What is an author worth? What he or she is paid, ultimately. And unfortunately that is often out of all proportion to the work an author must do to create a work.
In Australia, the best data on what an author is worth come from the work of David Throsby and Virginia Hollister for the Australia Council. The 2003 edition of their book Don’t give up your day job states that in 2000-01 the median earned creative income of writers was $4,800, the total arts income was $11,700 and the total income was $35,000. Throsby and Hollister acknowledge that income for writers can come from various sources. The Australian Society of Aithors (ASA) has long championed a range of income possibilities for writers. Payments from royalties from the sale of the published book are the main income stream from a publishing contract, but the exploitation of subsidiary rights such as serialisation, film and other adaptation rights can be quite valuable both on publication and afterwards. As the age of book increases, its potential to earn royalties usually decreases, which is why the ASA has been the driving force for the creation of payments for lending rights and from copying, both of which extend earnings to the author from the exploitation of their work.
Throsby and Hollister took all these income streams into account when assessing authors’ incomes, as well as other types of income coming from public appearances, reading and activities related to authorial activity. This means that the Australian figures on authors’ incomes are relatively comprehensive. For example, Throsby and Hollister found that 42% of writers earned less than $10,000 from their creative and arts-related work, while 18% earned $50,000 or more. When income from all work was considered, this figure dropped to 13% of writers earning less then $10,000 and rose to 35% of writers earning $50,000 or more.
The same isn’t always true of data from the rest of the world so when we compare authors’ income internationally we have to be conscious that what is being measured isn’t always the same thing. Nevertheless, international comparisons are a useful means of assessing the success of Australian authors as income-earning writers.
Let’s consider our South Pacific neighbours first. Using the services of Research International, the New Zealand Society of Authors (NZSA) recently surveyed 355 mid-career and established writers regarding income (New Zealand Author, Oct/Nov 2007) and discovered that “ just 17 per cent of New Zealand writers survive solely on their writing income”.
The New Zealand figures also showed that the mean total of a writer’s income from all sources (but excluding full-time work) was NZ$15,383 (A$12,768). The minimum wage in New Zealand is NZ$23,400 (A$19,422).
The NZSA found that
• 77 per cent of mid-career authors earn less than NZ$10,000 from writing;
• only 9 per cent of established authors earn over NZ$50,000
• only 30 per cent of mid-career and established authors have received a grant in the last four years; and
• 34 per cent of authors say they couldn’t afford to write without the help of family of friend.
As to other income streams, New Zealand authors have not yet achieved some of the successful additional income sources available to Australian authors through the ongoing work of the ASA. As an example, set up in 1973, the New Zealand Authors' Fund acts a bit like Public Lending Right as it compensates New Zealand authors for the loss of income through holdings of their books in New Zealand libraries. Authors may register with the Fund if they are eligible to receive royalties for their books and if more than 50 copies are held in New Zealand libraries. The Fund was meant to allow authors to pursue their writing full-time. The survey showed only 9 per cent of writing related income came from the fund. An overwhelming majority – 78 per cent – of the authors surveyed stated that if the Fund offered more they would be better able to make writing their career, even though over 1400 authors benefit from the Fund.
Tings are a bit more positive in Europe. There, the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS), based in the UK, commissioned a comparative study of authors’ earnings from Bournemouth University. They sent out 25,000 questionnaires to ALCS members and two professional bodies in Germany (Verband Deutscher Schriftsletter [Association of German Writers], and Verband der Drehbuchautoren [Association of Scriptwriters]). The survey defined three categories: professional authors, who allocate more than 50% of their time to writing; main-income authors, who earn more than 50% of their income from writing; and audio-visual authors, who work mainly in television, film, radio and the internet. Another category of academics/teachers covered other writers in the educational sector. In the United Kingdom because ALCS is a collecting society which administers some educational licences, the academic/teacher category was larger as a proportion of authors. The German sample, drawn from members of professional writers organisations, saw a much smaller proportion of academics/teachers.
Table 1: Mean and median income for author groups (pounds sterling: one pound equals $A2.26)
Main-income authors Professional Audiovisual Academics/teachers Total
Australia* NA NA NA NA 100%
Mean NA NA NA NA $46,100
Median NA NA NA NA $35,000
UK†* 33% 46% 8% 32% 100%
Mean $A93,080 $A64,048 $A86,131 $A12,434 $A37,360
Median $A51,980 $A28,117 $A33,900 $A3625 $9,040
Germany† 63% 90% 19% 4% 100%
Mean $A42,951 $A31,364 $68,686 $A4,857 $A30,200
Median $A31,188 $A18,713 $A46,782 $A4,678 $A18,713
New Zealand NA NA NA NA 100%
*Data from Throsby/Hollister, 2003. Period is 2000-1. Figures are total income.
†Authors could be in more than one category.
For the United Kingdom, writing was shown to be a very risky profession with median earning less than one-quarter of the typical wage of a UK employee. And there is is significant inequality within the profession. The top 10% of UK authors earn more than 50% of the total income. Moreover, when the ALCS 2004-05 figures were benchmarked against the figures collected by the UK Society of Authors in 2000 they appeared to indicate that the earning of a typical UK author were deteriorating in real terms. The median (‘typical’) earning in 2000 were A$14,313. In 2004-05, the same earnings were A$9040.
As we don’t have similar Australian figures, we can only posit that the situation is similar in Australia. From anecdotal reports, it does seem to be so.