Friday, July 18, 2014

UK Author Income Survey: Much Ado About Nothing?

Since the Authors’ Licensing & Collecting Society (ALCS) published the summary of their UK Author Income Survey, much angst has been displayed in the blogosphere about this study claiming that one more nail has been driven into the coffin of aspiring authors.

The survey summary troubles me, not for what it says about author incomes, but about whether it has any validity. Consider the following:

The publication provides no footnotes or link to detail the mechanics of the survey. Proper surveys provide sufficient information about their methodology so readers can judge the quality of the results. The sample size appears large with 2,454 participants, but how were people selected? Do they represent a fair cross-section of the purported population of all UK writers? Are the methodologies consistent with previous studies? Don’t know.

Where did the full-time writers go?

The summary compares current results to those from a 2005 study (which I have not researched). Are the samples actually comparable, or is there a bias because of the sampling process? This might seem esoteric, so let me make a quick point before I lose you. In their 2005 study 40% of responders earned all their income from writing. In 2013 they found only 11.5% earned all their income from writing.

  • Does this mean that over 70% of writers who formally earned all their income from writing now must take part-time jobs?
  • Or does it mean the populations surveyed are substantially different?

I don’t know because they have provided no details on survey construction. The summary implies the former, but I suspect the two populations surveyed are not the same. AND if that is the case, then the reliability of any comparison between 2005 and 2013 is seriously jeopardized.

But wait! There’s more!

Their conclusion (p. 4) is nigh on dystopian, to wit: “If unchecked, this rapid decline in the number of full-time writers could have serious implications for the breadth and quality of content that drives the economic success of our creative industries in the UK.”

Purported Income Decline

They then go on (p. 5) to report that those who are full-time writers have median incomes of only £11,000 (approximately $18,800 at current conversion rates), fully 29% below the 2005 real monetary value reported and, 35% below the Joseph Roundtree Foundation’s calculation of a “socially acceptable standard of living,” whatever that means. The report then suggests that “Given that typical earnings from writing as a profession fall way below that standard, it is not surprising that the number of full-time writers is also declining sharply.”

Really? I am unconvinced. In the United States the number of fast food workers has not declined despite the fact that full-time earnings rarely come up to poverty levels. Perhaps these writers are taking supplemental employment, but show me the graphs and charts that illustrate the number of people who considered themselves full-time writers in the past and now work extra jobs to make ends meet. Where’s the graph showing how many people used to have full-time writing jobs whose employers cut hours so they now only work part-time as writers? The lack of those graphs implies to me that the survey either did not ask the question (why?) or the answer is not persuasive.

One last thing about their report of the purported decline in all writers’ income: the summary report does provide statistics about the age of the respondents (P. 3). Fully 29% were over age 65; only 17% were under age 44. Given all the other comparisons they provided, why not ones about the change in ages from the prior survey? Perhaps because it illustrates different groups of responders?

Rights Reversion

The study also includes a number of statistics about digital versus print, rights reversion, etc. Here’s an interesting one: “70% of [those exercising a reversion clause in their book contracts] went on to earn more money from the work in question.” The real question is why 100% didn’t? Why did 30% revert their rights and then do nothing with them? And why is it important to report that 70% earned more – as if that were some knock on the industry?


Another statistic blared by the summary (p.10) is “Just over 25% of writers have self-published a work, with a typical return on their investment of 40%.” What does this mean? How do they measure investment? Does it include only out-of-pocket expenses, or does it impute an investment value for hours spent writing? And what does “typical return” mean? In all my statistics courses I never learned the mathematical meaning of “typical.” Mean—yes. Median—yes. Mode—yes. Normal and Student’s T distributions—yes. Typical—no.


If the ACLS wants this study to have relevance, to shed light on the writing industry, they need to provide methodology information to demonstrate results are comparable between 2005 and 2013 and that the selection procedures provided a population that represents the whole universe of UK writers.

~ Jim


  1. Interesting criticism. Methodology is key to any valid study--as is sharing that methodology with the reader. Thanks.

  2. I love when you break down reports like this one. Agreed that the report would be much more valuable with information on the responders. Great job, Jim!