The great divide

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Just as with most sectors of the economy, rich writers are getting richer and the rest are falling behind. At least that’s the takeaway from a new UK study, “The Business of Being an Author.” The Guardian reports:

According to a report into the earnings of almost 2,500 working writers released on Monday by Queen Mary, University of London, there is a “huge inequality” in the amount of money made by writers, with the top earners taking a vast proportion of the total money earned.

The top 10% of professional authors, those who make £60,000 or more a year from their writing, earned 58% of all the money made by professional authors in 2013, and the top 5%, those making more than £100,000, earned 42.3% of that money. The top 1%, who make mean average earnings of more than £450,000, take 22.7% of all earnings, said the Authors’ Licensing & Collecting Society, which commissioned the UK-based survey.

The picture for lower-earning writers was much bleaker. The bottom 50% of authors were those who earned less than £10,500 in 2013, and accounted for just 7% of the amount earned by all writers put together. And 17% of all writers did not earn anything at all during 2013, said the ALCS, adding that 98% of those authors had published a work every year from 2010 to 2013.

“Thus, at least 17% of writers are continuing to work without any expectation of earnings,” said the report, The Business of Being an Author. “It appears that writing is a profession where only a handful of successful authors make a very good living while most do not.”

Nicola Solomon, Society of Authors’ chief executive, said “We are not surprised to see that there is a high concentration of earnings in a handful of successful writers whereas most do not earn much at all; that has always been the case. However we are saddened to see that the inequality is increasing.”

She added: “That confirms our observations that publishers are tending more and more to concentrate on safe choices and celebrity brands, sometimes at the expense of supporting backlist and midlist authors who sell steadily but more slowly.”

Some of this has been reported before, but it’s still a development worth noting. To some extent the inequality is perfectly understandable. The best, or at least most popular, authors win. However, is there a tipping point where the squeezing out of a literary “middle class” has knock-on effects? Is such a pyramid-shaped culture sustainable? Are the unequal outcomes the natural operation of a meritocracy, or the result of a (rigged?) lottery? How does such an economy shape the nature of what we read and write?

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