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Authors face declining incomes - should literary novelists receive more state support?

18 December 2017

Two of our links this week relate to the report just published by Arts Council England which looks at literary fiction and concludes that it is in sharp decline. A close look at the figures suggests however that literary fiction is not alone, the problem relates to fiction sales in general. Genre sales have gravitated to ebooks, especially in some genres such as romance, where they are enjoying considerable success. But it is in literary fiction where the starkest outcome can be seen.

All authors are facing a tougher environment. The figures show that authors cannot support themselves. In short, it is harder to be a professional author. In 2005, an ACLS-commissioned survey found that 40% of authors earned a full-time living solely from writing. By 2013 this had dropped to just 11.5%. In 2013, 17% of surveyed writers earned no money at all from their writing. Between 2007 and 2013 author earnings fell by 28% in real terms.'

Slumping advances were behind part of this impoverishment. According to the report: 'most authors are seeing their advances go down. In addition to the anecdotal evidence there is some limited data to support this. In the author survey ‘Do You Love Your Publisher' the median reported advance was £6,000; this went up to £13,000 when just looking at advances from large trade publishers'

Bookbrunch joint editor Neill Denny, writing behind the paywall, says: ‘Advances are down; the big books are selling more; the midlist is withering; ebooks only work for genre fiction; writers can't make a living; publishing has become more middle-class, white, and out of step with the world around it.'

He returns to the subject of ACE funding to put the literature funding into perspective:
The figures are stark and shameful. A few small publishers currently get modest six-figure sums from ACE - Carcanet receives £120,000 a year, for example. Total funding to publishers is around £12m a year currently, this from an Arts Council budget of £445m a year, an organisation that was set up after the war with literature as part of its brief alongside visual arts, theatre and music.

Why is literature receiving such a small slice of the cake?