Earlier this year we took an in-depth look at the first set of results from best-selling indie author Hugh Howey's Author Earnings report. Author Earnings set out to prove the growing commercial clout of indie (otherwise known as 'self-published') authors by scraping data on bestsellers from Amazon.com and projecting how this would stack up in terms of earnings for writers.

The original report quoted some interesting figures that suggested more self-published authors were earning between $10,000 and $100,000 a year from Amazon alone than traditionally published authors. Howey's research, which concentrates on the US, has since been updated and we'll discuss those developments in the second part of this blog to be published next week.

ALCS Author Research

This week in the UK, however, the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society, a professional body that collects and distributes secondary royalties, published its own research into what writers earn and its conclusions are much less optimistic. ALCS's research indicates that the median annual income of an author in the UK fell to £11,000 in 2013. That's nearly £5,000 below the £16,850 figure that the charity the Joseph Rowntree Foundation gives as the Minimum Income Standard required for a person to have a decent standard of living.

Along with the fall in earnings, the ALCS research also documents a significant drop-off in the proportion of writers for whom writing books is a full-time job. Whereas 40% of the writers it surveyed for its 2005 research derived most or all of their income from writing, this had fallen to only 11.5% last year. The ALCS report warns that a rise in part-time or 'hobby' authors has worrying implications for the long-term health of the book industry, saying: -

"If unchecked, this rapid decline in the number of full-time writers could have serious implications for the breadth and quality of content that drives the economic success of our creative industries in the UK."

The one bright spot in ALCS report comes when it takes a look at professional writers' experience of self-publishing. According to this, a quarter of all the writers it surveyed had now self-published at least one work, with 40% achieving Return on Investment for their efforts. Indeed these authors' experiments have been so successful that 86% of those questioned would choose to self-publish again. This is an intriguing point, and we will return to it when looking again at the Author Earnings report data.

Before we proceed, however, it's important to take a few things into consideration before drawing authoritative conclusions from ALCS's research: - 

1. Small sample sizeIn 2005, ALCS based its report on responses to a survey mailed to 25,000 individuals in Germany and the UK, for which it got a 6.8% response from British authors. The total size of the final sample was not disclosed, but based on the number of 'valid responses' listed in the sample could be as low as 521. The 2013 data indicates that 2,454 writers were invited to take part, but again does not disclose how many completed it.

2. Are the respondents statistically weighted? - Another notable aspect of ALCS's 2013 data is the age of its respondents. Across both the 2005 and 2013 studies, under 45s were under-represented. Just 4% of UK writers surveyed were under 45 in 2005, rising to 17% in in 2014. This is despite under 45s accounting for just under 60% of the UK general population, according to 2010 census figures, which suggests one of two things. Either under 45s are vastly under-represented in the author community, or if they are the ALCS isn't able to reach them

3. Has the story changed that much since 2005? - No. The headline findings in 2005 suggested that median author incomes were falling, and that the book market in general was being hollowed out by a small number of high earners. In fact, the headline figure quoted in its 2013 research claiming that the proportion of full-time writers had fallen from 40% to 11.5% is not backed up by the 2005 study. On P6 of the 2005 report it states "The data shows that only 20.3% of UK writers earn all their income from writing." 

The advice in 2005 was very much that writing books was an activity that carried some financial rewards, but was an unreliable way of earning a living wage. Almost ten years on in 2014, it has indeed more difficult to be a full-time writer and the rewards have reduced for some, but it is still very much a case of plus ca change, plus cela meme chose.