written by Francesca Baker
It’s not easy being a writer. Or at least it's not easy making your living from writing. In the UK, average author earnings are £12,500 (which is below the minimum wage for a full-time job of £18,000 and well below the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s minimum income standard of £17,100), and many writers are not even reaching this level of income from their writing. Lucrative contracts and advances are very rare, and income from royalties continues to fall.
When starting out in their career, many writers are promised exposure and bylines in exchange for their words. Whilst there is value to be had in raising your profile, it should not be instead of being paid a fair wage. It’s only in the arts and creative professions that vague terms such as ‘exposure’ and ‘profile’ are considered to be a fair return for the work done.
Journalists and writers are asked to give their words to magazines for free. But the sales teams working on the same magazine are being paid. Writers performing at events can be the only person in a room not being paid, despite being the ‘name’ that has drawn the audience. The person serving the drinks will be getting at least minimum wage.
Spread the Word are London’s writer development agency, committed to supporting emerging writers and underrepresented groups. There are multiple barriers that prevent writers from underprivileged and diverse backgrounds from having the time and space to write, and getting their stories heard. This means that, despite operating in one of the most diverse and creative cities in the world, we do not get to hear stories that are reflective of London’s citizens’ voices. Most writing reflects a narrow, and largely privileged, selection of views and experiences.
One of the reasons for this is the issue of pay. Without the means and circumstances to financially support yourself, writing is a difficult business. If you can’t afford to feed or house yourself, or are having to work long hours to do so, you can’t afford the time to write. There are an elite group of people with financial means to support themselves to write, and members of this group are the ones whose voices we hear and writing we read.
Spread The Word want to see more diverse writers being published by publishing houses and media, and readers and audiences experience a greater range of writing produced by London writers. One way they do this is to support writers to have the time, space and money to produce quality work and live as a writer.
A November 2017 survey found that 31% of writers engaging with the organisation’s work identified as being from a marginalized socio-economic background. Structural inequalities mean that people from certain backgrounds are more likely to find themselves at the lower end of the economic spectrum. 58% of people working with Spread The Word are from Black, Asian, and Ethnic Minority backgrounds, 15% identified as LGBTQI and 27% class themselves as disabled. Many, although not all of these, may also struggle with income.
Ruth Harrison, Director of Spread the Word says, ‘If we value writing and if we value reading and hearing stories from diverse voices there is an absolute imperative to pay writers for the work they do – be that a reading, performance, workshop or a commission. It is likely to be the writer's main source of income; it is likely to be the reason they will continue to be a writer.’
If we want these people to continue to be writers, if we want to hear great voices and read great writing, we need to provide the resources and opportunity for that writing to be done. We need to value it. We need to pay for it.