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DarkEcho Horror Death by Rick Berry
The DarkEcho Files

DON'T SELL THE FARM

For more than six years Paula Guran published -- in email form on a weekly basis -- an eccentric newsletter for horror writers and others. This commentary came from it.

DarkEcho
06.29.00
V.7 #24

You think you should be able to make a living as a writer? A survey by the Society of Authors (U.K.) shows that dream may be even further from reality than we thought. An article published last Thursday by The Guardian/The Observer Web site BooksUnlimited (reported the survey -- first of its kind in nearly 20 years -- "shows that the universal creative dream of self-sufficiency through writing is receding farther than ever. . . Almost half British authors earn less than the £5,000 yearly minimum wage and three quarters make less than the national average of £20,000." Only one writer in seven actually lives on earnings from writing. In other words, "You live better with toilet cleaner on your fingers than with ink."

(The British pound has been rather volatile of late, but at current rates £5,000 equates to about $7540 USD and £20,000 to $30,155 USD. You can use a rate converter to figure out the rest of the sums mentioned here. Other statistics: Poverty level for a single person in most of the US is about $ 8,000; the average national wage in the US is around $29,000.)

Don't think American writers have it any better. Statistics are, according to publishing mavens, comparable for US scribes. Plus, Yanks don't have socialized medicine and get no subsidies from books circulating in libraries like the Brits. Not that these "library loans" through the public lending fund make much of a difference. According to the survey more than 62% of authors earned under £100 a year from it.

"It's always been bad for writers," you'll mumble. Maybe so, but the number of those who earn their living by writing has been shrinking for 40 years: "In 1966, nearly half of authors could rely on their output as a sole source of income. By 1971, this had fallen to less than a third. . . . 1981, it was down to less than a sixth".

Overall: "Average income was £16,000. Only 3% of writers earned £40,000-£50,000; only 4% got £50,000-£75,000; only 2% got £75,000-£100,000; and among the highest earners only 3% made over £100,000. . . .Nearly 90% of writers of academic and reference books made under £20,000. This earnings band also included 62% of crime, thriller and mystery writers, 70% of general fiction, educational and children's writers, and 75-80% of writers in all other fields. . . . Lowest earners were in the fields of genre fiction, specialist non-fiction, and academic and lifestyle books."

But what about all those big advances we hear about? In a follow-up story two days later, BooksUnlimited revealed that many book deals are basically hype. "Although there is some big-cheque fiction . . . deceit about fees is surprisingly common. The publicist inflates the advance in order to make the book news. Because the dream of every journalist is to escape with a vast book advance, news editors are liable to be encouraged by the suggestion that publishing a novel is a kind of legal bank robbery. And so, while most authors take the bus to deliver their manuscripts, newspaper readers are learning of a world in which every wry and bleak bildungsroman is a down-payment on a yacht. . . . "

Of course, as the article points out, many of the low-wage-earning writers "may be poor because they're bad, but poverty in an artist can also result from radicalism, risk, perfectionism or unseen achievement."

I, for one, would accept the challenges of being too well paid. After all, we nonfiction types aren't very creative anyway.

ADDENDUM

As was often the case with "DarkEcho", one of the darklings added some expertise to the above. The information was included in the next issue:

Author Simon Clark wrote to mention he was one of the authors who completed the Society of Authors earnings questionnaire. He also supplied a bit more about the UK Library payments system (PLR -- Public Lending Right): "Although statistics show the average payment is around $150 a year, many British novelists I've spoken to receive annual payments of around $1500 to $2000 yearly. Not a huge fortune but it does pay some household bills and is popular with writers across here. We also have something called ALCS (Authors Licensing Collection Society) which collects fees from students and so on photocopying an author's work. This, on the other hand, pays a little less (at least in my experience); after being registered for five years I received my first payment this year of around $40. Oh well, it paid for a new whistling kettle and a couple of paperbacks.

"Rather than calculate PLR payments on all books borrowed in the UK the PLR office selects 30 libraries at random and bases payment on their borrowings. It is very popular with authors, even though funding for PLR could be better. Roughly the PLR office receives $8,000,000 per anum; perhaps almost 10% of that goes on administration and wages, the rest is distributed to authors every January/February. The smaller payments of $150 a year tend to go to authors who've not had a book published in a long while, or poets, or biographers of obscure clergymen or whatever. For mass-market novelists annual payments are nearer the $1500-2000 mark. The PLR Web site: ."


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