I recently wrote about the idea that writers are routinely expected to create 'for the love', and the phenomenon is sufficiently related to the above truth about the writing life that I run the risk of repeating myself here. My argument there was that writers and other artists should not be expected to work for free, but my focus here is on some of the barriers writers meet on the way to whatever income we do earn.
Even when we carefully conduct the business of writing as a business, it takes a great deal of savvy to negotiate contracts with publishing houses that routinely make efforts to purchase all the rights to our work (We don't sell our writing, you see. We sell the right to publish it in specific formats, an important distinction). For example, a mid-list, Hugo Award-winning acquaintance of mine with nine novels under his belt only earns about $25,000 per year, and it took him all nine novels to cement this income. Currently, advances for writing in my wheelhouse range from $5000-$10,000 for a first-time novelist, and those advances must be repaid in sales before any royalties are forthcoming. So even when we've successfully competed in a saturated market and entered into a fair contract with a traditional publisher, it can take years to build a portfolio large enough to sustain a regular income, let alone a living wage.
Another important thing to remember is that publishers do not always provide promotional materials to their authors, and rarely do they pay for book tours or convention appearances. This means that most of us are taking our promotional and travel budgets out of our writing proceeds. In my case, an anthology publisher of my work once mailed me a stack of promotional bookmarks, and a convention gave me a per diem for food and offered a hotel room in exchange for my appearance there. Everything else I've done to promote my career has come out of my own pocket.
This brings me to self-promotion. Amal El-Mohtar recently wrote a cutting-through-the-bullshit piece on the practice of blogging about awards eligibility that I felt was a long time in coming. Writers are often maligned for promoting their work on social networking and for listing their awards-eligible writing during nominations season. However, the truth is that we must promote our work, and we must list our awards-eligible writing because advertising and awards equal visibility, which leads to more publication opportunities, more sales and a greater chance that our debit cards won't be declined at the grocery store.
Finally, there is a lingering stigma associated with self-publishing on all sides of the business. Self-published work cannot be nominated for most industry awards, authors who self-publish cannot join most professional organizations on their self-publishing credentials alone and many readers still believe self-publishing reflects a lack of skill. This in addition to the fact that most brick-and-mortar book stores won't carry self-published titles even if they're available to be ordered through traditional outlets like Ingram. So though the quality of self-published work does vary from writer to writer, there are a number of excellent self-published books in print, and virtually none of them have the reach a traditionally-published title has.
All this by way of saying that The Guardian article is absolutely right; the average writer makes very little money for a number of reasons. Fair contracts, a broader market, better publisher support and a sympathetic environment to both self-promotion and self-publishing would go a long way to redressing that issue. But of course, all of these begin with a literate population that buys the books it reads. So read, widely and often (It's good for your brain!). And buy the books you read, when you can (Vote with your wallets!). Thank you so, so much.