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Should authors get a minimum wage?

10 September 2012

At the 2012 Edinburgh World Writers conference, the author China Mieville suggested that one way of safeguarding the future of writing might be a minimum wage for authors: "For the great majority of people who write, it would mean an improvement in their situation, an ability to write full-time. For a few it would mean an income cut, but you know what? It was a good run." Many writers will find this a sympathetic idea, because making a living as an author can be a hard grind. Not many authors earn enough to support themselves from their writing. A recent study by the UK Society of Authors came to the conclusion that the average earned by authors from their writing was no more than £10,000 a year and many authors would consider this quite a reasonable amount (see this week's Comment).

But in any case how practicable would this suggestion from Mieville (himself a successful and prize-winning author) prove to be? The whole idea of a minimum wage relates to an employer and most authors don't have this relationship. Perhaps publishers have traditionally seemed like authors' employers and there are even a few authors who had multi-book contracts which effectively put them on a yearly stipend, but these cases have always been rare and only involved bestselling authors.

For most authors depending on publishers things have got worse. It is now harder to get a publisher (and therefore also an agent) to take on a book. To make things worse, royalty payments are down because publishers are passing on the pressure and are themselves being forced to give ever-bigger discounts to retailers, especially online ones.

The plus side of all this is that writers can now have more of a chance to shape their own destiny by self-publishing their own books. But the truth is that, although this does offer freedom and opportunity, it also demands a lot of hard work.

The general advice still has to be not to give up the day job until you are sure that your earnings from writing are going to offer a steady income.