The short answer? They don’t. Unless you win the lottery with a runaway bestseller, you’d better not be thinking of quitting your day job. A report that came out this summer underlined the (increasingly) grim reality in the UK. As reported in the Guardian:
According to a survey of almost 2,500 working writers – the first comprehensive study of author earnings in the UK since 2005 – the median income of the professional author in 2013 was just £11,000, a drop of 29% since 2005 when the figure was £12,330 (£15,450 if adjusted for inflation), and well below the £16,850 figure the Joseph Rowntree Foundation says is needed to achieve a minimum standard of living. The typical median income of all writers was even less: £4,000 in 2013, compared to £5,012 in real terms in 2005, and £8,810 in 2000.
Commissioned by the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society and carried out by Queen Mary, University of London, the survey also found that in 2013, just 11.5% of professional authors – those who dedicate the majority of their time to writing – earned their incomes solely from writing. This compares with 2005, when 40% of professional authors said that they did so.
Are things any better in Canada? Probably not much. So how do writers do it? Writing in Salon, Ann Bauer credits the support of her husband, and argues that it’s disingenuous of a lot of successful authors (like two she describes, the one fabulously rich and the other very well connected) to pretend that they made it through hard work or talent alone.
In my opinion, we do an enormous “let them eat cake” disservice to our community when we obfuscate the circumstances that help us write, publish and in some way succeed. I can’t claim the wealth of the first author (not even close); nor do I have the connections of the second. I don’t have their fame either. But I do have a huge advantage over the writer who is living paycheck to paycheck, or lonely and isolated, or dealing with a medical condition, or working a full-time job.
As one of the commenters on the story writes: “When they ask me for advice and I tell them ‘Have a trust fund,’ or ‘Marry money,’ they always think I am kidding.”
Then there’s this from Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future? on what the future of the book will look like in the digital era:
A lot of people will pretend to be commercially successful authors, and will put money into enhancing the illusion. Most of these will rely on family support or inheritance. Gradually an intellectual plutocracy will emerge.
“Intellectual” may be misplaced, but it’s still a troubling prophecy.