Throughout history, few authors were successful enough to be financially independent
As a resident of the Kingdom of Sweden, I am days away from receiving the “invitation” from my government to file my taxes for 2018. As for most of us, a somewhat sensitive topic. As a full-time author, I don’t have much to look forward to. With little to no income, I don’t really pay taxes and I never ever see tax returns, obviously. I don’t mind paying taxes, but these days, my financial “well-being” is on my mind. Income is so much more than just taxes. I’m lucky to live in a country where much of our social services are offered equally to everybody, regardless of income (or lack thereof.) But other things, such as my future pension, aren’t.
The future looks bleak
“Garantipension” is a thing here, it’s a minimum pension paid to those who haven’t saved enough to warrant a higher pension through contributions (by working.) Our current pension system relies heavily on employers diverting a certain amount of money every month. No employer, no savings. As an author, I’m my own employer and without an income (to speak of), I have little resources to save for the future. But this isn’t just about me. This is something a lot of artists share. But what income sources can we tap into?
Looking back in history
Historically, authors have relied on rich patrons, usually royalty. Every court that could, would employ a bard to entertain nobility at festivities. It’s how we were afforded the great plays, dramas and comedies alike from the ancient Greeks and Romans, and I have a hunch that circumstances were similar elsewhere in the world.
Patrons, these days in the re-invented Patreon-version, have always played a huge roll in the life of artists. Just look at how Italian and French nobility supported Leonardo, Machiavelli or Michelangelo. Many of these artists died in poverty despite their fame today. Nothing changed until books became a thing for a broad mass market. Suddenly you had authors who became celebrities, who sold books by the millions. Reclusive or not, they were famous and rich. But how many of them were there at any given time, globally?
Grants, stipends, crowd-funding or patrons
Few! Very few. But their visibility served like a beacon of light to the hundreds of thousands of authors who self-publish on platforms like KDP today. Of all those people, a handful per year, at the most, land a bestseller and a contract with one of the big houses who long ago abandoned niche literature for the benefit of celebrity literature, books they know will make them money.
So what do poets, authors do to pay their mortgage? Their utility bills? Groceries? Most of them work daytime and write at night. At my age, finding work is becoming increasingly difficult. My value on the job market is equal to the likelihood of global warming being a hoax. Some authors chase grants or stipends, spending many hours researching what is available and submitting proposals. For a shot at a few hundred dollars, these people spend days and weeks.
The advent of the Internet has not only changed publishing forever but also how we can earn money. Asking for donations online, Patreon (see above) or crowd-funding platforms are all ways to make a buck. One thing is certain: the only winners are the platforms… Oddly, the more famous you are, the more books you sell, the more likely you’ll attract money, whereas those who need the money most, they go without.
The Swedish Academy debate
In Sweden, we’ve recently had an interesting debate around income for poets and writers. With Katarina Frostensson offering to leave the Academy (her husband was convicted for raping women on two counts and has been suspected of using his relationship with her to gain financial benefits and access to many of the women he allegedly harassed sexually.) Frostensson refused to leave without financial compensation, having made millions on her “chair” every year. Most other poets make a tiny fraction of that money.
There is an interesting discussion going on in artist circles and in public access media about what an artist should make, what the value of a book is, etc. I think this is a valuable discussion. No doctor treats a patient without pay, the milkman won’t let you take his product for free, and no carpenter will make a table and chairs for you for free. Yet artists are often expected to give away their books, music for free. If nothing else, we expect to find them for free online.
Sometimes, people suggest a basic income. This has recently been tested in Finland, but not to a specific group of people and the trial has yet to be evaluated. The general idea is to supply every citizen with a base income above the poverty limit and to remove all other subsidies instead (housing, social welfare etc.) Some claim that a base income would be less shameful and would free up a lot of resources from the government (as the entire administration of pensions, welfare, etc. would cease.) Others call it a socialist vanity project. Personally, I’m on the fence.
It would certainly help artists and it would remove the angst of having money for the most basic aspects of life. As long as it would also count toward our pensions, all the better. But is it fair to ask for the working population to support artists? Would people still work? Are artists necessary for society to work? Do we add value? Or are we simply lazy leeches? Interesting questions that deserve looking at in more detail.
How much did I sell last year? What will I sell this year?
Sadly, my book sales have dipped in recent years. The first half of 2015 was my best-selling year, and while I had “bestsellers” on various lists in Canada, Australia, and the UK over the years, those books weren’t on the list long enough or the country too insignificant to warrant any major income. I don’t know how many books I’ve sold last year. Like all authors, I always dream that “the next one” will be my breakthrough, will be the one to propel me to the NYT bestseller list and a steady income to allow me to pursue my writing without turning each penny. It’s a dream all artists share, most of us being aware that we’ll never get there.
But we still hope. Thus I hope that 2019 will be a better year, with more sold books, ebooks, and audiobooks. Meanwhile, I enjoy the great reviews my books garner. They may not pay invoices, but they inspire me to work even harder on the next book.
How can you help?
If you are a reader, there are many things you can do to help an author you like. Apart from buying their books (thank you!), often at the cost of a large latte, you can help them at no cost:
- Tell your friends and acquaintances about a book you enjoy, and why.
- Write a short review. Tell people why you liked the book. Preferably not just on Amazon or GollumReads, but also on another site, e.g. Apple, Google, Smashwords et al. All those sites have sales, but very few reviews. Your review might make a big difference.
- Follow, like and share social media posts. Unfortunately, many of the social media sites and their algorithms only care about those metrics and will promote (i.e. make more visible) posts that are “popular”.
- Attend signings and readings. Often, those are instances where authors can sell books and/or are paid to attend.