The Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society recently did a survery of writers’ earnings and discovered the median income of British professional writers is now £11,000, down from £15,540 in 2005. I am not surprised by the drop in earnings: writers are earning less per sale than in the past. Amazon slashes prices and this in turn slashes a writer’s income. Discounts have never been greater. The writer, who has produced the book, gets the smallest slice of the cake. Most writers do other things, too: teaching, editing, journalism. I was membership secretary of the CWA for a while.
I have been brooding about the changing fortunes of writers ever since I read Maggie Gee’s first-rate memoir, My Animal Life, in which she is admirably frank about the vicissitudes of her life as a writer. She was dropped by her publisher in mid-career. Later she was dropped by her agent, too. She made it back, but by the skin of her teeth. She describes the changes that she has seen in publishing. ‘As giant firms sucked up the independents, they aimed to sell more copies of fewer books . . . perfectly respected and serious publishers talked proudly about “the death of the mid-list”, to show they too were out there, swimming with sharks; but really they were just making sad boasts about the loss of variety and interest.’
‘The death of the midlist:’ that is, of all those many, many worthwhile books that are not among the best-sellers. It is a sad prospect. Not to mention the fact that many of today’s best-sellers started out as mid-list writers and wouldn’t have been best-sellers if publishers hadn’t believed in them and given them time to succeed. It’s true that it’s never been easier to self-publish, but at the same time it’s never been harder to get a start with a decent publisher.