Berwick Literary Festival, Writing

What are writers worth?

Alistair McCleery is Director of the Scottish Centre for the Book at Napier University in Edinburgh. He knows his stuff when it comes to the book industry and joined the Berwick Literary Festival to talk about the worth of writers – on a social, cultural and financial level.

Getting paid

Alistair started his session by sharing some statistics about the average earnings of professional writers. It was pretty startling stuff.

Did you know that an average author will earn just £11,000 per year? Or that they are likely to receive around £6,000 in income from their latest title? Not much is it, really?

The top 5% of professional authors earn 42.3% of all income earned by writers, with the bottom 50% taking just 7% of the earnings. That’s a huge disparity and one that means the wealth goes to those who already have it and little remains for those who need it most.

In Alistair’s words: “There is no even distribution – there are a few writers who earn a lot and a lot of writers who earn very little”.

With payment advances from publishers becoming smaller and restrictions on benefits to top up writing income, it is increasingly difficult for authors to earn a living solely through writing.

Alistair explained that in 2005 40% of writers earned an income from writing alone; that dropped dramatically to 11.5% by 2013. In that same year, 17% of writers didn’t earn an income from writing at all.

The five Ps

So how do writers survive if they’re not able to live off their craft? Alistair outlined the five Ps of funding life as a writer:

1. Part-time writing: most writers supplement their creative writing with paid commissions from websites, newspapers and other publications.

2. Partner: many writers have supportive spouses who take the burden of financial responsibility. (He shared a great anecdote about Edinburgh authors marrying GPs in order to fund their writing lives.)

3. Pension: the profile of UK authors is decidedly grey as many writers have to wait until their pensions mature before they can write full time.

4. Private incomes: some writers are lucky enough to have inheritance or trust funds that sustain their lives while they write.

5. Patronage: state schemes, grants and awards give some lucky writers the funds to complete their works.

Is self-publishing the answer?

Alistair weighed up the benefits of self-publishing, and whether it is a viable option for writers who want to make an income from their work.

With costs to format a book, design a cover and market the book, the profit the writer takes away from self-publishing can be between £3,000 and £7,000. In Alistair’s opinion, there’s potential to earn more from self-publishing than being commissioned by a publisher but in reality it rarely works out that way.

What help is available?

It’s not all bad news and there are some support options available to writers who want to pursue their dreams in the face of this financial adversity.

Patronage schemes are still one of the key ways to fund work. However, with government cuts to cultural funding the availability of grants and awards is dwindling and, as a result, competition for them is increasing.

Placements are another route. Writers in residence in schools, universities and other institutions support writers for specific periods or in order to produce a specific piece of work. They are sporadic and inconsistent, though, and becoming more difficult to come by as spending on such things is deemed too luxurious in the wake of decreasing cultural budgets.

Thirdly, there are funds from public lending rights. Around £6.5 million is generated per year from PLR payments made by libraries who purchase books to loan to the public. Borrowing trends tend to match buying ones so the share of PLR payments goes to those authors who are already successful. Little remains for those still trying to break through.

What’s the answer?

Alistair outlined some interesting approaches to author support from various countries but settled on Ireland’s example as the one most likely to offer genuine help.

The Republic of Ireland reduces the tax liability on any earnings from artistic activity. That means creative professionals don’t pay tax on the first 50,000 Euros they earn from any artistic endeavours.

This means writers are able to develop their work without having to take part-time employment or borrowing from elsewhere. It also means that support is targeted to those who need it, not those writers who are already earning a hefty wage from their work.

Alistair urged the audience to leave The Maltings and immediately write to their MPs to ask for the same tax concessions for UK writers. Who knows what great works could emerge if we truly valued writing as not just a creative passion but a financial asset, too.

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