Misconceptions abound, and not only about the publishing industry. In this posting, I'm going to talk a little bit about what it is to be a commercial fiction author.
Most people have a very romanticized view of what it is that authors do. Firstly, there's a widespread perception that the workload involved is relatively easy — in modern western nations, the level of functional literacy is high enough that a majority of the population can read a book, and write (at least to the extent of thumbing a 160-character text message on their phone). Because there is no obvious barrier to entry as with music (where proficiency with musical instruments clearly takes practice), most people assume that writing a novel is like writing a text message — you put one word in front of another until you're done. The skills of fiction composition are largely invisible, until you try to actually do it. Secondly, many people harbour peculiar ideas about how much money there is in commercial publishing — and when disabused of the idea that selling a first novel is a road to riches, they assume it's because the evil publishers are conspiring to keep all the money to themselves (rather than the unpalatable truth — publishing commercial fiction is hard work for little reward). Finally, there's the Lifestyle chimera.
Before I get onto the Lifestyle rant, I'd like to point you at this 2005 paper by the Author's License and Collecting Society, titled "What are Words Worth?, describing the findings of a study organized by the Centre for Intellectual Property Policy & Management (CIPPM)I, Bournemouth University. Briefly: in the UK in 2004-05, median (typical) earnings for authors were £4000 a year, with mean earnings of £16,531 — that is, while most authors earned very little, a handful earned a lot more and so the mean skews high. Once you discard part-timers and focus on professional authors who spend 50% or more of their time working by writing, the median rises to £12,330 (and a mean of £28,340). Many professional authors supplement their income by teaching or consultancy; restricting the survey to focus on main-income authors (those who earned over 50% of their income from writing) gave median earnings of £23,000 and mean earnings of £41,186.
Interestingly, the researchers went on to calculate a Gini coefficient for authors' incomes — a measure of income inequality, where 0.0 means everyone takes an identical slice of the combined cake, and 1.0 indicates that a single individual takes all the cake and everyone else starves. Let me provide a yardstick: the UK had a Gini coefficient of 0.36 in 2009, the widest ever gap between rich and poor — while the USA, at 0.408, had the most unequal income distribution in the entire developed world. The Gini coefficient among writers in the UK in 2004-05 was a whopping great 0.74. As the researchers note:
Writing is shown to be a very risky profession with median earnings of less than one quarter of the typical wage of a UK employee. There is significant inequality within the profession, as indicated by very high Gini Coefficients. The top 10% of authors earn more than 50% of total income, while the bottom 50% earn less than 10% of total income.And so, the Lifestyle misconception raises its ugly head.
The Lifestyle misconception is this: people base their expectations of how authors live and what their lifestyle is like on media coverage of the top 10% — or rather, the top 1%. And the lifestyle of the top 1% is indeed aspirational. J. K. Rowling and Terry Pratchett are responsible for something like 5-6% of all fiction sales in the UK; Stephenie Meyer is probably pocketing another couple of percent these days. The media spotlight focusses on the stars, leaving nothing but shadows for the 50% of writers who earn less than £4000 a year from what is essentially a hobby — albeit one that involves grinding work.
So what is the job like?
Putting words in a row is wearying work. When they're flowing fast, I can sometimes reach a dizzying peak output of 2000 words per hour for a couple of hours — not in fiction, but in a blog entry or a non-fiction essay. I've occasionally had death march sessions in which I pumped out as much as 10,000 words in a day. But such Stakhanovite output isn't sustainable; a 10,000 word day is usually followed by a three-day-weekend to recover from it. A more realistic target for a full-time professional writer is 500-1000 words of finished prose per workday, corresponding to about 1-2 hours of writing, 2-4 hours of polishing, and another couple of hours of thinking about what they want to say, and how to say it. Like anyone else, they need weekends and vacation weeks and time to do the housekeeping. 1000 words per day for a 250-day working year (50 weeks of 5 days a week) works out at 250,000 words per year — or two 320 page novels.
You might think that a job that requires 3 hours of work per day is easy. But in most intellectually demanding jobs, the worker isn't delivering head-down time for 40 hours a week: we work in bursts, and the rest of the time gets filled up with administrative junk and social fluff. I have correspondence to deal with with my agent and editors, marketing folks at my publishers, booksellers, and people who want to tell me about the typo they just discovered in a book that came out five years ago. I do around 25 magazine/website/newspaper interviews a year, and about an average of one public appearance per month — which may be anything from answering questions on stage for an hour to a gruelling three to five days on public duty as guest of honour at a big SF convention. On top of this you can add all the administrative tasks of running a small business — double-entry bookkeeping, tracking expenses and cash flow and receipts, chasing invoices (where appropriate) and paying tax.
There is a catch, though. This job takes place in what is basically my spare bedroom. I have office-mates, but they're not co-workers: at best they'll stand on the keyboard and meow at me when I need a screen break. Writing is an intensely solitary occupation — so much so that many authors give up after a while and go hunt for a part-time day job to ensure that they see other human beings once in a while.
In addition to being a wildly unstable, lonely occupation with an insane income spread, there are other drawbacks to being a writer. Many American writers are forced to rely on a day job, or a spouse with a day job, for health insurance: health insurance for the self-employed is prohibitively expensive, especially for the self-employed poor. Those who don't have a job that provides healthcare, or a partner with family benefits, are never more than one accident away from bankruptcy. As the median age for publishing a first novel is around 34 because it takes a lot of life experience before you know enough to write something worth publishing, most authors are in the age range 34-70 — old enough that they're likely to develop chronic health conditions or need expensive treatments. (To be fair, it's not just authors who get the short end of this particular shitty stick: I suspect the US health insurance industry is actively suppressive of entrepreneurial start-up ventures by older folks in general.)
So here's the truth about the writing lifestyle: it sucks. It is an unstable occupation for self-employed middle-aged entrepreneurs. Average age on entry is around 34, but you can't get health insurance (if you're American). You don't have to be a complete loner, but it helps to have a solitary streak (or a bad talking-to-cats habit). It also helps to be an inveterate optimist, because you'll probably need to supplement your income (about 70% of the mean for someone in a skilled trade, never mind a professional job) by taking on other work such as teaching, journalism, or consultancy. As a business, it's a dead-end: you can't generally expand by taking on employees, and the number of author start-ups where the founders have IPOd and cashed out can be counted on the fingers of a double-amputee's hands. And then, finally, when you go out in public and people ask you what you do for a living and you tell them, they look at you as if you've just sprouted a second head because they know that real authors are millionaires with country estates and private jets who work an hour a day, languidly dictating their next bestseller to their secretary, and who the hell is this poverty-line loner freak anyway?
No, it's not a fucking lifestyle — it's a job. And if you'll excuse me, I've got a book to go write ...