The death (and rebirth) of the author
Times are tough for creative professionals.
A survey by the UK Authors Licensing and Collecting Society (ACLS) found that the average income for a professional author is £10,500. It’s fallen by 42% since 2005.
In the US, it’s slightly better: a whopping $16,800 a year, or £12,800.
That’s total earnings. It’s well below the poverty line. It’s five grand less than a street sweeper earns.
Our culture has never been hungrier for content. But somehow, professional writers are losing out in the modern economy.
Female writers are especially screwed – their earnings are 75% those of the average male professional writer.
Why the catastrophic decline in author income? Several possible reasons.
Amazon has cornered the marketplace, accounting for roughly 50% of all book sales. That enables them to pressure publishers into worse profit-sharing contracts.
Publishers have responded by passing on those tighter margins to authors, in lower royalties and smaller advances.
Publishers have also consolidated, with smaller teams putting out more titles, meaning the amount of time promoting each book has shrunk.
The marketplace is increasingly saturated, particularly by self-published books on Amazon.
In such a saturated market, a few titles break out and do exceedingly well – 5% of authors account for 42% of income.
The internet has trained us to expect content for free. Books are competing with all the free content you can munch through online, via articles, blogs, podcasts and video.
I published my first book in 2012, when I was 35, after 15 years working as a journalist.
It took a long time to get published. My first two book ideas never sold. I couldn’t even find an agent to represent my third book idea. I was turned down by 10 agents, sometimes so quickly I thought my email had bounced back.
Then I got lucky. I paid a professional reader at The Literacy Consultancy to read my manuscript. Her name was Sue Lascelles, and she also worked at Rider Books, an imprint of Random House. She secured me a deal there, and became my first editor.
My first book, Philosophy for Life, went on to be published in 19 countries, and has sold something like 40,000 copies to date.
That’s unusually good. But it has still only earned me something like £50,000 in total, after four years writing and a hell of a lot of work promoting it.
This was a best-selling book that helped a lot of people – I get emails saying it has saved people’s lives.
And, on an annual basis, it earned me less than if I was cleaning toilets.
I then spent four years researching and writing my next book, The Art of Losing Control.
That was not very bright. Authors can't afford to spend that long researching a book now. And people don't have the attention span for long books. Keep it short and quick.
It was published in 2017, with a generous advance, but based on the amount of time and money I spent researching that book, it still translates as a terrible way to make a living, in economic terms at least.
I turned 40 last year, and realized that, as things stood, I couldn't afford a family. Nor did I have any savings or pension.
I realized something had to change. Either change profession, or change my game.
Where do authors go, in this very difficult time, for career advice?
Publishers are interested in your next book, and that’s about it.
Your agent is interested in your next book, and that’s about it.
I went to a ‘career coach’ who said she specializes in helping authors. It quickly became apparent she’d never heard of Patreon, and didn’t understand new media.
With so little advice, authors are left to figure it out on our own.
As a result, we get isolated and exploited.
Authors need to organize, strategize and assembalize (?) to survive.
I had the idea of setting up a club where authors could come and learn from each other and from industry experts.
I called it the Writers Survival Club, and launched it yesterday on Meetup, in London. I aim to organize one meeting a month.
I’ve also started a mutual coaching agreement with another writer. We agreed that, once a month, we would check in with each other and update how we’re getting on in meeting our financial goals.
I want to more than double my earnings in 18 months, so I reach a level which I think I deserve for my skill set.
I’m looking forward to experimenting how to raise my earnings, but here are three initial ideas.
Marketing is as important as content
This is totally anathema to most writers, certainly most British writers. We spend years lovingly researching and honing our content.
Then when it comes to promotion and publicity our noses wrinkle at the thought of having to sell ourselves.
In such a saturated market, we should be taking marketing as seriously as content.
We can’t leave it to our publishers. You need to have a strategy. That also means carving up your content into multiple different earning formats: books, podcasts, courses, events. It's not just about the book.
My fellow Stoic Ryan Holiday is very good at this. Listen to his advice.
Experiment with formats
Market data suggests that the authors doing best are those who use both traditional publishers and self-publishing. Use deals with traditional publishers to build your brand, and also self-publish to take a bigger scoop of royalties.
Authors who self-publish report greater satisfaction than authors who use traditional publishers. The latter often come away feeling aggrieved at the lack of promotion they got in return for giving away 85% of income.
I’m self-publishing my next book this year, and co-editing another book with an indie publisher.
Think beyond books.
Authors are way too focused on books as their main projects. We fetishize The Book.
Books are not necessarily the best way for authors to earn income.
We need to be much better at earning around books, through talks, blogs, podcasts, online and offline courses, and writing in other formats (journalism, TV, film).
Earning from talks may be easier for non-fiction writers than for fiction writers.
But there are examples of novelists and poets who have organized to create communities which put on great events (like Joe Dunthorne and his Homework events).
People are much more willing to pay for experiences than we are for online content.
Look at the demand for festivals: the UK has over 350 book festivals.
Look at the demand for adult education events like Intelligence Squared, TED, the School of Life, the How To Academy, 5 X 15, The Weekend University, or my own London Philosophy Club.
This is a big pie of ticket sales. But authors need to make sure they get a proper cut.
People will constantly try to get you to do talks for free, or for very little.
I once gave a talk at the Hay festival to around 250 people, each paying around £10 a ticket. I didn’t get a penny of that £2500.
Learn to say no to people. I said yes to everything when promoting my first book, and sometimes gave talks to just ten people or so, selling maybe one book at the end.
That would earn me about 40 pence for an evening’s work. Madness.
Event organizers will try and avoid paying you, either because they aren’t charging anything themselves (it’s their little passion project), or they are charging but want to keep most or all of the money.
If someone is earning from your content, you should get a good cut. I’d suggest 50% is fair, if they’re organizing and promoting the event.
Even better, take out the middle man and organize your own events. A big mailing list helps for this, but these days you can publicize events easily with Facebook.
I organized a London Philosophy Club talk on Aldous Huxley this week. I made it a Facebook event, and got 52,000 page views and 628 clicks. I sold 200 tickets for that, having spent £10 boosting the event on Facebook.
Online courses are another good way to earn – it means you can earn money from the same talks, without having to schlep around the world delivering it over and over.
I aim to launch my own online course, probably on Teachable, later this year, and to ramp up my YouTube content.
Earning from traditional journalism somewhat sucks. It’s a sinking ship, with declining readership, and arrogant editors who mess you around (if they answer at all). But there are still some good outlets, like Aeon for example.
You can earn from online writing, writing for Medium’s paid programme for example, where you get paid based on claps (please clap for this article!).
Patreon lets readers make a monthly donation to their favourite content creators. I’ve done OK from it, but it’s been slow – so far I have 150 Patreons out of 3000 newsletter subscribers and 1000 regular readers. I need to give less content away for free.
Finally, you can write for other formats, like TV, theatre and film. I’m shifting into this now, working on two treatments with two production companies.
You can also subsidise your research with other forms of funding: from academia (although funding applications are a lot of work) or from think-tanks (quicker applications but shorter time-scales).
And then there’s the money shot of corporate work, like corporate key-note talks. These earn a ridiculous amount: I’ve met keynote speakers who earn £10k-20k for an hour’s talk. But it’s a tough market to get into.
If this all sounds like hard work, it is. Writers are facing a struggle for survival and the dignity of making a living and supporting a family.
But it is doable. We just need to strategize, organize and adapt.
When in doubt, I say to myself: ‘What would Jon Ronson do?’
He’s a master of multiple formats: the books, the TV documentaries, the radio series, the podcast, the film scripts, the long-form articles, and the live events. And it’s all high-quality content.
It’s awe-inspiring, but that’s the high-water mark. That’s what’s possible.