By Jan Zwar, David Throsby, and Paul Crosby
Most Australian book authors do not earn enough income from their creative practice to make ends meet. They rely on other jobs and other support, such as a partner’s income.
In the 2020-21 financial year, the average personal income in Australia was approximately $A70,000. Only one-third of authors earned this amount from all their sources of income combined. The average total income for authors, including all sources of income, was $64,900.
And the amount they earned from their books alone was far, far less.
We found the average annual income authors derive from practising as an author is $18,200. That’s an increase from $15,100 seven years ago (adjusted for inflation). But it’s a modest increase from a low base: it represents growth of less than 3% per annum over seven years.
Book writing is a profession dominated by women, who make up two-thirds of all Australian authors. More than 80% of authors have attended university and almost half have completed a postgraduate degree – a high level of education that is not matched by high income.
In our survey (which followed up on an earlier 2015 study), we asked Australian book authors about their income and how they allocate their time, the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on their career, their relationships with their readers and publishers, and more. We wanted to find out what has changed in the last seven years – and whether conditions are improving for Australian authors.
Authors’ earnings and ‘portfolio careers’
If you are planning a career as an author, what could you expect to earn?
Education authors earned the highest average income from their practice as an author ($27,300), followed by children’s ($26,800) and genre fiction ($23,300) authors. Even though these figures are above the overall average for authors, they are not enough to live on, to support a family, or to pay rent or a mortgage.
At the other end of the spectrum are poets, who earned an average of $5,700 from their creative practice. Literary authors earned $14,500, which is a decrease in real terms since 2015.
To break this down, an author’s income from their creative practice includes advances from publishers, royalties on book sales, fees for live appearances, Public Lending Rights (PLR) and Education Lending Rights (ELR) paid by the government for the use of their work in libraries and educational institutions, prizes and fellowships, and rights sales for film, TV etc.
Artists’ careers are often known as “portfolio careers” – which sounds more glamorous than the bracing reality of juggling multiple commitments. Some authors have another career as a journalist, medical specialist, academic, teacher or public figure that provides their main source of income.
Several authors wrote about the uneven timing of income from their work. One literary author wrote:
It’s difficult to capture the life and income of an author because for up to five years nothing might happen except writing, then for about 18 months there is a flurry of (a tiny amount) of cash and editing, and then a month or two of publicity.
The difficulty of spending time to write
We asked authors what prevents them from spending more time writing. Only 6% of authors reported no competing demands for their writing time. Domestic responsibilities affect almost two-thirds of trade authors (62%). One literary author wrote:
I managed to devote regular time to writing alongside a full-time job pre-children but the addition of a baby (now toddler) to life has rendered those opportunities non-existent. I now meet my obligations to my publisher by taking annual and sometimes unpaid leave to work on my author duties. It has certainly slowed my career and I can no longer devote time to learning experiences, networking, or applications for prizes, grants and residencies.
Insufficient income is a factor for over half of all authors. Some commented that their ability to spend time writing was enhanced by other sources of financial security. A creative non-fiction author commented:
Having my first book published the year before I turned 60 meant I faced less financial issues due to owning my own home, superannuation and financial support from my partner. However, if I was less financially established it would be very difficult to live on what I make as an author.
The financial insecurity inherent to the profession may contribute to the recognised lack of diversity of Australian authors: a recent report found only 7% of books published in 2018 were written by people of colour. As the UK Society of Authors noted a few years ago, “people from less privileged backgrounds who want to write are less likely to have additional sources of household income”.
In the 2022 survey, we heard from established, prize-winning authors – including some who’d had a bestselling book earlier in their career – who were contemplating no longer writing books, due to dwindling opportunities for mid-list writers.
We all stand to lose if established authors leave the profession.
Impact of the Covid-19 pandemic
Like many Australians, the majority of authors experienced disruption and hardship due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Approximately one-third of authors reported large or modest increases in levels of financial stress.
Authors promote their books through live appearances in bookstores, schools, libraries, writers’ festivals and other events. Over half of authors experienced a reduction in promotional opportunities for their next book. One creative non-fiction author wrote:
My book [was] released into closed bookstores and I still find myself questioning if there is anything I can do to improve sales, eight months on. It was, and is, devastating.
The lockdowns meant that over one third of authors experienced a large decrease in income from paid appearances.
We found it difficult to identify a single factor that meant authors were negatively affected by the pandemic. A range of factors could be influential: whether an author lived in a state which experienced lengthy lockdowns, whether they had a book released (and if so, if they had an established large readership base or not), whether they had carer responsibilities (which could include elderly relatives as well as children), and whether they were experiencing financial stress.
Small, good news – and what’s next?
One piece of good news is that authors are 10% more likely to be satisfied with their main publisher than they were seven years ago. Nearly one-third (31.6%) of authors are very satisfied with their main publisher – an increase from just 19.6% in 2015.
Authors, large and small publishers, booksellers and libraries are working on joint initiatives to promote Australia’s reading culture in 2023. The industry awaits the federal government’s national cultural policy with anticipation.
Jan Zwar, Faculty Research Manager, Macquarie University; David Throsby, Distinguished Professor of Economics, Macquarie University, and Paul Crosby, Senior Lecturer, Department of Economics, Macquarie University