What’s happening in the publishing world today? What’s changing, and is it always for the better? In the latest in our series of personal views, Viv Hampshire talks about the important role of money.
When it comes to my life as a writer, there are two topics that matter to me and, I’m sure, to all working writers: the future of books and, even more importantly, the future of authors. And I can’t help feeling that the answers to both have one vitally important element at their heart – money!
Let’s start with the abysmal results of a recent survey undertaken by the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) which showed that the average annual income of an author is now not only less than £11,000, but has actually fallen by 29% since 2005. The public perception, I’m sure, is that all published authors must be raking in thousands, if not millions, of pounds. They’ve read the hype about J K Rowling and the Fifty Shades books and celebrity authors who don’t even write their own so-called autobiographies, and they assume we must all be in pretty much the same boat. But the truth is that many of us aren’t in a boat at all. We’re sinking, or drowning, with virtually nothing, in the way of income from our years of hard slog, to keep us afloat at all.
£11,000? If that’s true, then how can anyone who is working for a living be expected to survive on so little? And the answer, of course, is that they can’t! That’s why so many of us, if we are serious about pursuing the dream, have no choice but to squeeze writing our novels into the gaps left by the ‘day job’, writing early in the morning before the children wake up, writing on the train, writing late at night, giving up our weekends and having to forgo the pleasures of watching the latest TV programmes or enjoying regular nights out with friends that other ‘normal’ people take for granted. I am lucky now, having reached the grand old age of sixty, to have a small pension coming in that will be paid for the rest of my life, so I have a buffer and I can dedicate myself to writing without the need to go out and find a job to support me while I do it. But writing a novel these days, whatever our financial and family circumstances, demands high levels of time, commitment and dedication, and without the added prestige and sense of awe that holding the title of ‘author’ once brought with it. And we do it (often spending as long as a year or considerably more writing just one novel) without knowing if that book will ever even get published, let alone bring us in any financial reward at all.
And what about the books themselves? There was a time when my parents’ generation would save up to buy the latest hardbacks in their colourful dustcovers, always reading them through to the end, placing them lovingly on their bookshelves, treasuring them as old friends and never ever throwing them away. I did much the same with paperbacks, building my collection of Jean Plaidys and later Maeve Binchys, and feeling pride not only in having read them all, but in owning them too. But, when times are hard, unemployment is high, and family budgets are tight, what gets dropped from the monthly shopping basket? We all need to eat, pay our mortgage or rent, cope with rising petrol or travel costs, worry about keeping our fuel bills down, perhaps indulge in the odd drop of alcohol or packet of cigarettes, but do we really need to buy books any more?
The library offers them, in their thousands, so we can still read – but we can do it for free. But, from an author’s point of view, a small PLR payment is no match for the royalties we might have expected from a sale. And now the supermarkets are operating ‘pile them high, sell them cheap’ deals. Once they’ve been read they end up in charity shops and at boot sales or, God forbid, in the bin! Yes, books are becoming more and more disposable, if they exist in paper form at all. Magazines provide quick-fix stories and celeb features to fulfill our reading cravings, and they take far less time to read- a real plus in our modern hectic lifestyles. Then there are the hundreds of new ebooks that pop up every day, often available at a fraction of the cost of paper versions, and many downloadable at no cost at all. After all, with self-publishing options and easy uploads to Amazon available, anyone, with or without talent, can call themselves a writer nowadays, can’t they? It’s only too easy for the ‘real’ writers’ work to get lost and buried under a pile of trash, with many a hurried browser/buyer unable to take the time to try to tell the difference. And if an ebook has cost mere pennies and doesn’t measure up to expectations, it can simply be deleted at the touch of a button.
So, where does all this leave the poor author? Well, that’s exactly it … POOR! Who, in their right mind, would choose to become an author in this climate? A year’s work with little social life and no guarantee of being paid, and if you do strike ‘lucky’ you might just scrape £11,000 for your trouble? And, let’s not forget that figure is an average and inevitably includes a fair few high earning well-known names, so the reward for ‘Mrs Unknown Brand New Author’ is going to be a lot, lot less.
Books being borrowed, sold secondhand, included in two-for-one discount deals, given away for free. Royalty rates cut to the bone, and many publishers no longer even offering an advance. Books being deleted at the touch of a button. It’s incredibly depressing, yet still we do it. Why? Are we suckers? Are we giving up our blood, sweat and tears to pursue a dream? Of course we are, but (and I can only speak for myself, but I don’t think I’m too far off the mark when I say this) we write because we want to, and because we need to. However bad the rewards in money terms, there are other rewards that money just can’t buy. There’s no feeling quite like typing the magic words ‘The End’, and knowing we’ve done it, achieved what started out as the impossible dream but has become a wonderful big pile of printed paper reality – or a hell of a large file on the computer anyway! And nothing quite like seeing the finished published book on the shelves in bookshops, and holding it in our hands, with our own name, as the author, emblazoned across the front for all to see. That’s what I am still aiming for…
And it’s something you just can’t put a price on!
Join us again on 24th August to find out what Natalie Kleinman has to say about her experiences of the publishing world.