The Future of Writing: Is being an author a viable career?



That’s less that the UK minimum wage per annum and yet, according to a BBC news article in July, this is the average amount of money an author earns per year, regardless of which publishing route (traditional or self) they took to get there.

The most shocking thing about this discovery is, perhaps, how unsurprising it is. It is not unusual for writers to supplement their earnings with a second job – this has been the case for decades. I know many writers from both sides of the publishing tracks who lead superhero lifestyles, e.g. Computer Analyst by day, Fantasy Writer by night. Yet, by authors earning so little, it brings to mind the idea of writing itself being undervalued. If authors are unable to earn minimum wage from what they consider a career, can it be classed as a ‘real job’?

As a writer myself, I found the confirmation of my ensured poverty disheartening. I already knew that getting published was unlikely but what seemed like a mere uphill struggle began to increasingly resemble the Punishment of Sisyphus: would I push my novel to the top of the publishing hill, only to have it roll back and flatten me with debt and meagre earnings? In this economy, what is an author to do? Is there any future for writing? The answer, I think, depends on what an author wants out of writing itself.

Working 9 to 5… what a way to make a living!

PoeSome people write for profit. There’s nothing wrong with that and they’re in good company: Edgar Allen Poe wrote primarily to earn a living and it didn’t do him or his readership any harm. Self-publishing is probably the better option if your only motivation is profit but, but if you’re looking for some quick cash, you’d be better off getting a 9-5 office job and squirreling away your wages.

Some people (arguably most people) write because they have The Bug. I’ve been writing since I can remember and I would wager this is the case with most. For these people, publishing is not just a ‘quick cash’ scheme, it is a career, it is work and it requires commitment. These are the people who should be able to earn a standard living wage, whether traditionally or self-published; a provision currently unavailable in the publishing market.

Get cape, wear cape, fly…

Personally, I am resigned to working two jobs, superhero style, and always have been. I have been well-prepared for a dual career ever since my Year 3 teacher (that’s 2nd Grade for our American friends) told me I’d make an excellent writer and my mother responded with “But you’ll need a proper job first.” What I didn’t know was how many writers felt the same way.

Wanting a second opinion (or several), I took to the Web. Using group discussions and various contacts as sounding boards, I asked how many thought writing was still a viable career option. If they did, who would still choose to publish via a traditional route rather than DIY methods if both were available?

The results were unanimously in favour of writing as a career, but with a few cautionary stings in the tail. Most responses warned of the damning effects of low book prices driving down profits not only for the respective author but for their contemporaries too. After all, who’s going to buy an e-book for £3.99 online when they can get another book for £0.99 or for free? By publishers undervaluing titles in order to increase book sales, mass market freebies and cheap novels are driving down the monetary value and perceived worth of words. Who can expect to sell their book at a regular price when they’re surrounded by other authors crying “Words for free!” at the top of their digital lungs?

artistFree books as a promotional tool are a necessary evil, especially when it comes to self-publishing. Providing a ‘give-away’ code is a great way to build a readership when you are unknown, but there should be a time limit in such provisions lest the market begin to associate the author’s name with stories that aren’t worth actually buying. Undervaluing literature is already prevalent in today’s book market; authors themselves don’t need to add to the problem.

Cut-pricing in publishing is partly to blame for this particular issue. The attraction of the DIY approach lies mostly in the ability for an author to ‘cut out the middle man’: keeping control over their vision and production, whilst retaining a majority share of the sale profit. Authors who choose this path, whilst originally disdained for not being ‘real’ writers, are enjoying an about-turn of opinion from readerships.

Quite rightly so! Modern self-published writers are in as good company as our profiteers: Margaret Atwood, William Blake, Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, Lord Byron, T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King, Rudyard Kipling, Beatrix Potter, Leo Tolstoi, Mark Twain and Virginia Woolf are among those who have self-published. This DIY path is no longer synonymous with being unsuccessful and, if one knows how to play in the Book Marketing sandpit, it can be a lucrative decision; sometimes more lucrative than a deal offered by a traditional publishing house.

Authors typically earn 15% of the book cover price.

The other culprits are big wholesale companies, who sell books at low cost to price out traditional publishing houses. These companies make up their profit from other sale items such as household appliances, so they can afford to take a hit when it comes to books, in favour of gaining prestige as a one-stop-shop for all your literary needs. Fifty Shades of Grey has been known to sell at £0.20 alongside other ‘beach reads’ in a summer sale. That’s 34 American cents (at the current exchange rate). Literary quality aside, how can bookstores and publishing houses compete with such prices?

The fact of the matter is: the pricing situation is almost out of control and something needs to be done quickly. So, how do we solve the problem of price cutting? It is evident that if authors have any chance of making a viable career from their passions – even if it is minimum wage – something has to change.

Perhaps, as one commenter suggested, there should be low-end price restrictions imposed on e-books and self-publications. Likewise, the split percentages of earnings from traditional publishing deals could be revised. At the moment, a typical percentage an author can expect is 15% of the cover price of a book and, whilst this is understandable given the amount of people on a publishing team, if the cover price is set low to begin with, the profit will be lower for the author. Unlike the rest of the publishing team involved, an author won’t be drawing a salary. Annual turnover needs to result in a margin of profit for the publishing house, but it should not be at the expense of the writer providing the content of publications.

Traditional publishing houses are experts in what they do; it is why they have successful business. It is also why I, personally, would choose to publishing traditionally if given the opportunity, but in an age of growing technological knowledge, how long will it be before DIY sales’ percentages rise too high above those from traditional contracts for merited competition?

Dont-PanicTraditional publishing is not going away any time soon; neither is self-publishing; neither are readers. Currently, bookshops are actually increasing in number, now that the recession closure scare is over. According to the American Booksellers Association, the number of bookstores has gone up (modestly) since 2009 and, in 2012, sales at indie bookstores rose 8% from the previous year.

Being an author is a viable career. The talent is there, the readership is there. The methods are there: both self-publishing and traditional publishing have unique selling points and values. The only consistent drawback is the current undervaluing of words. As with the music industry when mp3s and downloads became available, there was widespread concern over the failure of the industry as a whole. The music industry survived and is thriving. The publishing industry needs to do the same and find a new equilibrium with which to move forward.

Whilst publishers do that, authors need to remain stalwart beside their work and remember their passion for story-telling. If we follow the right path, we will eventually see the end of the tunnel and, out there, the future of writing is bright.

2 thoughts on “The Future of Writing: Is being an author a viable career?

  1. “who’s going to buy an e-book for £3.99 online when they can get another book for £0.99 or for free?” The difference is that it’s YOUR book, written by YOU. Not just a door stop or a mere object. Personally I have no interest in reading anything that’s valued at next to nothing. What on earth would be the point?

    Liked by 1 person

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