Author’s incomes continue to fall as literary fiction sales collapse

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At the start of 2016, Nothing in the Rulebook reported that authors’ incomes had collapsed to “near abject” levels – with professional writers earning on average just £11,000 a year.

Now, the trend seems to have accelerated, with a new report finding that a “collapse” in sales of literary fiction had seen advanced paid to writers diminish even further – meaning ever fewer authors were able to support themselves through their craft alone.

Indeed, the authors of the report, commissioned by Arts Council England, note that the shifts in the dynamics of the publishing industry have fundamentally changed the entire model on which writers previously built their careers.

The traditional model of writing could be said to begin with an author penning a masterful manuscript, subsequently being discovered by a powerful agent who lands said author an enormous book deal with a large advance. This supplies the necessary funding for the writer to pen further masterful manuscripts, with the same effect, all the while as their book sales continue to supplement their income. And so on ad infinitum.

Yet as 98% of writers report falling advances – with some noting cuts falling dramatically from over £50,000 per book to less than £5,000 – it seems this fall in writerly wages directly correlates with a collapse in sales of literary fiction.

Indeed, analysis of sales data from Nielsen BookScan found that hardback book sales slumped by £10 million between 2007 and 2001, with paperback sales falling even more dramatically – falling by over £40 million between 2011 and 2012 alone.

And, where once the book sales of ‘established’ or ‘major’ literary names could be relied on to supplement publisher’s investment in new or emerging writers, even these can no longer provide the financial support publishers need to sign on new talent.

Within the last 10 years, the only literary works to have sold more than 1 million copies include Atonement by Ian McEwan, the Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, the Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, and Life of Pi by Yann Martel. Last year’s best selling novel was Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins, which sold 187,000 copies – roughly half the number of 2015’s best selling novel, Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey.

As this collapse precipitates a further fall in income for new writers, the authors of the report note: “Outside of the top 1,000 authors (at most), printed book sales alone simply cannot provide a decent income. While this has long been suspected, the data shows unambiguously that it is the case. … What’s more, this is a generous assessment. After the retailer, distributor, publisher and agent have taken their cut, there won’t be a lot of money left from 3,000 sales of the 1,000th bestselling title. That we are returning to a position where only the best-off writers can support themselves should be a source of deep concern.”

So, what is to be done?

The image of the struggling – perhaps even starving – artist is one that is now so stereotypical as to be cliché. And while we here at Nothing in the Rulebook have tried subsisting on a carefully balanced diet of hopes and dreams, it’s fair to say it can leave a certain ache in the stomach.

With the trend in falling book sales and incomes continuing at pace, it seems as though aspiring writers must look to supplement their endeavours with funds from elsewhere.

Such is the current state of affairs that the authors of the report note that the traditional model and dream of a writing career “is now severely challenged. If you want to be on the inside of those networks and live in London, a £13,000 advance, spread over several years of work, won’t cut the mustard. Writers must, for better or worse, take on more financial risk in order to write.”

While the most obvious course of action may be to look at taking on a full or part-time job, such a decision may not necessarily be the best for one’s own writing. As Charles Bukowski put it: “To not to have entirely wasted one’s life working, seems to be a worthy accomplishment, if only for myself.”

But perhaps in the digital age, old challenges can be met with new solutions. For instance, Crowdfunding projects can see writers’ dreams become realities – such as Josh Spiller’s exciting new speculative fiction project, The 8th Emotion, which has received through crowdfunding the necessary financial backing that is perhaps no longer there to be found via traditional publishing models.

Indeed, as the print publishing industry appears to rely ever more on sales from cookbooks than literary fiction, aspiring writers may need to seek ever more imaginative ways to get their (much needed) new ideas and writing out there.

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