On the Economics of Being a Full-Time Author

Virginia Woolf painted by Roger Fry, 1917.

Writing in today’s Guardian, British author James McConnachie — editor of the quarterly journal of the Society of Authors and Vice Chair of the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society — somewhat vaguely proposes that publishers pay authors “as much as their other employees” — whatever that means. (More on this later.)

McConnachie continues: “… Without reform, according to the Society of Authors, professional writers may become ‘an endangered species’. That is to no one’s advantage, not to a culture that values extended thought. Not to a society that does not want writing to be monopolised by the wealthy. Virginia Woolf sustained her ‘room of her own’ on the £400 yield from the family money she had invested, but not everyone is so lucky. The situation doesn’t benefit publishers, either, for whom diversity is vital.”

Let’s get real. The “full time professional author” is and always has been a damn rare bird. Ancillary revenue streams are and have routinely been a significant part of the equation. Dickens edited and published his own magazines. He also did reading tours. Woolf, as noted above, had family money. Fitzgerald and Faulkner frequently worked for Hollywood. (Faulkner wrote the screenplay for Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not.) Robert Penn Warren taught at Yale. Toni Morrison has taught at the State University of New York, Rutgers, and Princeton. Joyce Maynard conducts writing retreats.

Of course, there’s a very short list of blockbuster authors who represent not just the exception, but the extreme exception, becoming wealthy. Here we are talking about Ernest Hemingway, Jacqueline Susann, Arthur Hailey, etc. More contemporaneously, we have the likes of Stephen King, Mary Higgins Clark, James Patterson, and Patricia Cornwell. But these are the very rarest of birds, leaving far behind the hoards who flock in the midlist. Compensation mirrors sales, and there can be no fairer algorithm than this.

Ironically, at the same time that Mr. McConnachie calls for publishers to give authors the same compensation as their “other employees,” he also comments: “Rates for lower-ranking editorial staff are shocking. £16,000 [approx. $23,000] for a graduate? In London? And yes, unpaid and low paid internships are rife, despite the damage they do to diversity. (A recent survey by the Society of Young Publishers found that 38% of respondents got their first job through internships — half of them unpaid.) But even the lowliest shuffler of proofs gets more than £11,000 [approx. $16,000] a year.”

Look, publishing has always been a thin margin business. Those same young college graduates are free to go into finance. No one is stopping them. But if they have a passion for the publishing trade — just as others, Mr. McConnachie among them, have a passion for writing — then they’ve made a career decision in full knowledge of (and regardless of) the precarious economics involved.

Mr. McConnachie admits commercial publishing “is and should be a market.” But then he asserts that publishers do not “in the general course of things, try to screw down every supplier to the absolute minimum possible contractual terms. Maintaining the quality of the relationship, longer term, would militate against that.”

Actually, in my own 36-year career as a publishing professional at St. Martin’s Press, Macmillan, and now with my own New Street, I’ve routinely witnessed and practiced the art of screwing down “every supplier” — of paper, of printing, of design, of distribution, and so forth — to the absolute minimum possible contract terms. This is what the long-practiced process of competitive bidding is all about. (This is also essential since, to repeat, publishing is a thin margin business.) Conversely, as an author, I’ve only received a $50,000 advance after receipt of a $40,000 bid from a competitive house, and never otherwise. (By the way, I’ve always either held a full-time job or pursued an active career as a consultant while at the same time writing numerous books.)

It has intrigued me, of late, how writerly organizations such as the Society of Authors and Authors Guild assume a certain level of professional entitlement for their members above and beyond those in other professions. Yes, writing has a cultural value. But so do the fields of engineering, auto maintenance, and ditch-digging. All these things are very necessary, but all are compensated differently, according to the market. Why should writing be any different?

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