For a long time the pay has been steadily decreasing, as has the number of opportunities to get out there and have a chance at nabbing a decent share of the shrinking pie.
From my own experience, on a good advance (20k), the effort worked out at around 3k a year after tax and agent’s fees, so I’m quite glad I simultaneously held down a day job. For the literary authors who are doing phenomenally well to sell 5000 copies the money is even worse, and it might take them longer to produce their ‘better’ work.
But does that matter? There so many books out there, both fiction and non-fiction, that it’s hard to shed a tear for anyone who feels the urge to have a go, only to see the kind of financial return that would just about stretch to a packet of teabags. There are plenty of good books out there, but how good exactly is a matter of opinion. However we tend to regard literature as a more noble art form than most, the consumption of which is like munching on kale, as opposed to the cheeseburgers of cinema, or the dark chocolate cupcakes of erotic photography. So many of us feel that books must continue, must be protected and must be financially beneficial for the author in a way that allows him or her to do their best work without the distraction of the poor house. That way the education and imaginations of future generations will be secured and the mirror that good art holds up to life will remain intact.
But that’s obviously not what’s happening. Instead, long-form writing is becoming something that must be slotted in around other ways of generating an income. And is that so bad? Surely the adverse conditions might be a fillip to drive the author on to greater heights of quality and/or quantity (‘If I don’t finish this book to an excellent standard I’m going to be eating food out of bins’ can surely be a powerful encouragement).
On the other hand, perhaps the tough conditions will put potential authors off. We’ll never know how many great works have been lost to those who prioritised paying their mortgage with a full-time job over starving in a garret to produce a book that lights up the minds of a few thousand people. And you don’t have to take the example that far: how many books have been turned in at the 9/10 mark because the author needed the cash more than he or she wanted to put in the hours to elevate it to 10/10?
Then again, I’m sure this is the way it’s always been: a few artists have been patronised by the mighty, or were fortunate enough to work from a position of financial independence, and we’ve been left with the literature that resulted. No one knows, and no one can ever know, if the work would have been better any other way, or what difference that would have made. Instead, we’ve plodded along in a so-so manner, gaining insights into life that most people soon forget as they go about their existences in exactly the way they did before they read The Corrections or The Art Of Fielding. Would we currently be in the throes of climate change, oppression or global bloodshed if a great book had pointed us persuasively in the other direction?
This brings us to the question how writing might be prioritised by society. I read recently that we could have perpetually renewable energy for the same price as the HS2 train link. Why would anyone choose the latter over the former? Well, plenty are doing just that, loudly and with passion. Should we prize financial benefits for authors over repairing roads? What about over building missiles no one will ever fire?
Interestingly, one American corporation has recently demonstrated that they do indeed prize literature over money (kind of). Could this be the beginning of the turning of the worm? I hope so; after all, art may not strictly be essential but it does make life worth living.