I’ve been writing steadily since 2011, and I’ve just done my accounts for 2018-19. I have published three full-length books (one in 2018) and one second edition (in 2017) for my main publisher. I’m now writing for two other publishers and have received several small advances for those books. When I say ‘small’, I mean between £125 and £500, so nice to have in the bank but not at all representative of the amount of time I spend writing the books.
Publishers can be a bit funny about authors telling people about royalty rates and amounts of advances, so I need to be a bit circumspect in this post. (Bit annoying really – this kind of secrecy benefits corporations not individuals, but still, that’s where we are right now.) My royalties took a dip this year which surprised me. In the previous year I’d made it into four figures; in 2018-19 I was back into three figures (though I’m happy to say I’m back in four figures again for 2019-20).
I have also self-published six solo-authored short books for doctoral students and one co-written book on self-publishing for academics. These would sell more if I did more to promote them; in 2018-19 global profits totalled £175.65.
I got money, too, from the Public Lending Right – every time one of my books is borrowed from a UK library, I am entitled to a payment of a few pence. The payout is made once a year and this year was my biggest ever: £8.61.
Also the completely wonderful Author’s Licensing and Collecting Society pays out twice a year to UK authors whose work has been photocopied anywhere in the world. They also collect PLR payments from outside the UK. This year, that added up to £414.60 in total which was very nice to receive.
With all of this, my total gross income directly from writing in 2018-19 was £3,671.32. There were some outgoings too: mostly books, and my Society of Authors’ annual subscription, which brought it down to around £3,000 of net income.
While still not a life-changing amount, it is a game-changing sum of money. It means that, after eight years of steady writing, I can now spend several weeks of each year on writing alone, paid for by the income from my writing. This is a lovely position to be in. It’s better than spending several weeks of each year on writing mostly subsidised by my paid work, which is what I have been doing up to now. Also, I expect it to improve year on year: this time next year I should be receiving royalties from three publishers rather than one (assuming I can earn out my little advances quickly enough).
It has taken me the full eight years to get here. My total earnings from writing for the last eight years have been around £7,500. Most of those have been in the last three years: £1,500 in 2016-17 and £1,600 in 2017-18, plus the £3,000 this year. The first five years, 2011-2016, I earned around £1,400 in total. That was partly because I invested in my self-published books, paying an editor to work on the text and paying for cover design. Speaking purely financially, that was a bad move, but I’m not sorry because I know those books have helped people.
I love writing books; I don’t think I could write them otherwise. Also, my books make me money in other ways: I get asked to run workshops in universities, and to work on projects, solely on the strength of my writing. But I think it is worth reflecting on how poorly academic writing pays writers. We’re still dealing with a system which is based on the principle that anyone doing academic writing has a secure and sizeable salary. That is outdated but it’s taking a long time to change.
Since my very first book, I have negotiated as hard as I reasonably could for a good deal, with the support of the excellent contract advisers who help out members of the Society of Authors. If I hadn’t argued my case, my earnings from writing would have been even lower. I’m sure some people think being a published writer means I’m rich. They look at the kind of income achieved by writers like JK Rowling or Jodi Picoult and think the same applies across the board. I’m sure others think knocking out a book or two will make an appreciable difference to their income and/or pension. Not if it’s an academic book it won’t.
Based on my experience, I reckon you could make a decent living as an academic writer if you write lots of books of interest to people across a range of disciplines, and work with several publishers – for about 20 years. If you write single-discipline books your earnings are likely to be very small. I think it’s important to share what we can of this kind of information, depressing as it is, so that people go into the writing business with realistic expectations.
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