Pity us poor authors, we’re not earning a crust

Anton RipponSJA member ANTON RIPPON, pictured left, has worked as a journalist, author and sports book publisher for five decades, but he finds from a recent survey of professional writers that he and his colleagues have never been so poorly paid for their work

One day in late November 1979, my agent rang me. Mirror Books, the book-publishing arm of the newspaper group, had taken up my idea for an up-to-date history of the European Cup, as it was then called. There was a slight problem – they wanted the 60,000 words before Christmas, I hadn’t written even one of them, and my family were due to visit America for two weeks. But the advance was £1,500 – too good to turn down.

I set to and I made the deadline (although I also made myself ill in the process, all that bashing away at a manual typewriter). Because £1,500 was still a tidy sum for what should have been four weeks’ work (albeit compressed into two, but that was my fault) at a time when the average annual wage was £6,300, petrol cost 28p a litre, a pint of beer 35p, a loaf of bread 33p and a pint of milk 17p.

Yes, in 1979, £1,500 was a useful addition to the income of a married couple in their mid-30s with a young daughter. Not nearly so important – but still significant – was the fact that I felt my work was properly valued.

Recently, if I’m honest, I was happy to receive a £3,000 advance for a new book of similar length to that European Cup title of 35 years ago. Bear in mind that the £1,500 from Mirror Books was worth around £5,300 in today’s money, and you will see where I am going with this. Yes, in 2014 I felt really fortunate to receive as much as £3,000. Advances in their low hundreds now seem to be the norm. In some cases I’ve been asked to write books for no advance at all but for a more generous royalty “on the profit”. Oh yeah …

Money genericIt was no surprise that when the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) last autumn commissioned a survey of almost 2,500 working writers – the survey was carried out by Queen Mary College at the University of London – they found that increasingly few professional authors are able to earn a living solely from their writing.

The survey, published earlier this month and called “What Are Words Worth Now?”, found that in 2013 only 11.5 per cent of professional authors (defined as those who dedicate the majority of their time to writing) earned their incomes solely from writing. In 2005, when the ALCS last conducted a similar survey of author earnings, 40 per cent of professional authors said that writing provided their entire annual income.

The typical (median) annual income of the professional author has fallen dramatically both in real and actual terms. In 2013, the average median income of the professional author was £11,000, a drop of 29 per cent since 2005 when the figure was £12,330 (£15,450 in real terms). According to Joseph Rowntree Foundation figures, today, single people in Britain need to earn at least £16,850 before tax to achieve a Minimum Income Standard (MIS).

As the ALCS pointed out, in contrast to the sharp decline in earnings of professional authors, the wealth generated by the creative industries is on the increase. Statistics produced by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport in 2014 show that the creative industries are now worth £71.4 billion per year to the UK economy (or more than £8 million per hour), and the country is reported as having “the largest creative sector of the European Union”, and being “the most successful exporter of cultural goods and services in the world”, according to UNESCO.

Owen Atkinson, the ALCS chief executive, said: “These are concerning times for writers. This rapid decline in both author incomes and in the numbers of those writing full-time could have serious implications for the economic success of the creative industries in the UK. If writers are to continue making their irreplaceable contribution to the UK economy, they need to be paid fairly for their work. This means ensuring clear, fair contracts with equitable terms and a copyright regime that supports creators and their ability to earn a living from their creations.”

Authors certainly need to be properly valued. When I ran Breedon Books, from 1982 to 2003, I valued every one of ours. Without them, where would we have been?

Even though we dealt with a fair number of football club historians who would have been happy enough simply to see their work published and their name on a book jacket, and even though their work often needed major editing, I paid them at what I considered was a fair going-rate. One author – for obvious reasons I won’t name him or the club for which he provided words and stats – eventually picked up more than £12,000 for one of his titles alone. And we still made a fair profit, too.

Whenever I’m called upon to give a talk, I always start by reminding my audience that, when you are a writer, you are only ever one letter away from being a waiter. Nowadays it seems that the tips alone add up to more than a decent publisher’s advance.


Mon Sep 15: SJA Autumn Golf Day, Muswell Hill GC – Book your place now. Non-members very welcome

Thu Dec 11: SJA British Sports Awards, sponsored by The National Lottery, at the Grand Connaught Rooms