As celebrity books boom, professional authors are driven out of full-time work

From The Guardian:

Despite scoring three bestsellers in five years and a clutch of awards, The Spinning Heart author Donal Ryan has been forced to return to his day job in the Irish civil service in order to pay his mortgage.

Ryan has become the latest casualty of tumbling incomes for writers. Despite receiving advances and signing a deal to write three more books with his publisher, the Irish novelist said he had found it impossible to earn a living wage as a full-time writer.

. . . .

Saying his earnings amounted to about 40 cents per copy sold, he told the newspaper he had taken a job in the Workplace Relations Commission.

. . . .

Ryan’s decision came as children’s authors hit out at celebrity children’s books. Tales of Terror author Chris Priestley told the Bookseller that professional authors were finding it hard to compete for advances and shelf space. “It’s a tricky time in publishing at the moment,” he said. “I met a lot of writers last year who were having a hard time and in negotiations they were finding it harder to get the advances they got a couple of years ago.”

Priestley said that while the market was tough for all writers, celebrities were at an advantage competing for book deals. “It seems as though if you’re a celebrity you can just express the idea you would like to do a book – like [radio DJ] Christian O’Connell did on Twitter – and you will get a deal. I still have to pitch my books.”

In the last two years comedians and YouTubers have rushed into the market, some signing six-figure deals, while professional authors’ advances slipped to as low as three and four figures. Adding “children’s author” to their CV are the likes of David Walliams, Russell Brand, Danny Baker, Frank Lampard and Pharrell Williams.

CJ Daugherty, who writes thrillers for young adults, claimed ghostwritten children’s books risked undermining readers’ trust. “We can tell ourselves that readers must know a C-List celebrity, famous for opening makeup boxes on YouTube, isn’t capable of writing an 80,000-word novel,” she told the Bookseller. “But the whole system seems designed to fool people into thinking they are.”

Author and children’s book critic Amanda Craig told the trade magazine: “It’s distasteful [that] celebrities and their agents seem to think publishing a novel is a way to use their brand to make more money and, with the exception of David Walliams, they’re not very good.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian and thanks to Dave for the tip.

18 thoughts on “As celebrity books boom, professional authors are driven out of full-time work”

  1. Low advances, terrible contracts, basket accounting and the author works for “free.”

    Oh, what a glorious time to be a TradPub!

  2. Publishers: We want outstanding writing and phenomenal storytelling in upmarket genres. We want an author with a voice, a unique way of looking at the world. An author with real chops who is the next big thing.
    Writer: Well, here’s my manuscript! I’ve won a dozen awards for my short stories and I have a decade of practice and failed manuscripts behind me. This one should be right up your alley.
    Publishers: We want authors who come with built-in audiences. Guaranteed sales. 100k+ Twitter followers.
    Writer: Yes, I understand that, but how does one amass that kind of following with one’s fiction if the fiction never gets published?
    Publishers: Figure it out. There are thousands of you. We might take you on at your current numbers, but then advances will reflect that.
    Writer: Whatever. Take your contracts and shove them. I’ll self-publish and build my own indie publishing company.
    Publishers (amongst themselves): The quality of submissions is way down. We need more celebrity books. Look at Instagram followers, Twitter followers, celebrity contacts . . . and everything but actual craft of writing for evidence of guaranteed sales.

    Gatekeepers at work.

  3. This seems like a correlation/causation problem here. Publishers have always gone after celebrity books, because publishers aren’t in the business of putting out good books, they’re in the business of making money. The advances going to the celebrities aren’t going at the expense of the little guy; the advances for the little guy are just getting smaller, period.

  4. I have a teenager so I watch a lot of Youtube (she casts it to the television). It’s actually inspired me to use it as a platform if I can bring myself to put my face on camera (as they say, I have a face for radio). But this is beside the point.
    The point is, perhaps that girl on youtube who is famous for opening boxes always dreamed of being a writer and she’s now using her fame to get what she’s dreamed of. Or maybe Pharrell Williams always wanted to write kid’s books, and uses his fame to do it. And I can imagine that Russell Brand would write some amazing stuff.
    It’s just mean spirited to lump them all together.

    • Thing is, youtube is a selfpublishing channel.

      If they aspired to be writers all along, they could have done it at any time in the last five years–the same way they’ve independently produced their video channels. A lot more easily, actually, since they have a solid platform and an established following to work with.

      To me at least that adds a wee bit of credibility to the suggestion that the impetus to get their names attached to traditionally published books came from elsewhere. Somewhere where names with pre-established followings are ardently sought…


      • There’s a very different mindset between Youtube and book self publishing. I know that sucks, especially for the book industry, but it exists. Youtube is social media, for everyone, but self publishing is still considered by a lot of people to be vulgar. Publishing is serious, Youtube is not. Its that mindset that needs to change. So it’s a completely different game really.
        Even though I, logically, know that self-publishing is okay and am going to do it, I still have to shake that feeling as though I’m not good enough because I haven’t been trad pubbed.

        That said, a lot of Youtubers are actually on the Youtube payroll, so it’s not really self publishing. And it is very cliquey, like the publishing world.

        • A lot of youtubers are also small (and not-so-small) businesses getting paid for the views they attract to their videos. It’s a lot like Kindle Unlimited, to the point youtube is trying to evolve into a subscription service just like KU.

          Some of the businesses behind the channels have grown into actual media companies in their own right.

          It’s not really that different.
          You publish, you get viewers/readers, you get paid in proportion.

          The key is the entrepreneurial mindset.
          You have it or you don’t.

          • And if you have it, and attract the viewers/readers for FREE content, whether there is any way you can scale it to get a few bucks from your most loyal supporters (loyal until you put a price tag on it – and they move elsewhere).

            The culture of free + advertising is with us on network television, even though many people mut the TV and go get a drink/make a phone call/veg out… during those commercials which pay for the content. They’ve learned how to subsidize their habit of producing conent.

            Eventually, as with TV, people realize that they don’t like the model – and pay for channels without commercials, or binge watch House of Cards – because they CAN.

            This part didn’t used to exist, except in small quantities (Ben Franklin printed his own work and sold it, as did Mark Twain…) Producer, directly for money, to consumer. Unfortunately that model scales badly, because one entrepreneur only gets 24-hour days like the rest of us.

            Free content is lovely, but it is subsidized somewhere – or won’t continue from that particular provider.

            • Oh, free content is never free.
              You pay for it one way or another.
              Anything that is “free with ads” isn’t really free because what is being sold isn’t the free content but rather the viewer.

              “If you’re not the paying customer you’re the product”.

          • But the perception and the attitude towards the two platforms is very different. People don’t take youtube very seriously. As in the article, it is said that the girl “isn’t capable of writing an 80,000-word novel”. It is an automatic assumption that she’s an idiot. The perception and the attitude is that anyone can do youtube, because all it is is cat videos and make up tutorials.
            Yet in publishing there is still the belief that if you’re good enough you’ll get a publishing contract, if you’re not you’ll self publish. The perception of self-publish authors is still very different, and unless their book is terrible, you don’t assume that they’re and idiot. It’s still a very elitist, deeply ingrained perception and attitude.

            • I get your point but, why such a big concern over perception anyway? That only matters to those that care about validation by contract.

              As I said, it is a matter of the entrepreneurial mindset.

              Indie authors and youtubers are mostly results-oriented people. They don’t worry about what establishment followers think or say: they only worry about the revenue stream they generate. They are masters of their own fate. They own their success (or failure) 100% and are comfortable with that.

              Others, for reasons and psychology of their own, aren’t. Those are then dependent on other people’s perception of them as people and not just the quality or appeal of their product. It adds an extra layer of complexity to the success/failure equations that indies don’t have to worry about.

              • The problem with perception is that the celebrities are taking the big bucks but they don’t deserve it. You suggested that they could have gotten those books published by themselves long ago if that was their dream, but because of the perception of youtube v self-publishing, it might not be so. They might not have thought that self-publishing was a viable route. It is only over the last couple of years that it has been changing, and it still isn’t considered viable by a lot people.
                It’s also the perception that they’re fools and they don’t deserve it. It’s unkind.

        • @ Samantha

          self publishing is still considered by a lot of people to be vulgar.

          Who cares what those people think? They’re not your (or any indie author’s) target demographic anyway. They’re totally irrelevant to indie success. Screw ’em!

          • I was more arguing that the general perception of self-publishing still makes it an unlikely route for a lot of people and that is why a lot of people don’t do it.
            I mean, despite everything, I still can’t shake the feeling that I’m failing by doing it even though I know I’m not and I know it makes more sense in the modern world when contracts and whatnot are so scary.

  5. It’s all in the market size. A quick look on Wikipedia tells me that Random House had a revenue of +2 billion Euros in 2012 (it may dropped since then, but we’re still talking billions here).

    In order to sustain such crazy profits, traditional publishers are going to focus on safe bets like celebrity books, the classics, and the occasional really well known contemporary fiction writer. It’s hardly surprising that a debut author can’t really get a look in, because how likely is it they’re going to immediately sell a hundred thousand copies? The market for debut genre authors clearly isn’t big enough for the trads.

    But of course the wonderful news is those markets *are* big enough for indies. More than big enough! Of course it’s competitive, but indies can be oodles more agile and profitable than trads because no indie has 5,000 employees, shareholders, and offices in New York, London, Hong Kong and Sydney.

    I say let the trads do their thing with the mega sellers and celebrities. It’s like the Youtubers people mentioned up comment. Hollywood studios are focusing on making enourmous franchises that make billions. But I personally know a Youtuber who makes a 6-figure income from special FX make up videos. There are space for both tiers these days.

  6. I’ve checked back on this post a few times today to see the comments, and it has gradually dawned on me there are some implicit assumptions in the headline.

    “Professional writers are driven out of full-time work.”

    A professional writer is a writer who is paid to write. If you want to apply a stricter standard, you could say a professional writer is a writer who earns their principal income from writing. (And follows certain ethical codes such as produce original work.)

    To be driven out of work suggests you are working for someone else. That is not a requirement of being a professional writer. Nor is working full-time.

    I think the OP meant anointed writer. There is a limited supply of sacred oil for the priests of publishing to spread around, so the number of anointed writers is limited. If you look at some of the contracts anointed writers sign, and the amount of control they surrender over their IP and their careers, one thing many anointed writers are not is professional.

    Meanwhile other writers are writing, managing their own IP and careers, and making money.

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