At the start of the year, the Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey revealed that a staggering 54% of published writers make less than £600 a year with their writing, barely a fraction of average earnings (£26,500) in the UK two years ago, but the most profitable 1% of writers can earn as much as £59,000 annually. The disparity in income among writers is astounding, but the issue itself should not come across as a surprise, since writers have been facing this issue for centuries.
With such a bleak situation at hand, writers tend to think their predecessors were better treated. When Charles Dickens toured America in the 1860s, he earned £38,000 from just seventy-six readings that had people lining up for tickets, a grand sum for the Victorian period when the price of bread was still calculated in terms of pennies. However, Dickens is hardly a holistic indicator for the earnings of Victorian writers. According to Sir Walter Besant’s estimation in 1899, among the 1,300 novelists successful enough to have their works listed in the W.H. Smith library catalogue, only around 500 could sustain their livelihood with writing. The modern disparity in income among writers, then, is not so much an issue created today as it is a problem unresolved and carried over from the past.
It is a financial struggle for writers, both now and then, to sustain their lives and their writing. Many writers rely on additional jobs, whether they be full-time, part-time or freelance, as their major sources of income while writing becomes somewhat an interest that can occasionally yield financial bonuses to make paying the bills easier. But this is not the only reason why financial concerns pose difficulty for writers. Apart from making the idyllic lifestyle of earning by writing quite impossible, it also encourages writers to change their perception of what it means to write. As Jasper Milvain, a fictional author from George Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891), said:
“I am the literary man of 1882. Literature nowadays is a trade. Putting aside men of genius, who may succeed by mere cosmic force, your successful man of letters is your skilful tradesman. He thinks first and foremost of the markets; when one kind of goods begins to go off slackly, he is ready with something new and appetising.”
If writers hope to come to terms with the laws of commerce governing their field of creativity, they may have to produce novels tailored to the public’s taste rather than create what they think constitutes a good novel. When being a prolific writer means being profitable in terms of book sales, the writer no longer has complete agency over his or her work, since it is the consumer decisions readers make that determine how much a writer earns by royalties and, by extension, what publishing houses prefer putting onto retail bookshelves. It would seem the odds are ever in Suzanne Collins’s favour with her £32 million revenue from The Hunger Games trilogy, and apparently with E. L. James as well with her Fifty Shades series earning £55 million. Some writers scoff at the idea of, as they would say, ‘lowering’ themselves to write about love triangles in a dystopian universe and explicit erotica, but it is undeniable that Collins and James gained financial success from those genres.
Where is the silver lining then, if writers cannot seem to earn from writing without compromising their work? Writing with an eye for the market and reader trends may sound like the fool-proof plan to making a profit, but reader trends are changing by the minute, and writers may not benefit from following the footsteps of prolific writers because they will always be one step behind. After the international success of the Twilight series, many publishing houses do not receive novel submissions involving vampire romances anymore, because the market for that genre has already been saturated. Hence, it may actually be better for writers to keep on writing what they want to and, if they intend to earn only by writing, simply hope it is well-received among the public. Some writers would recommend keeping faith, and lots of it, to hope that their writing career will merely be a bumpy ride instead of a straight-up crash and burn. Some would give up writing full-time and instead support their passion for writing with alternative sources of income to help with daily life expenses. Despite the financial hardship of being a writer, most continue writing, and this may already be the break in the clouds that we are looking for – a generation of writers who, despite all odds, are determined to sustain their passion for words to the very end.