Friday, 18 October 2013

Is Job Satisfaction Enough? By Bryony Pearce

There has been some debate in the last couple of weeks about the way in which authors earn a living.  This was kicked off by the Cambridge Professor who objected to a famous author refusing to write an introduction to his academic book for free.  

All over the internet people are saying that they should be able to download books for free, because ‘art should be free to all’.

Another author friend took to Facebook to decry the fact that the English teacher at a school which was about to attend had sent him a ‘very snippy’ email deploring the fact that he was expecting to sell copies of his own books after his event.  

Still more authors have raised their voices about school visits where they have been refused the chance to sell books, have had invoices go unpaid (or unpaid for months at a time), have done two days of a three day event, only to be told on the morning of day three that the school wasn’t happy with their presentation as it did not fit in with the syllabus and that they would therefore not be paying them the full price,  or have simply encountered children who were not warned in advance that they would need to bring money on the day of the author visit (who hasn’t had that one?).

Are these authors being unreasonable?  Greedy?  Mercenary even?

Time for the Edge to weigh-in.

It is a well known fact that jobs which offer the highest ‘job satisfaction’ are also the lowest paid: teachers, nurses, social workers, firemen, policeman, jobs in publishing, in the creative arts, roles working for charities … the list goes on.  Jobs that feed the soul, that make you feel as if you are contributing to society, that make you happy to go to work, these are the jobs that offer the least in the way of material compensation, as if job satisfaction is enough for people to live on.  

The fact is that job satisfaction is valued and employers in these industries can offer low salaries, simply because if someone walks out, there will be a hundred more, desperate to take their place.  

And in the publishing industry it is the authors (excluding the A-list: King, Rowling etc.) who are the least well paid.  I earn much less per year than the person who empties the bins at my publishing house.  Yes, I love what I do.  Yes, I would do it regardless of whether or not I was published (and therefore paid), because the muse is a demanding mistress.  And yet … how many world-changing novels are not being written because frankly one cannot live on job satisfaction alone and aspiring authors must also have day jobs to put food on the table?

Shouldn’t we, as a culture value art enough to pay the artist?  All those people demanding their free downloads will be pretty hacked off when the quality deteriorates (because publishers can no longer pay for editors and authors no longer spend time doing rewrites).  When eventually the artists give up altogether and get jobs in the financial sector then they might come up with the revolutionary idea, of perhaps, paying artists to create art.

We’ve all heard of insanely high advances for book deals and yes, we all hope that our next book will go out at auction for a decent sum, in the same way that struggling actors hope to be cast as the lead in the next Hollywood blockbuster.  But the fact is most of us have four-figure advances, some even lower.  Royalties earn us literally pennies per book (and only once you pay off your advance – it is called an advance for a reason: we have to pay it back using our first royalty cheques).  

The fact is that most of us cannot earn a living from the money that our publisher pays us for our years of work.  So we subsidise this through events, school visits, creative writing workshops, festivals and so on.  Schools love to have authors in.  It is brilliant for the students to listen to someone talk enthusiastically about reading and writing.  Author visits are generally greatly valued.  The Society of Authors suggests that we should be asking for £250-£350 for a full day or £150 for a talk lasting no longer than an hour.  Plus expenses.

Yet many authors are reluctant to charge the full whack for school visits.  In the main we are a self-effacing breed.  The years of rejection before eventual publication is perhaps the reason that we are backwards about coming forwards.  We are surprised when we are told ‘well done’ and are therefore poor at valuing what we do properly.  

So many venues expect authors to work for free - for the publicity and the job satisfaction.  Hay pays in wine, many other festivals not at all, some even expect us to buy our own tickets.  Some schools object to us asking for money, or selling our books.  They don’t realise that the amount we earn from their school visit may be the only income we are getting in that whole month.  They don’t realise that only if we sell lots of books will our publisher commission another one from us and that each school visit contributes to the possibility of us getting another book deal.  But not if the students are not warned that they will be able to buy a book that day.   

What is the solution?  Perhaps some kind of communist contract that all authors should be paid the same advance, the same amount for school visits, festivals events and so on? 

It won’t happen, art is so subjective.  But can we at least agree that authors do a great job?  That authors have a talent that is unusual: vast imaginations combined with wordsmithery and the determination and perseverance to get all of our words onto paper.  We slave nights to meet deadlines, give up weekends with our families to deliver our story to the reader, give up our days to visit schools in order to inspire the young.  And that we are not therefore unreasonable, greedy or mercenary when we ask for the chance to sell our books.


  1. Quite agree - perhaps one of the answers is author co-operatives, like The Edge. I like being part of our group because I don't have to deal with all the nitty gritty by myself - and there's a group of like-minded people to moan to when I feel things are unfair. Artists have on the whole always be underpaid and misunderstood ( Vermeer had 11 children to feed and almost no patronage). Our time is no different to any other. In fact, self-publishing was considered normal 100 years ago. Isaac Rosenberg was too poor to meet his friends in a cafe - they gathered under the gas lamps in Whitechapel to hear him read his poems and he ended up self publishing his pamphlets. But together we gain strength!

  2. Very interesting post. Like most I'm writing for love not money but that doesn't mean I don't want to be paid for my time if I ever get published. Not at all sure how it's going to develop as the trend for cheap and free games, apps and books gets bigger. Perhaps we need a Union? Then at least we're not on our own.

  3. I agree with the commenters above. This is a very thought-provoking discussion from the point of view of the writers themselves. I really think job satisfaction is well and good, but without the right compensation for a work done, it would eventually lead to the opposite outcome. And I agree with your insights if ever the trends continue on to the future. I hope change comes sooner than later, for the sake of the individuals behind the arts.

    Donna @ Epiphany Staffing Group