How authors add value

June 6, 2018

Hazel Edwards explores how authors need to multi-task to create value for themselves and their readers.

Why are you writing?

To live more intensively? To earn a living? To keep learning? To avoid boredom? To share little known worlds? As an excuse for travelling?  Justifying the way a life has been lived?

Fame, and especially fortune, are unrealistic goals, especially with results of recent author income surveys. To survive financially, authors have always needed other job skills like teaching or a partner with a regular income.

Why is it even tougher now? What has changed?

I looked at the pie chart of Pete May, a UK writer who earns the average author income of 11,000 pounds according to ALCS’s (Authors Licensing and Collecting Society’s)  ‘What Are Words Worth Now?’ (2013). Definitely precarious being an author. Especially if your aim is a profession, not a hobby.

A consistent worker, Pete’s percentages of the 11,000 pounds income were:

  • Royalties 13%
  • Journalism 28%
  • Teaching 54%
  • PLR (public lending right) etc 3%
  • Talks 2%

From a mixture of curiosity and desire to survive, I analysed my income percentages. I’m a long-term, traditionally published Australian author with over 200 titles, not all still in print. But earlier contracts were based on Recommended Retail Price (RRP) rather than Price Received or Net as is common now, so there are residual higher royalties but also copyright payments on licensed old work used by others. That helps. I have three recent self-published books and some e-books or ‘rights reverted’ titles which now make me a hybrid author.

My 2017/8 categories were a little different from Pete of the UK.

  • Royalties 53.3%
  • Lectures/talks/workshops 23.3%
  • PLR/ELR/ALCS 13.4%
  • Copyright Agency 0.4%
  • Book Sales  1.0%
  • Journalism 0.1%

What have I learnt from this exercise? In the previous year, my royalties were 20% less but I worked more hours. Being a writer is financially precarious, FOREVER. Income fluctuates even if the level of effort is constant.

Four years ago, I started a ‘selfie’ digital apprenticeship of learning by doing. One hour per day of ‘play’ to learn social media. Was it worthwhile?  Yes and no.

Recently one of my tweets had 14,510 hits in ten days. (Until then 200 was my record)

Why was this significant apart from the hit numbers?

Timing. Serendipitous co-ordination of Budget Night, Mothers’ Day, LGBTQI issues, literacy and popularity of the actual politician who reads to her daughters. And the known book cover photo of ‘There’s a Hippopotamus on our Roof Eating Cake’ . It linked to The Weekly Review article in a free magazine delivered with all suburban Leader newspapers in Victoria.

I’m not expecting this degree of response again.

But did that social media turn into income from more books sold? No.

What else has changed?

Traditional publishers have to justify each print run and there’s no room for risky innovations. Loyalty to a publisher or to an author has gone. There’s no guarantee a second book will follow. Each book has to sell enough to justify even considering the next. Plus an advocate to ‘talk it up’ in a publishing meeting. Authors are forced to ‘shop around’ and gain additional marketing skills as a ‘brand’ and this may not always transfer into income from additional book sales. Digital self-publishing with higher returns becomes viable, but there’s more ‘admin’ work being the publisher.

Digital processes have changed traditional publishing house options. Fewer staff and more part-timers lacking strategic overview, with only quick sales of media related titles and known names. The marketing budget decides which titles will be promoted and most houses choose a few stars.

Mid-listers struggle. And novices need a media-worthy subject or previous celebrity careers to attract a contract.

Fewer backlist titles in print, which previously enabled long term authors to have regular income. Smaller print runs, smaller advances or none at all. So a backlist rarely earns income unless part of an ongoing series or when rights sold for adaptations into other media like TV or film. But copyright licences may pick up fees.

Changes in publishing methods have meant authors becoming hybrids with mixtures of traditional and self- published options using distribution channels like Amazon whose interest is content volume.  Quality writing is not enough. An author needs social media, public speaking and knowledge and means of distribution. Hence the rise of the speaker-author who autographs copies for sale at major venues.

It’s difficult to separate categories as some ‘journalism’ or feature writing is often free blog interviews in relation to upcoming workshop/talk or book release. Many bloggers are earnestly providing free literary content.

Royalties fluctuate as some big discounted book sales into stores like Aldi or Woolworths are erratic. Adaptations into stage production or film are spasmodic. And often work may be done in a period well before the payment year. The effect of my titles being ‘pirated’ and offered as free e-book enticements as click bait, is hard to assess.

Now there is much more ‘hidden author work’ relating to social media and publicising, which formerly was done by staff from the publishing house. Hard to cost.

Surprised to find my income from speaking was over 23%. Maybe I need to update my perception of role and change occupation from author to speaker-author?

Ironically it’s easier to be well paid for talking about how difficult it is to get published, than write the book. And being ‘strategic’ about how you use your writing time, is not always realistic. Sometimes, you want to follow a passion, and that turns out to be a better book, which more people buy and keep and your words are valued, in a different way.

Some people will always be writers regardless of the income stream, or lack of it. But well paid writing means the opportunity to research extensively and produce better quality books.

Hazel Edwards runs ‘Writing Non Boring Family History and Memoir’ workshops and provides participant e-copies of her book. She also runs a ‘Finish Your Book in a Year’ on the first Friday of every month from 10-1pm at the Public Records Office in North Melbourne.

Last year’s group ALL finished their books.

Useful Links:

Authors Licensing and Collecting Society

Memoir of risk-taking as long term author.


Tags: , , , ,