I asked, and you did.
Had this been Sweden, I needn’t have asked. Most information about what anyone earns, or any fortune they tell the tax authorities about, is available for anyone to see.
But I’ve been thinking about this for years, and finally plucked up the courage to ask authors what they earn and how well they feel they can live off their book earnings. And if it costs them money, too. Because just like I pay to blog, increasingly I’ve been feeling that some authors are forking out – a fair bit of – money to help their books along.
The survey was not perfect. It was my first ever. But I asked what I wanted to know, and that was annual income (yes, I know there is no such thing, and it fluctuates, widely), primarily from sales (including advances and royalties) of books, but also any other kind of income like PLR, prize money, fees for talks, film rights, etc.
Then there’s the possibility that the author has a(nother) paid job, or that they have partners who support them, or perhaps they are the main breadwinner and need to keep other family members in the style to which they have become accustomed. Can they even live off their book earnings? Are they thinking of giving up writing because of the money?
For people who actually understand that most authors don’t earn millions, it could still come as a surprise that not everyone has a real, liveable on kind of annual salary. Or that you are paid this year, but will have to wait another few years for the next lot of money to come your way.
Who did I ask? Well, everyone (children’s authors) that I was able to contact either by email or via facebook. People I ‘know’ and who mostly know me, or of me. That was close to 200. I had 83 replies. A big thank you to all! I know who some of them were, because they wrote and told me that they’d filled in the survey, but I don’t know who the individual results belong to. The Resident IT Consultant sat by his computer and watched in amazement as the answers piled in. But he doesn’t know who I contacted.
Someone suggested that I might know the kind of writer who is better off than average. I’m not sure, because some really don’t earn very much from their writing. And how do you decide what is an OK income? Is it the same as you or more, or are you dissatisfied with what you have?
26 men and 57 women, with a fairly even distribution of how long they’ve been writing. Around a quarter each for less than five years, between five and ten years, 10-20, and over 20 years. 53 of them are the main breadwinner, including two on less than £1000 a year. I’m guessing those two have other jobs. If I’m being sexist about this and assume that all the men are the main breadwinner, that leaves 27 women who are as well, on whatever money they earn.
27 people say the money is definitely not enough to live on, and 27 are considering giving up writing. I wonder if they are the same 27?
‘But how much money do they earn?’ I hear you ask. Well, nine make less than £1000 and twelve between £1K and £5K. 24 authors earned from £5K to £15K, and another 19 £15K to £30K. Eleven lucky ones made £30K to £75K, while nine earned over £75K. (So had JKR been part of this, that’s presumably where she would have been.) As more than one person pointed out, their income varies crazily from one year to the next. One writer said she had been in each category at some time or other. Another mentioned the nightmare of paying tax, based on such unevenly timed earnings.
The Resident IT Consultant played around with the figures a bit, and assuming the range is between £500 and £85,ooo, then the median income is £7K for those who have been published for less than five years. Authors with more than 10 years behind them had a median income of £18K, while those in the middle made £13K. But if the highest earners are considerably wealthier than this assumption, that would obviously change.
I’m half wishing I’d had one more, much higher income option, but I felt that over £75K was an indication of quite an acceptable income, one which many would be very satisfied with, and that excessive success needn’t be measured here. (Although I’m naturally very pleased for anyone so excessive!) All nine who earned over £75K felt they lived comfortably, and so did some of the writers above £15K. This must vary with how many are dependent on their income; whether someone is single or has ten children and as many dogs.
For other income, 37 have partners who earn, and three work full time at something else, and nine do part time non-book work. Only a handful employ someone else, such as a PA or their own publicist. And along the same lines, 45 people send out up to five review copies of their book themselves, and 17 send out up to 20 copies, while three send out more.
A lot of writers have won awards, whether major (19) or more local (45) book awards. The estimated median income for major (Carnegie, Costa/Whitbread, Guardian, Smarties, etc) award winners is £23K, compared with £15K for others. Does that mean you make more money having won an award, or does award winning ‘qualities’ mean you are likely to sell more books anyway?
Most authors who contacted me privately wanted to give their best year. That’s understandable, because it looks better that way. But it would also indicate that writers on average earn more than they really do. We want authors to make good money, but for any kind of sympathy the real state of affairs needs to be made public.
And those awards that authors get invited to attend? 15 respondents have paid for travel and accommodation themselves, with six paying more than £100 in one year. It’s worth remembering that many awards are more honour than income. Might generate more sales, and thereby higher earnings, but not necessarily.
So there you have it. Things could be worse, but they could certainly be better too. Let’s hope it’s not your favourite author who hangs up their laptop because they quite like feeding their children, or heating their homes. Sometimes even both.