Sunday 7 June 2009

Writing the recession (2): No-one but a fool...

...writes except for money. But money is hard to come by at the moment. If you look at the industry figures (yes, you're a writer, you need to take an interest in this) book sales have not dropped so very far. There are different figures, both sides of the Atlantic and in different market sectors, but they tend to be single-figure percentages: generally, sales are down 1.7% p.a. in the UK (April figure). Hachette's sales even rose 3.3%. But publishers are laying off staff, shares in publishing companies are falling in value and commissioning is so far down it's taking advice from worms on how to live without ever seeing daylight.

After my last post on the recession, I carried out an impromptu and not remotely scientific survey amongst writers I know. The picture is the same for everyone - writers with dozens, even hundreds, of books in print are now walking dogs and building sheds to make money. It's a relief that it's not just me, but it's bad news for everyone. And I'm allergic to dogs and not very good with sheds, as evidenced by the pile of wood rotting in my garden. (Not even a dog on a string is an option. Will anyone give money to someone who just has a string?)

So how bad is it? It's always been hard to make a living from writing. The Society of Authors'
survey of the earnings of children's writers in 2005, headed by Mary Hoffman, found that a third of children's writers live on less than the minimum wage (£8,827 at the time) and only 17% earned £30,000 or more. According to the UK graduate careers organisation Prospects, only 20% of writers get all their income from writing, and the median income for writers under 35 is £5,000 pa. That's not encouraging if you're thinking of giving up your day job to write.

As if things weren't already badly wrong, they've now gone Very Badly Wrong. Everyone in the industry has been hedging around this in public. It's become the elephant in the room. In the Middle Ages, people called bears 'bruin' - the brown one - as speaking the word 'bear' was considered calling it and risking being eaten. I'm going to come clean and talk about how bad things are fo
r professional writers - and if I get eaten, so be it...

I write lots of different kinds of things and have easily been in Mary Hoffman's top 17% earning category for years. That's the result of being a writing whore, driven by the necessity of bringing up two daughters, one with an expensive taste in Jack Wills hoodies. I will write almost anything for money. I'd rather write than do anything else, so it's what I do: I don't do school visits, festivals, public events and only occasionally do university teaching. It means I have a wide spread of publishers and, in the past, if one has hit a hard time I've just switched my affections to another. A real tart. But now all my regular customers have turned celibate.

My older daughter (not the hoody-wearer) is off to university in October. Hurray, well done her. This means I have to fill in forms about my income, something I would normally leave until minutes before the Jan tax deadline. When she was offered her place in January this year, we looked at the figures for loans and grants and she was entitled to perhaps £50 or £100 of grant. When I filled
in the forms last week, she was entitled to the full grant, by a very large margin. In five months, my income has dropped 80% - 90%. And this is not atypical - it's not that I've suddenly got stupid or unpopular. Other writers report the same.

Working back from this to the state of the industry and the future implications for writers... if publishers aren't commissioning books now, they won't have anything to do in a few months, when those non-commissioned books would be coming in-house for editing, layout etc. Will the staff sit around twiddling their thumbs? If things improve, they will be commissioning for the future. That will defer the thumb-twiddling for a week or two until the commissioned authors go off to write the new books. Then what? Lay off more staff? Who will edit the books when they come in? I'll put on my Cassandra hat here and say - we could be entering a decline in traditional children's publishing from which it is not possible to recover, at least in some areas. Children's non-fiction, which has provided my bread-and-butter many for years, is facing the most
serious problems and looks as though it's opted for a DNR sticker on its notes. With Schwarzenegger's pronouncement this morning that schools don't need books - kids can use the Internet, he says - the nails are lining up to be hammered into the coffin. (And into the coffin of a decent education, I hasten to add.)

Back to the whoring... I'm going to need an even shorter writing skirt, I think. Instead of lying in the boudoir waiting for my elite band of faithful publishers, I'll be walking the streets looking for any publisher with a spare fiver. As for the looming demise of traditional publishing - I'm not going to jump onto its funeral pyre like some over-keen Hindu widow; as the whoring winds down, I'm eyeing up the toy-boy of new models of publishing. Lean and fit - what's not to like? Writers will always be needed, we just have to find where we fit in. But I'll blog about e-books/Internet versus print another day: I'm off to Anne Summers now for my new whoring costume.


  1. And I'm off to sob into my tea and then to figure out a come back into my old career - wearing a shorter skirt and higher heelsl, of course.

  2. I think I need a corset...depress me, why don't you? (As if I didn't know all this anyway--but it IS depressing to see it in black and white). Ah well, lucky I've got pizza-oven building skills.

  3. Great summary of the situation, Anne, and absolutely right. The bulk of my income comes from (or rather, used to come from) commercial work but, although it's not quite dried up, is now a trickle. I was wondering whether you'd bring ebooks into the equation. I know that's part of Arnie's argument but we can discount that. They do seem to be becoming more popular, though, especially in the USA. This isn't me being 'glass half full', it's just a glimmer amongst the gloom. I look forward to your take on ebookery - it'll be better researched and more authoritative than this scribble. And then what will I do? I'm afraid the short skirt option won't work with my legs.

  4. A very very interesting post - thank you!
    Luckily, I love my day job (bloody good job too!)

  5. Glad someone has said it, Anne. A source deep in the mainstream publishing industry (I'd better not say who it is because he's not supposed to spot the elephant in the room either) told me the other day that he thinks traditional publishing is on the way out. This is a man I have always admired for his staunch optimism and personal ability to get up and fight another day. The word he actually used was "bloodbath."

    He said that in his opinion the very large and very small publishers, agents, newspapers, etc. would probably survive, the large ones because they're big and tough, the small ones because they're little and agile. But the vast bulk of middle rankers would just be folding up and sinking quietly.

    This, he felt, was made worse by the recession, but it was happening anyway. Everyone wants to write, not enough people want to buy.

    His suggestions? The main practical one in a recession would be self publishing. He thought that many publishers and agents might need to rebrand themselves to some extent as facilitators, although precisely how they would facilitate any one voice in the screaming crowd was not too clear.

    I found what he said interesting. But are there any figures which show whether people still are reading? Blimey, you go into some of these huge bookshops and it is almost impossible to believe that nobody is buying.

    Incidentally, I think part of the problem may be the distributors. A colleague just told me that dear WH Smith, already famous for stocking little but cookbooks and celebrity biogs, has signed a deal with Penguin group to ONLY sell their travel book titles in their many port and airport outlets. I believe it's only for 12 months, but tough if you want Berlitz, Time Out, Insight, etc. Tougher still if you write for or publish these titles.

    I'll check that one out though.

  6. Yes, the WHS story is true - scandalous, isn't it? I will blog about self publishing at some point, but it's not a good model for the customer or most writers, so I don't see it as the way forward.

    Bill - wasn't Arnie more keen that the kids use the internet, rather than even e-books? Which means they would depend for their education on wikipedia and the like... god help us

  7. You know, it's a relief to read your blog, even though it's depressing - I was beginning to think it was just me and I'd lost my touch, being old writing whore myself :-) There's certainly a shake up in the industry, and it's hard to tell where it will all come out. With the Net, anyone with a computer who thinks they can write is after publication....I got an email list the other day of writing jobs, offering me the grand sum of $1.50 per 500 word article, (that's per article, not per word!)original material only, please! I'd rather starve in the gutter, but obviously someone is doing this work.And there's no advance sum and not a lot of profit in ebooks unless you write erotica...uhmmmm :-)So, we'll watch the future with interest...

  8. Me an'all. Another writing whore, but I've settled down and write a mystery series. Came across your blog by accident!