Thursday, 25 November 2010

Because you’re worth it? What an author REALLY earns...

Since the Great Horse stories are obviously boring people to death, I have decided to blog about money this week for a change. Last weekend, the Guardian magazine carried an interesting article on typical earnings for various professions. My author (who is permanently panicking about the state of her bank balance) was glued to it! Here they are in ascending order of earning power:

Cleaner: £5,000
Alternative Therapist: £5,000
Waiter: £9,000
Small Shop Owner: £9,600 - £12,000
Milkman: £15,000
Architect: £25,000
Cartographer: £20,000 + 1% of sales
Canon (church): £22,000 + rent-free vicarage
Mechanic: £23,400
Pub Landlady: £25,000
Landscape Gardener: £28,000
Police Constable: £28,000
Oxfam Head of PR: £40,000
Psychotherapist: £40,000
Pharmacist: £40,157
Speech Therapist: £40,050
GP: £51,000
Dentist (private practice): £57,500
Criminal Barrister: up to £60,000
Member of Parliament: £65,738
Reality TV Director: £67,000
Airline Pilot: £120,000
Journalist: between £180,000 and £200,000
Banker: £170,000 + annual bonus of £400,000

Notably, there were no authors in the Guardian article. Why not? Aren’t people curious enough? Couldn’t they find an author willing to tell them? Or does the (rather high-earning, in the Muse's opinion) journalist make up for it?

These are the Muse’s theories:
(1) Authors’ earnings vary widely, so to take any single author and ask how much they earn would be misleading as a glimpse of the profession as a whole.

(2) If you ask a particular author what they earned last year, and what they earned ten years ago, the two figures are likely to be wildly different. An author’s earnings can only really be calculated as an average over the course of their career, and taking a snapshot in a single year is likely to be misleading.

(3) Authors do not like to embarrass their publisher or themselves by giving exact details of their advance or royalty deal, which can give rise to such vagueness in interviews as “four figure advance” (a typical advance for a children’s book is between £1,000 and £9,000), which can interpreted as “four zeroes” by the interviewer and erroneously reported as anywhere between £10,000 and £90,000 according to how well the author is seen to be doing at the time!

(4) The Guardian didn’t need to interview an author, since everybody knows authors are all millionaires like JK Rowling.

All right, if they had interviewed JK Rowling, she would probably appear at the end of the list, some way after the Banker. But what about normal authors who haven’t had a Hollywood film deal for seven books or written a runaway best-seller? What can you realistically expect to earn over the course of your career if you have average success, win an award or two, collect a handful of foreign language translations, and have the occasional brief flirt with a best-seller list?

Well, my author has done all those things, and she has now been doing her author accounts for 13 years, which is long enough to give a fair spread of her earnings. So I prodded her with my glittery horn and asked her to spill the beans. She can’t give details of contracts or advances here because she obviously has to respect her confidentiality clauses, but since she's self-employed there’s nothing to stop her making public her annual earnings, so you can compare these to the figures listed above.

If you're considering a career as an author, and wondering if you'll ever earn enough to pay off your student loan, the Muse has put all Katherine's numbers into a calculator and crunched them up. Taking an average over the 12 years since she signed her first book contract, my author's net earnings (after deducting expenses such as computer, paper, postage, and agent's commission) work out at £12,432 per year. On the Guardian scale, this puts her somewhere between the Waiter and the Small Shop Owner, earning more than the Cleaner and the Alternative Therapist, but slightly less than the Milkman.

Not so bad, you might think, except remember these are not regular earnings coming in each month, and there is no telling what - if anything - she might earn next year, or in ten years time. Over this 12-year period, Katherine's annual income has varied widely between a “feeling quite rich” £34,200 (in 2002) and “feeling desperately poor” £1,060 (in 2009, mainly due to not selling any of her new work after "I am the Great Horse"). This means if you're hoping to make a long term living as an author, it’s always a good idea to do some careful financial planning, however well things seem to be going at the time!

Finally, just to prove how misleading those million dollar deals you read about in the press can be, the Daily Mail interviewed Katherine shortly after she’d signed her seven-book contract with HarperCollins. When they asked her how much it was worth, she said it was a “five figure advance” (for seven books), which was reported as £100,000... A hundred thousand?!!! That's six figures, not five, and a long way off the (lowish) five figures she actually got for her seven book series, which worked out as a fairly average four-figure advance per book. She actually earned £12,600 that year, pretty much the average of her earnings spread across her career so far. It's a bit like airbrushing photos of celebrities to make them seem thinner and younger and prettier – only in reverse, because an author seems more glamorous when they are earning more money, and books tend to sell better when an author seems glamorous. And it must have worked, too, because after being featured in the Daily Mail "The Great Pyramid Robbery" sold enough copies to pay royalties of almost double its original advance before sadly going out of print last year.

Of course, this is just Katherine's earnings so far, and she has not yet written her best-selling Hollywood multi-deal series (she's got me hard at work on that right now). You might well earn more than my author. Your Muse might be more of a ninja vampire than an enchanted unicorn. You might write a book that everybody goes mad for, a Da Vinci Code or a Twilight, maybe. You might secure a major advance from a big publisher who will then do all they can to catapult your work into the best-seller lists. You might get that film deal you were dreaming of and be wined and dined in Disneyland…. there’s no upper limit on an author’s salary, so you MIGHT.

But remember there’s no lower limit either, and no such thing as a minimum wage for the self-employed. So between you and me, if you are seeking a career with guaranteed riches and a nice fat bonus to buy your Christmas presents, the Muse thinks you’re probably better off being a Banker…. only don't tell my author, or she might get ideas!

So is Katherine “worth it”? Answers in the comments, please.


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