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AGENDASILVER LININGIf you followed your heart as a young writer, and ignored advice to ‘don’t give up the day job’, you could be facing a future of grey clouds – with no silver lining. A (gently ageing) Melissa Benn reportsThe voice at the other end of the phone is angry, defeated. ‘It’s totally shit. I can’t even talk about it. It feels like everything is disappearing just at a time when my own energy is dipping.’ I am speaking to Jenny (not her real name), an experienced writer in her early 60s, author of several well-received books and thousands of beautifully turned journalistic pieces, who has endured bouts of ill health, and has cared long- term for a close relative, but whose income and opportunities have now dwindled to zero.She is now earning a meagre living in another arts-related field. ‘Everyone knows about the changes in publishing and journalism. Fewer commissions, advances dropping. But it’s got to the point that I now feel completely on the outside of that world.’I hear the same story from Margaret (another older writer who preferred to be anonymous). Now in her late 60s, author of three successful books and countless journalistic articles, a long stint on a national newspaper, plus a TV production credit here, a radio presenting gig there, she informsme cheerfully that ‘I haven’t any work at all. None whatsoever. Though I’m planning to start a new book soon – if I can fund it myself’.After a bit of probing I discover that her equability is largely due to the fact that she has a state pension and an annuity from her newspaper job – ‘small pots of money that won’t sustain me in the long run, but are enormously helpful’ – and a mortgage-free property. ‘But I’m living on savings, so something will have to change soon.’Hard timesBoth stories cast a spotlight on two of the lowest- income cohorts of the population – freelance writers and older women – and what happens when they are one and the same person: a woman in later life, with a productive writing life behind her, possibly still brimming with literary ambition, but with frighteningly few resources to fall backon. Taken together, this situation can spell penury. The figures are clear. According to a surveyby the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) and Queen Mary University of London, the median income of professional authors (whose main or only income came from writing) was just £11,000 in 2013. This, the first comprehensive study of author earnings in the UK since 2005, represents a drop of 29 per cent compared with a decade earlier, and is well below the £16,850 the Joseph Rowntree Foundation identifies as needed to achieve a minimum standard of living. The study also found that while in 2005 40 per centof professional authors earned an income from writing alone, by 2013 just 11.5 per cent were doing so.Nicola Solomon, CEO of the Society of Authors (SoA), explains what’s been going on: ‘Advances have gone down and there is now a much bigger gap between top authors and the rest. The typical mid-list author has lost out. At the same time, we have seen the rise of “fixed fee” contracts, once mainly a feature of academic publishing, where an author signs away royalty income for a higher initial advance’.The Royal Literary Fund is an organisation, financed mainly by the estates of deceased authors, that awards grants to writers who are struggling financially. CEO Eileen Gunn agrees with Solomon: ‘It’s definitely harder these days. Advances are getting smaller. And writers whose careers might once have been nurtured by publishers, even if they weren’t currently selling well, are just not getting the money they once did. Many have been dropped by publishers entirely’. Royalties, another mainstay of the successful author, have contracted dramatically, affecting successful and struggling authors alike.The Royal Literary Fund – described, rather lovingly, by one archivist as an ‘institution of incomparable and unique support to a medley of curious, classical, rare, strange and often broke writers of all genres since the 18th Century’ – plays‘I haven’t any work at all. None whatsoever. Though I’m planning to start a new book soon’mslexia Mar/Apr/May 2017 5PHOTO: CHATGUNNER / SHUTTERSTOCK

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