Assessing the Profession(s): How Much Do UK Writers Earn?

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From Publishing Perspectives:

A ‘Devaluing of Creative Labor’

As we near our start of publication for 2023 (on January 3), you’ll note that Richard Charkin’s year-ending column mentions the recent report commissioned by the United Kingdom’s Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS). The researchers who wrote the report did so under the auspices of the “CREATe” Centre at the University of Glasgow. (The name is an acronym for Creativity, Regulation, Enterprise, and Technology, and the program was established in 2012. More information on it is here.)

The new report, released this month, is titled UK Authors’ Earnings and Contracts 2022: A Survey of 60,000 Writers. Our Publishing Perspectives readers will recall that we and other various news media did a good deal of reporting in 2018, when an earlier report in this series found that in the United Kingdom, a “median annual income of a professional author [was] £10,500 (now US$12,699), well below the minimum wage,” reminding readers that “the equivalent figure in 2013 was £11,000 (now US$13,304) and in 2005 it was £12,500 (now US$15,118).”

The top-line figure in the new 2022 report paints an even less felicitous picture at the end of 2022, putting median earnings from self-employed writing in the UK at £7,000 (US$8,466), obviously a substantial drop.

. . . .

“We chart a decline in median (typical) earnings from self-employed writing among primary-occupation authors of 38.2 percent (in real terms),” write Thomas, Battisti, and Kretschmer, “since the last survey in 2018 (i.e., from £11,329 to £7,000).

“Even more dramatically, we see a sustained downward trend over the past two decades that seems to be associated with changes to creative labor markets in the digital environment.”

Here’s a simple graphic representation of that downward trend in figures that come from reports released:

  • In 2006: Authors’ Earnings From Copyright and Non-Copyright Sources: A Survey of 25,000 British and German Writers
  • In 2014: The Business of Being an Author: A Survey of Authors’ Earnings and Contracts)
  • In 2018: UK Authors’ Earnings and Contracts 2018: A Survey of 50,000 Writers

There are three key classifications of writers and/or authors in play here.

  • The “full-income author” is defined as a writer who receives all of her or his individual income from “the profession of writing.”
  • The “primary-occupation author” is one who spent at least 50 percent of his or her working time writing.
  • The “main-income author” is defined as someone who earns 50 percent or more of her or his total individual income from writing.

Across all these classifications, the demographic profile drawn from this 2,759-person sample comprises a divide of 51 percent of respondents identifying as men and 45 percent identifying as women. However, “For primary-occupation authors,” the researchers write, “we see that the gender difference is reversed, with 50 percent identifying as women and 46 percent as men.”

At 86 pages, the report acknowledges the contextual impact of “two hugely disruptive events for UK authors: the COVID-19 pandemic (the first UK lockdown started on March 23, 2020), and Brexit (the transition period ended on January 1, 2021). We find that, despite being sometimes heralded as great equalizers, these events had significant
and disproportionate effects on certain groups of authors.”

The work is also “situated,” they write, “amid an arguably global trend toward the devaluing of creative labor.”

The range of writing endeavors represented here is broad, with 65 percent of the respondents’ income reported to come from the book business.

Image: ‘UK Authors’ Earnings and Contracts 2022: A Survey of 60,000 Writers’

And yet, despite the lead in books as income in the previous question, in terms of what sectors those responding may see as the sources of most of their income, academic writing is at the fore. These classifications are referred to as “genres” in the study, but of course, “genres” form a different index in the standard usage of the term in book publishing, where this list might be more readily recognized as sectors.

There’s an interesting section on Page 67 of the report, in fact, on audio-visual authors, including a look at the flux generated during the still-ongoing coronavirus pandemic. In that section, the researchers write that they see “changes to the points in payments to audio-visual authors becoming more stratified, rather than representing long-term or steady earning potential.”

What’s more, they write, “Audio-visual authors also increasingly discuss their relationship with large streaming platforms [that] influence the nature of the operation of contracts in this industry.” They write of a trend put forward by respondents in these industries “to opt for complete buy-outs in audio-visual writings, rather than long-term earnings through repeat fees.”

Image: ‘UK Authors’ Earnings and Contracts 2022: A Survey of 60,000 Writers’

Publishing Perspectives’ primary readership, of course, is in the international book publishing executive and rights-director/agent/scout sector. Our readers thus follow analysis of this kind as part of their assessment of the conditions creative workers in the field of book publishing are encoutering. Assessing those conditions is important for industry players if they’re to have an understanding of the evolving economic milieu in which the writers’ corps is working.

‘The Writing Profession[s] and Sustainability’

One feature of the difficult task set for these researchers is managing the broad range of occupational (or too often aspirational) areas of endeavors under the uber-heading of “writing.” An interesting graphic illustrates how the researchers say they “accounted for differences for earnings of authors across different occupations as certain sub-sectors or genres may produce higher or lower incomes.” You’ll notice that one “sub-sector” is classified as “Academic/Teacher.”

Image: ‘UK Authors’ Earnings and Contracts 2022: A Survey of 60,000 Writers’

Our publishing-industry readership will recognize a parallel here. An Aldus-Up program led by Fundación Germán Sánchez Ruipérez’s Luis González is working to bring coherence to publishing industry statistical research from market to market in Europe. Until now, myriad apples-to-oranges comparison problems have kept sectors of the international book publshing industry from effectively appraising its shared challenges and progress.

Similarly, the sheer breadth of career formulations and roles that fall under the umbrella term “writer” are daunting, as are the range of contractual models. This makes it difficult to assess fully what can be learned from the best-intentioned and executed survey work. As the researchers, themselves, write, “Due to the lack of a stable definition of an ‘author,’ we did not apply any statistical weights to make the survey more representative for the total writing population.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

7 thoughts on “Assessing the Profession(s): How Much Do UK Writers Earn?”

  1. I wonder how much of this decline is due to self-pub and the resultant increase in authors who aren’t making a lot of money, but under the old system wouldn’t have been authors.

  2. There is an obviously large difference between full-time writers and all writers. A median income of £7,000 for all writers – but their fancy graphic (which I must assume, from the much smaller sample size, is full-time writers) shows a median of three times that.

    In fact, the median of £21,000 is just about the same as a full-time job at the National Living Wage (which is £10.42, so far as I can find on the web). The National Living Wage would pay £21,256.80 for a full-time job.

    • Yup. These analyses don’t really work for activities that range from sole source of income, down through side hustle, to a hobby that might bring in a few bucks. The various levels aren’t really comparable, yet here they are, getting compared.

  3. The mean. or the mode, might have provided a better indication of what writers make. Many writers with little income from writing will offset the superstar (like J K Rowling), using an average or median.

  4. Income from writing, or writer’s income? If one cannot earn enough from writing, then do something else. Alternatively, income from writing would soar if 90% of writers quit writing.

  5. I neglected to include the following information about the study in my initial post:

    “It is not, as the title says, “A survey of 60,000 writers.” It’s a survey of only 2,759 people who responded. According to the report, 57,241 people in some area of writing who are believed to have been reached by the survey, did not take the chance to answer it. And that, too, shows a sharp decline. It’s about half the number of the 5,500 respondents reported in the 2018 survey, which was said to have been offered to 50,000.”

    PG says this is member/consumer research on the cheap. It is almost certain that the responses of a small portion of the organization’s members does not accurately reflect thoughts and experiences of the whole group.

    There are ways of selecting a portion of the entire group to study that are likely to be representative of the whole, but sending a survey to everyone that few people respond to is not one of those ways.

  6. PG, you raise an important point, and it is to Publishing Perspectives’ credit that they raise this when the organizations that originated the surveys will not.

    Here’s a related point, that I feel is significant. These surveys are sent to British writers’ organizations such as the Society of Authors, Writer’s Guild etc. Most of them primarily represent journalists or magazine columnists or radio and TV scriptwriters etc. although the Society of Authors does primarily represent authors of books.

    I’ve been a “full-income” author by this report’s definition for a dozen years and in that time I’ve come to know many other full-time and primary-occupation authors of books, many of which are also British. But I can only think of one who has ever mentioned being a member of the Society of Authors, and he is a tradpub author. I know many more professional British authors who are members of 20Booksto50k or Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi).

    I’m not a member of the Society of Authors. They don’t represent me, and I want nothing to do with them. I was not sent this survey.

    Even if the survey was managed so that it was representative of the organizations polled, there is no evidence that those organizations are themselves representative of anything.

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