17. For whom the bell curve tolls

I was leafing through the summer issue of The Author, the journal of the Society of Authors. It has some interesting statistics in it.

The UK book market is the fourth largest in the world by turnover. But researchers at Queen Mary, University of London, found that the median annual income among writers in 2013 was £4,000. The bottom half the 2,500 writers they surveyed earned less than £10,500 a year, and took home only 7% of all authors’ earnings. The top 1% of writers made more than £450,000 a year, and took home 22.7% of the pot.

Statistical analysis is based on the idea that a variable (like height for example) is arranged uniformly in what’s called a “normal distribution” – a bell-shaped curve with most people in the middle and small tails at each extreme. Success, however, doesn’t follow a bell-curve. The odds are stacked in favour of a lucky few. Ask any actor, or musician, or any author.


This graph shows the distribution of wealth in the United States in 2013 – a classic non-normal distribution.

The same issue of The Author also has this instructive statistic from a publisher: Of every 10 books sold in bookshops, five fail, three break even, and two make profit. Little wonder then that publishers like to reduce their risk by publishing works by people who’re already famous. However, the statistic does also mean that publishers are dependent on continually finding new authors in the search for that elusive two. And of course, two out of every three books sold in the UK now, are not bought at the till of a bookshop. The online market coalesces even more around winners than does the bookshop market.

So what can an aspiring author do about these grim facts? Above and beyond being talented, writing the best work you possibly can, and editing it diligently.

1. Be independently wealthy
If you’re not already rich, go to step 2.

2. Don’t give up the day job.
It goes without saying that if you’re unlikely to make a living out of writing, you should have another source of income.

3. Make yourself luckier.
If you know some leprechauns or genies, now is a good time to ask their help. If you’re an ordinary mortal like me, there are still some things you can do.

  • They say, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. If you have a large and loyal fan base, publishers and readers are more likely to pay attention to you. The classic example of this is E L James’ Fifty Shades of Grey. She started off writing fan fiction, which got her the base from which she became an international publishing sensation. You can publish work on story-sharing sites like Wattpad and Smashwords, and wait for the adulation to roll in. Goodreads is another important site where you can connect with your readers. I talked about these sites in post 10.
  • E L James is also a good example of another way you can boost your luck. She tapped into a trend, particularly among women, for raunchier women’s fiction. If you catch a trend at its peak like she did, you may coast to literary stardom. Keeping your eye on new releases in your bookshop and reading trade magazines like The Bookseller can help you keep your finger on the pulse. Dark thrillers are pretty hot right now, for example. As one of the speakers at the Winchester Writers’ Conference said, a fortnight ago, readers want to be traumatised by their books. The other big trend at the moment, believe it or not, is colouring books for adults.
  • I’m not suggesting that you should write the book the market wants. Of course not. We should all write the books we want to write. But, if it makes sense to give your work a tweak towards what’s trending, it may help.
  • Work hard at getting your friends and readers to review and promote your book (assuming you already have a published book). Most of the 184,000 books published in the UK each year appear without any promotion and vanish without trace. Don’t let yours be one of them.

A word of caution. I’m just passing on advice I’ve received and that I’m following. In post 10, I told you how slowly this is going for me. Since that post, my number of Goodreads friends has increased to 7, and on Wattpad, I’ve had 76 reads and have attracted one new follower to add to the four I already had. To be fair, I haven’t posted anything new on Wattpad for months, so this isn’t too surprising. I just posted a new story there, so I’ll let you know how that works out.

The moral is, remember the odds are stacked against you, work at it, and don’t expect instant miracles.
actor, or musician, or any author.

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