Professor Wu's Rulebook

In search of the evasive professional writer: an increasingly endangered species

With author’s incomes at their lowest levels in years, and fewer full-time professional authors than ever before, amid increasingly draconian publishing contracts and the pitfalls of self-publishing, is it true that the professional author is on the cusp of becoming an endangered species? And, if so, can anything be done to save this important breed from extinction? Professor Wu investigates…


Name: The Professional Author

Age: usually between 45 – 64 years of age, if you believe the statistics.

Appearance: White and black, canine, beagle, usually found with a typewriter to hand.

Isn’t that Snoopy? Oh yes, sorry about that. Easy to confuse the two.

I like to think of professional authors looking a little bit like Michael Caine from the film adaptation of Educating Rita: That’s fine, whatever suits!

Great, so why is everyone looking for Michael – I mean, the professional author? Well, because it seems as though their numbers are on the decline.

Do we need to get David Attenborough involved? Not yet, though don’t rule it out.

I read somewhere that endangered species required artificial breeding programmes to support wild populations: That probably won’t be necessary.

That’s disappointing. What’s the issue, then? Declining incomes, mainly. Writers are increasingly seeing their income from writing decrease – through lower royalty revenues and lower advances for their books.

But surely this is a prime example of an industry where the workers really do control the means of production, shouldn’t writers be receiving more money, not less? You might think so – and that’s why a lot of authors are so concerned about these developing trends.

Has someone written a letter? You bet they have! Philip Pullman – you may have heard of him…

Did that thing that Catholics didn’t like? Close enough. His Dark Materials collection of books are international best sellers. There was even a film made out of the first one, though we don’t like to talk about it.

Gotcha: He’s now heading up a charge from the Society of Authors, which points out that authos remain the only essential part of the creation of a book, and that it is in everyone’s interests to ensure they can make a living. They’ve taken particular issue with unfair royalty terms offered to writers by the publishing houses.

But the publishing industry is in dire straits itself, no? That’s true, and partly indicative of a disconcerting trend within the wider creative industries – whereby the organisations in charge of producing new pieces of culture – art, novels, films and so on – are increasingly choosing to invest in pieces of art that have a guaranteed income attached: so you have copies of novels that are copies of other commercially successful novels, and films that are remakes of these successful books, and so on.

So writers should get aboard self-publishing, is that what we’re saying? Unfortunately it’s more complicated than that. As the prize-winning author James Smythe points out, self-publishing is even less of a way of earning money from you writing if you’re any good than conventional publishing.

Ah, not so positive: No, quite the opposite, in fact. It’s critical that we begin to recognise the importance of books – and those people behind them – to our society and to our culture.

It sounds like this actually could do with a good David Attenborough documentary: That actually might not be such a bad idea, thinking about it.

There’s something about his lovely, David Attenborough voice, isn’t there? Exactly. Lully David Attenborough with his lully David Attenborough voice. He’s probably preoccupied focusing attention on the issues of man-made climate change, though – which is also pretty important.

There’ll be no writers at all if we don’t have a planet we can live on anymore: Very true.

Do say: “Writers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your draconian publishing contracts.”

Don’t say: “But wasn’t 50 Shades of Grey originally published as an e-book?”



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