WORDS WORTH LESS THAN EVER: WHAT NEXT?

13 July 2018

Last month, ALCS announced the headline findings from its latest independent survey into the earnings of authors, and they made somewhat depressing reading. Action is now underway to try and reverse this trend. Read on to find out how you can help.

Authors’ Earnings 2018: A Survey of UK Writers, carried out by CREATe, found that overall, the earnings of working writers continue to decline sharply. The median earnings of professional writers – that is those who dedicate over half their working hours to writing – has fallen by 42% in real terms since ALCS commissioned its first survey in 2005, and by 15% since 2013.

This clear sense of the national picture confirms what many individual writers already know: that overall they are earning less or having to work a lot harder in order to maintain even a relatively stable income. To quote author Pete May in a recent interview for ALCS News: “If you’re just starting out as a writer now, and you’ve got a mortgage or a lot of rent to pay, it’s really difficult.”

The release of Authors’ Earnings 2018: A Survey of UK Writers by ALCS prompted lead stories in both the Guardian and the Bookseller. In the Guardian report by Danuta Kean, writers Philip Pullman, Sally Gardner and Antony Beevor responded to the survey results by claiming that the reduced number of professional writers is threatening the diversity and quality of literary culture in the UK. Pullman said: “This matters because the intellectual, emotional and artistic health of the nation matters, and those who write contribute to the task of sustaining it.”

Under the headline ALCS: Author pay has slumped 42% since 2005, the Bookseller reported that authors earn 15% less in real terms today than they did in 2013. In his editorial, editor Philip Jones commented: “Publishers have become more profitable over the past decade – to their credit – but how much of this bounty has been passed down to authors remains unclear.”

Quoted in the Bookseller in an initial response to the ALCS research findings, Stephen Lotinga, Chief Executive of the Publishers Association (PA) said that the figures quoted would be “unrecognisable” to the majority of publishers as they “just do not reflect the investment they are making in creative talent”. He added: “If we are to have a genuinely constructive conversation about this issue then we need a much sounder evidence base.”

ALCS and the Society of Authors then composed a joint open letter to the PA, challenging these comments as follows: “There is clear evidence that author earnings are in serious decline. Meanwhile, the profit margins of the main corporate publishers are increasing, with average profits estimated to be around 13%. Based on the PA’s own 2016 figures, we estimated that the big five publishers’ shareholders received up to three times the amount paid to authors. This estimate has never been seriously challenged.”

The letter also expressed a willingness on the part of ALCS and the Society of Authors to work closely with publishers “to look at the causes of declining incomes for authors and to ensure that profits are fairly shared along the value chain”. Not only that, but Atkinson and Solomon highlighted the fact that similar international surveys show this is a worldwide trend: “You must be aware that very similar findings have emerged from surveys carried out in Canada, USA and other places, including a European Commission study from 2016. All show that the earnings of many authors are woeful and are continuing to decline.”

Additional corroboration of the findings of the ALCS research came in a speech by renowned composer and musician, Jean-Michel Jarre at a conference in the European Parliament celebrating the European Year of Cultural Heritage. “Creative industries have never been as prosperous in terms of turnover as they are now. The content creators though have never received so little”, he said. This just goes to show that the disproportionate distribution of income is not only an issue for writers; the European organisation, Society of Audiovisual Authors (SAA) recently highlighted a survey by French organisation La Scam that found filmmakers are also facing a similar situation. It was found that many filmmakers did not receive compensation that corresponded to the hours they spent making their film. The SAA have launched a petition to help support European screenwriters and directors – campaigning for the proposed EU Copyright Directive to ensure writers in Europe are fairly remunerated for their work – which we encourage ALCS members to sign.

Further findings from the ALCS research will be published later in 2018. In the meantime, the All Party Writers Group (APWG) has launched a call for evidence; encouraging all types of writers to provide written evidence on the professional challenges specific to authors, as well as the position of writers in the creative industry. ALCS urges all its members to participate in this to enable the clearest possible picture of the circumstances that many writers now find themselves in. Faced with such growing evidence, our creative industries – now valued at £92 billion and growing at twice the rate of the UK economy as a whole – can then be prevailed upon to take action to reverse a trend that is now all too evident.


Written by Caroline Sanderson: author, freelance books journalist and editor of ALCS News. She also chairs events at book festivals and in bookshops throughout the year.