Peter Kay is laughing all the way to the Book Awards with two nominations. But while a few authors strike it rich, a new study shows most earn a pittance
Authors do love to moan, don't they? There's no heavy lifting or wiping other people's bottoms for a living; it's just sitting there going tap-tippety-tap all day, complaining about how little you're being paid, isn't it? And yet... new research just published shows they (we, to be honest) may have something really worth moaning about. Something shocking is happening in the world of publishing that means we could end up with very few books at all except the ghost-written memoirs of airhead footballers and models.
The average author earns about £16,000, a third less than the national average wage, it is revealed. So what? They're doing what they love. But hidden behind that figure released by the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) is a grimmer truth: when you take away the superstars who are earning shedloads, the actual figure for the rest is closer to £4,000.
That's less than it was last time anyone looked, seven years ago, and far less than the distant days when the Net Book Agreement kept prices high. Forget living on baked beans in a garrett; this is barely enough to buy stale bread and a tarpaulin for shelter.
And it is only for the lucky ones: fewer authors are being signed up unless they're famous, advances are shrinking, and those who sell only moderately well are dropped, ending careers early.
Peter Kay need not worry. His autobiography The Sound of Laughter sold a record-breaking 600,000 copies in its first six weeks. The comedian may now win both the Biography and Book of the Year prizes at the National Book Awards, whose shortlists were announced on Thursday. The Nibbies, as they insist on calling themselves, will be the usual glamorous, televised affair at the end of the month, hosted by Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan. Famous names dominate the shortlists as usual: TV chef Gordon Ramsay is up for Best Biography; England footballer Steven Gerrard may win Sports Book of the Year; and the relentless advance of Ricky Gervais on all media fronts continues with Flanimals of the Deep in the kids' category.
These people are earning fortunes. "The top 10 per cent of authors earn more than half the total income," says the ALCS, whose job is to make sure its 55,000 members get what they are owed. Altogether, British authors earn £907m each year - but the 5,500 bestselling authors get at least £453m of that.
Most were already rich and famous before they put their name to a title: the second rank of contenders includes the US politician Al Gore and Richard Dawkins, the fundamentalist evolutionist whose ability to make science understandable is exceeded only by his talent for self-publicity. He was at it again last week, goading Kay about God.
People like that live in a different world from "Jane". She is now on her fourth book, in her forties, with a devoted band of readers. They see her on stage at literary festivals, elegant and eloquent and just a little bohemian, and think: "There is a writer who's made it." They don't know that the advances have dwindled down to £10,000 a time (from which the agent and taxman take their share; and for a book that usually takes about two years to write). They don't see the bills threatening to make her sell her house.
Jane doesn't want me to use her real name in case it upsets her publisher or fans. Neither does she want them to know that she works in the local Waitrose for cash, as well as teaching and tutoring.
"People come and see me all bright-eyed, dreaming of being a writer," she said.
"They've got the idea that anyone can do it. That's what people think: that it's so easy. I wish! I tell them I've been training since I was seven." Others do have talent. "They tell me it's their calling. I say it will have to be. I don't want to crush them, but the best advice if you want to eat is: 'Do something else.'"
Jane did not go to the crisis meeting called by the ALCS at the British Library on Thursday, but some of the most distinguished names in British literature were there to discuss the plummeting income of authors and the copyright issues that threaten to make it worse. Some raged against Google's plans to make whole books available online for free. The poet Wendy Cope lamented the ease with which you can download her own works and those of other poets for free.
"With every new technological development, our copyright becomes more precious," said Maureen Duffy, writer and honorary president of the ALCS, "and yet seemingly less understood by those who want to use our work."
Internet users have become used to getting words for nothing, and many just don't see why they should pay. Many authors and publishers, in turn, have been spectacularly slow in looking for ways to make the new webworld work for them. They just know that it is almost impossible to have a hit unless the buyers from Tesco, WH Smith and Waterstone's like your title and jacket. "You can still take a chance on a writer," said an editor with a big-name publisher, " but if they don't get in the three-for-two promo it's really not worth bothering."
The twist in the tale is that the one place new authors can break through in spectacular fashion is on the telly: Richard & Judy on Channel 4. The hosts, who will present the Nibbies, have a viewers' book club that has brought success to the likes of The Girls by Canadian author Lori Lansens. Judy Finnigan called it "one of the most wonderful books I have ever read". Virago might have been lucky to sell 25,000 copies in this country without that - instead, sales exceed 130,000.
The result is inevitable. "Publishers of literary fiction are not considering anything they don't think will get on to Richard & Judy," said one agent. "That has become everything."
It hasn't, of course, in more general terms. Authors include those who write local history pamphlets and academic texts which they never get paid for. They do it for love, vanity, therapy, academic advancement or to get away from the kids - lots of reasons besides money. They won't stop, however bleak things look.
"Writers do not act together," said the author Maureen Freely. "We are always happy to believe that although things are terribly difficult for everyone, we will be part of that happy 10 per cent that strikes it rich." She smiled. "Speaking for myself, I have not."
Antony Beevor probably has. His two bestsellers, Stalingrad and Berlin, have shifted more than 2.5 million copies between them. But Professor Beevor argued passionately at the British Library that modern publishing was a betrayal of our literary heritage. It was ridiculous, he said over coffee, that some publishers gave authors who were not already famous just one chance to prove their worth. "How many first-hit wonders are there? Monica Ali, perhaps. Zadie Smith. But very few others. Hardly any."
As a result the "mid-list" of people like Jane who have written a number of books with respectable but only moderate sales - for now - is disappearing.
Why does that matter? Stalingrad was Professor Beevor's ninth book. "If I were starting out now, those books would not have happened," he said, with a weary shake of the head. "I never would have made it. If we carry on like this, how much will be lost?"
Who ate all the royalties?
Peter Kay sold 600,000 copies of his autobiography 'The Sound of Laughter' in the first six weeks of publication. But research conducted by the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society shows just how unusual he is. A survey of authors' earnings found that a few superstars are sharing more than half the money made from writing books in this country. For the rest, however, incomes are low:
£907.5m is earned by the 55,000 authors in Britain every year but 50 per cent of the cash goes to 10 per cent of the authors, meaning that the 5,500 bestselling writers share at least £453.75m of it, giving them an average annual income of £82,500 while the other 49,500 authors share the rest, typically earning £4,000.