books in my life, vetsiid libraries, and worked or volunteered in libraries of all kinds. My fondest literary memory involves my high school librarian and volunteering in the library over the summer. Every day, I went to the high school to assist Mrs. Sue Eyrich in getting the library ready for automation. As we worked, we talked about everything, not just what I liked to read; she took the time to listen-actually listen to what I had to say and what I thought about things-that made me feel like I mattered and that someone besides my parents actually cared.She made me want to become a teacher and eventually a youth services librarian.


  2. Jack Eason says:

    Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:
    Further proof, not that most in the field need convincing, that the average writer is poorly remunerated…


    • Very true. Even the ones that readers assume are rich, generally make very poor money out of their writing. The mid-list is being killed off, and it was always the mid-listers who kept publishing afloat.


  3. geraldine says:

    Reblogged this on geraldineevansbooks and commented:
    This was originally posted on the blog WRITERLYWITTERINGS.

    And, yes, it’s true what they say about the income of the majority of writers, as I know from personal experience. Before I turned indie, late in 2010, my writing income never rose much beyond the £5,000 a year mark. It was only my earnings from Public Lending Right that gave it a once-yearly boost.

    That’s one of the reasons I made the decision to leave traditional publishing and go it alone as an indie. My earnings now, while still far from stratospheric, at least give me a reasonable living. Not a fortune at around three times what I used to earn as a trad. Far from the giddy heights of 2012 when sometimes I earned £4,000 A MONTH!

    I was so unused to having such a wonderful amount of money coming in that I recklessly squandered most of it, buying new clothes, shoes, household furniture, etc. And then had to take out a loan to pay the taxman!

    I’ve learned my lesson now. I even pay the taxman a monthly sum (rather than pay it into a savings account and earn a little interest) so as to keep myself ahead of the tax bills instead of behind and deeper in debt. At least I know I can’t get my hands on it!


  4. geraldine says:

    Great post! Spot on about author earnings. I used to fall into the £5,000 a year (or thereabouts) income slot when I was traditionally published. Then, in 2010, I turned indie and my income vastly improved. This was partly because I had a large back-list which I digitalised and which began to earn me money instead of mouldering, forgotten on some dusty warehouse shelf.
    And while the money i make from my writing has settled down to about three times what I earned when trad-pubbbed, I certainly enjoyed the giddy heights that my author income reached in the kindle boom year of 2012. Alas it didn’t last!


    • Thanks, Geraldine! Very glad you liked it. It’s been such a hard last few years, hasn’t it? I’m interested in your story, because I’ve seen a bit of a similar problem with some of my books. Can I suggest you look again at your meta-data for each book? It could be that altering a few of the tags to do with them might help their sales. I’m doing that currently with my modern day thriller with a view to upping its appeal and get around the ruddy Google and Amazon search engines that do so much to block people from finding books they want!


  5. clivemullis says:

    I have always preferred to buy books from independent bookshops, however their demise may have more to do with the publishing industry and the big booksellers than e-books. Independents have difficulty in offering discounts and incentives whereas the two for one or buy one and get the other half-price are only available from the big boys. Also the price of books have risen in relation to peoples income so the second-hand market has grown as more and more people look to buy what they can afford. Trad published authors generally have a loyal fan base who will come back for more. If a trad published author sees their incomes erode to almost zero, then perhaps they may have to look to themselves for not producing what their fan base wants or their publisher for squeezing their margins. As a self-pubbed author I may be looking down the barrel of your soon-to-be smoking shotgun, but I can’t help but think that the publishing industry itself must bear some, if not most, of the blame for both the lack of author income and the death of the local bookshop.


    • Close, but no cigar. The ebook phenomenon has had an impact, but much worse has been the efforts of Amazon to destroy traditional publishing. Authors tend to be on payment by results, but with the kicker that if they don’t expect royalties based on net receipts, they won’t stay published. When Amazon demands 80% discounts, the authors see their income reduced accordingly. When the Kindle Fire came out, Amazon was demanding 90% discounts. This kind of bullying of publishers makes it financially impossible for publishers to operate, which is why I applaud those (including Hachette, my own) for fighting against this monopolist bullying. Trad published authors are not seeing fan bases reduce. What we are seeing is the amount we are paid per book reducing to near zero. Ebooks can, perhaps, be an alternative route. I, like you, have published ebooks. But it’s one means of delivery, and if you don’t have the support of editors and copyeditors and proofreaders and marketing and publicity people, it eats into your time to write. I can do all those jobs, but actually I don’t want to. I want to write books. Sadly most people who do my kind of work are being deprived of their source of income. That should be deplored by all who favour books, free speech and the basic liberties we depend upon.


      • clivemullis says:

        I’m not disagreeing with you Michael, I too applaud Hachette as I think Amazon have got far too big for their boots. I would suggest though that the publishing houses were a bit slow to react when the whole thing kicked off. By now what we should be having is a choice, an even choice. If the publishing houses had got together in the first place and had pooled their resources we could have had an alternative e-book site. What would happen should all the publishing houses pull their books from Amazon and set up on their own? Why did they get in bed with them in the first place? I don’t like monopolies; as a reader I want a choice, which is why I buy 95% of my reading from independent bookshops, even though e-books are generally cheaper. All I was saying was that independent bookshops were and are not getting a fair crack of the whip.


      • What I still don’t understand is, why the US government decided to punish a cartel (Apple, Simon and Schuster etc) and yet by crushing it, left everything wide open for a straight monopoly! But I’m not disagreeing with you, either. I think that we’re both looking at the same problem and coming to the same conclusion. I think the publishers missed a trick because of their innate dislike of each other. Too many are trying to figure out how to take over the others for them to cooperate!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. geraldine says:

    WW, I’ve altered my tags and categories until I’ve turned purple, with no noticeable result. I think of my series as cozy procedurals and I’m beginning to wonder if I should alter my covers yet again. At the moment, there’s no suggestion of coziness or humour in them. Preferably, I would like to have them custom-designed, but the cost (for 15 in one series and 2 in another) is prohibitive for me at the moment. But it’s something I’m thinking about for the future.


    • I had a new cover designed for my collection of Baldwin/Puttock shorts – it cost only £150, but it generated several thousand in sales. I’d certainly look to covers as a first pass. Perhaps ask for a branding concept and pay for the first up front, the future ones to be designed at one a month for a while? Gives you a sales story with a reissue per month too, that way?


      • geraldine says:

        That’s a good idea, WW. I’m expecting some cash from another source sometime this month, so I’ll plough a chunk of it into getting my series properly branded. I’ve tried to do it myself with similar colour covers and text, but in my heart I know they don’t compare well with the professionally-designed covers.

        So much of this stuff comes down to having sufficient spare cash to invest in oneself.


      • geraldine says:

        Serves me right for squandering all that lovely cash when I had it!


  7. Jerome Dive says:

    Great post, and interesting comments. A few additional thoughts:
    I must confess I have been using Amazon quite a bit since moving from France to England, but I have become very concerned by their effort to become dominant in publishing and to buy market share on ebooks by discounting the kindle. Perhaps the wide availability of tablets (of any brand and supporting any ebook) will enable readers to get their books or ebooks directly from the publisher/author (or group of authors)/local bookshop website, or from any situation where a reference to a book is made such as youtube for example. Removing ebooks from Amazon may not be legal in some countries (I know, strange) but I want to hope publishers still have a chance to sell ebooks directly perhaps by having common website(s), although that may not help local independent bookshops.
    Perhaps the future of local bookshop is not to do more than ‘only’ selling books. Much more difficult to do than to say of course but I have had a lot of coffees and snacks in my local bookshop, and I probably bought a few more books because I was just there. Most of the revenue may come from something else (a bit like pop-corn in cinema bringing more money in than ticket sales), but other activities could keep the places open while still displaying and selling books. I wonder how many copies of
    It had never occurred to me I was relying too much on the “recommendations” of an online seller, and I still hope I don’t, perhaps the trick is not to look only at the first few pages? On the other hand it is sometimes the only practical way to be aware of new books on relatively obscure topics: I just bought (from the website of the university which published it) a book on Romanesque architecture I would never have heard if it had not pop-up on my ‘recommended’ list.


    • It’s really hard. But I know that all my “just for you” recommendations from Amazon tend to be based on the last book, usually, bought. So I get lots of YA and teenage books because my daughter buys through my account. I have never found a new author to read on Amazon, whereas I can remember such a thrill in the past, walking into a shop and discovering, for example, Terry Pratchett. It doesn’t happen any more.
      In the UK we’ve lost so many shops. Diversification is fine, but how far do you go? In Chagford, not far from me, there was a shop that moved into selling paints and artists’ materials. She went bust, so the next owner put in red sofas and a really good coffee machine. That didn’t work either. They went bust.
      It’s the same as the daft refrain from politicians that people should diversify. I’ve tried running evening events with readings, with music, with all kinds of temptations, but no one came. I think that the problem is, that people don’t actually want to hear authors talk. They’ll pay to see a live performance by a band, but when it comes to authors, well, they’re happier hearing the voices they make up in their heads!
      So, I don’t know how to improve matters yet. But it won’t stop me trying.
      Thanks ever so much for the comments, Jerome. I really appreciate the time you took to respond – it’s odd, but I get more comments and responses from the few hundred people who read my WordPress notes than I do from the tens of thousands of people who loyally buy my books!


  8. Austin Hackney says:

    Yes, an old friend of mine who lives in Chagford – and is a multi-award winning editor and writer of fantasy/faerytale stuff – lives a pretty frugal life in an ex-council house. Yes, it’s in one of the loveliest corners of Devon and has a stupendous view – but I know many assume she has all the wealth of a Rowling. I’ve been writing and selling stuff for a few years now since giving up theatre (no money in that, either) and becoming a science student – and I’ve a little list of short story credits and such to my name but it has paid me really only enough to celebrate each publication with some good meat and ale. Weirdly, I still hold to the idea that writing will, in the end, turn out to be a good retirement plan! I am, of course, barking mad.


    • Austin, I live in Devon not far from Chagford. I live pretty frugally too, but I’m a damn sight more insane than you – I still hope to be able to carry on working long enough to see a pension fund (i.e. film deal) before I die. Probably roughly three hours before I die, knowing my luck!


      • Somya says:

        I have been a regular user of High Heaton lirabry since it’s refurbishment. When my children were tiny babies, the lirabry was my refuge. A short walk from house, it provided somewhere to go that was free and easily accessible. The staff are knowledgeable and helpful, and have come to know the names of my children and the types of books they like to read. We have attended baby groups, craft activities and borrowed countless titles. Without the lirabry we would not have been able to keep up with my daughter’s insatiable appetite for reading. A love of books the lirabry played a large part in creating.The building is light, warm, and welcoming. it is a social hub, a happy place to spend a rainy day. It is a centre for our community.


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