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Writers: How much should we be paid?

by Adam Lowe

This is an update of a post originally published over at my personal website, and is the guide by which I work out my own day rates. I'm publishing it here because this is a question writers often ask us at Peepal Tree Press. Note that this information is constantly evolving, and competition law now means many organisations no longer publish ‘recommended rates’ for fear that this would be anti-competitive (I believe that it isn't). It therefore falls on individual freelancers and self-employed artists to continue to talk about this loudly and clearly, so that we can afford to eat and afford to create. This should not be considered an official guide by Peepal Tree Press (I write this from the perspective of an artist, not a publisher), but I hope you'll find it useful anyway.

According to The Guardian, the median author income in 2013 was £4,000, which has dropped by almost a third in the last decade. Ryan Lanz crunched more recent figures, and found that 54% of traditionally published writers and almost 80% of self-published writers earn less than $1,000 a year. So it seems the book trade is evolving--and not for the better. Even if you're lucky enough to get a book published, it's very unlikely that royalties alone will be enough to live off. Very few writers get advances any more and advances rarely compensate the time spent researching, writing and editing a book. For me and many other writers faced with this reality, a book becomes a gateway to commissions and bookings, rather than a source of direct income. If you do the maths, this makes sense.

Let's say each copy of a book nets the author £1 in royalties (a high but nicely rounded figure). I'd need to sell 200 copies to make the same amount I could make in a single one-hour session (see below) as a speaker, performer or facilitator. If the average small press author sells 100-500 copies per year, I'd only need to do two to three sessions per year to double my income. Therefore, the changing marketplace means that appearances and bookings are going to comprise a large portion of a writer's income. For that reason, knowing how much to charge is absolutely essential.

A little disclaimer

There are times when these day rates will not be appropriate. For example, if you have a book contract, you will be obliged to undertake a certain amount of publicity and related activities in the promotion of that book. Your publisher or the venue should cover your expenses, but you may not receive a fee for this. This is common practice and is, appropriately, part of the 'deal' when you get published.

Similarly, book fairs and book shops (where the primary focus is selling books) will usually not pay a writer, either, because the primary focus of such events is to market and sell your book, not to appear as an expert or a performer. A good rule of thumb, then, is that if the activity is primarily to promote your book, you won't get paid. If the activity is a festival, panel discussion, workshop, etc, then you should be paid. If you're billed as a 'guest speaker', 'performer', 'facilitator' or 'panellist', you probably should be paid. If it's a book launch, you probably won't.

How to calculate

There are three main options which I'm going to use here. These are:

  1. Andrew Bibby's Reckoner: This method calculates your day rate based on how much an employer would pay for an in-house member of staff to do the same job. If you're a member of a union, this is the most appealing way to calculate your day rate, since it means you won't be undercutting paid employees for equivalent work. The shorthand calculation for this is (desired annual income/100) + 40. If you think you're worth £25,000 per year, you'll need to charge £290 per day, plus expenses. Bibby's Reckoner itself is slightly out of date now (calculations are for 2015-6), but you can compare the numbers and read more about how the numbers are calculated. My simplified calculation takes inflation over the last year into account.

  2. Time-based pricing: This method calculates your day rate based on how many 'paid' days per year you can offer and your business overheads. As a general rule, most time-based pricing methods assume people can work 220 or so days per year, and that business overheads will require you to charge a third on top of your desired annual salary. So the formula would be (desired annual income + 33%) / 220. However, writers, unlike other employees, are likely to primarily be paid only for work that would be considered 'secondary' to their job. In other words, we'll be making the money from readings, performances, talks, workshops and mentoring rather than the actual work of sitting at a desk and writing. As such, this calculation is often a poor one for our requirements. I won't be using it here when I crunch the numbers, but you can do so if you feel it's suitable (using this calculation, your day rate for a £25,000 salary would only be £150, as opposed to the £290 you'd get using Bibby's Reckoner; I'd recommend adding on at least 50%). Macmillan Davies offers an easy calculator for this method.

  3. Comparable rates: This method looks at how much writers are being paid by organisations considered leaders or experts in their field. We shouldn't include organisations that typically underpay writers or that don't demonstrate writers' needs as a high priority. As such, you might look at rates offered by literature development agencies, live literature production companies, and tour bookers. I've got some experience of this, as I often negotiate fees for myself and other writers. The drawback is that most of these organisations are dependent on public funding, and the public doesn't seem to value the arts any more, so fees have been kept artificially low (not increasing, in some cases, for 10 years or more).

Looking at the numbers

There are different roles we, as writers, are likely to be called on to undertake. We might be paid to read at a festival, to lead a workshop, or to research a particular topic for a commission. As such, I'm going to look at what these different roles mean for us as creative writers, who really just want to write, and how we can earn enough to continue our professional development while also writing new material. It's a sad writer indeed who spends every day engaged in work other than writing, and it's unfair to expect us not to write. Despite the prevailing attitude that we should 'do it for the love', writing has to be considered a worthy task in itself, otherwise, as a profession, it will die, and become solely the province of amateurs and rich hobbyists.

Freelance writers

Bibby’s Reckoner is primarily for journalists, but I think this is a similar enough job (and the definition of journalist is wide enough) that the calculation is still a good one for our purposes. It also has a number of benefits for writers who want to be able to afford to eat, while still retaining a significant portion of their time to write. The calculation assumes the freelancer is earning the stated day rate every day and is productive 60% of that time, which is unlikely for most writers (who may only do a handful of paid sessions a month). Though the calculation is based on 1% of your annual salary per day, it doesn't mean you only have to work 100 days per year. But, thankfully, it does mean you probably don't have to find paid work every day.

Freelance creative writers are far less likely to be in paid work every day than their colleagues who work in the media. Their business costs are likely to be smaller but their research time is likely to be longer. Writers also have to spend time doing the actual writing itself (probably unpaid), whereas most writers' fees are for speaking or facilitating, which is additional work outside our main focus. Compare this to journalists, who get paid for their research and their writing time, and who don't usually have to create lesson plans, draft speeches or rehearse readings on top of this. If we also assume your annual income needs to be a third higher than a salaried staff member to pay for business expenses that would otherwise be paid for by an employer, then you'll actually need to spend about 133 days per year on paid engagements. The bonus, though, is that you are left with the rest of the time for training, admin, preparing for public engagements, the actual process of writing that gets you the paid work in the first place, and then the often lengthy period of applications and submissions that is required to find and get work.

Educators

The other paid kind of paid engagement creative writers are likely to be assigned is that of 'lead practitioner' or 'creative practitioner'. NASUWT recommends lead practitioners receive an income of £37,836 - £57,520, so for similar work we should be looking at £420 - £620 per day, based on Bibby's calculations. Arts Council England, meanwhile, has previously indicated that £22,000 per year is okay as a minimum for writers (meaning a day rate would be £260), presumably as 'creative practitioners' or non-lead practitioners. None of these fees include expenses (which should be charged on top to avoid cannibalising your own earnings).

The NASUWT figures are for the education sector, although many engagements will be in schools, colleges or universities and others will be in adult learning settings, so this seems appropriate.

Guest speakers

The Scottish Book Trust requests that authors get a flat £150 per one-hour session in a school or library. Each day should, it says, include multiple sessions so that writers aren't just doing a single hour-long session in a day. The writer is usually expected to do a reader and Q&A during this time, which means minimum prep time (as opposed to workshops, which might require a longer session and more prep time).

Expenses are again paid on top of this rate, which is a minimum and hasn’t changed in 10 years. Using various inflation calculators, a £150 fee in 2006 would be equivalent to £191.15 (CPI calculation), £202.11 (Thisismoney.co.uk calculation) or £202.50 (Safalra calculation). Well, David Cameron said Britain deserves a pay rise, so let's settle for a nice round figure of £200 per one-hour session. The Scottish Book Trust recommends that an author is booked for a minimum of three one-hour sessions, visiting multiple libraries or schools in close proximity on the same day if necessary, meaning you'd get £450-600 per day (using their rate of £150/hour or mine of £200/hour, as you wish).

A consensus?

Running the numbers for the different options, a sort of consensus does emerge. There's a symmetry between NASUWT's suggested salaries and The Scottish Book Trust's suggested day rates which emerges when we use Bibby's Reckoner.

  • NASUWT salary range: £37,836 - £57,520

  • The Scottish Book Trust rate (upper end adjusted for inflation): £450-600 (£41,000 - £56,000 per year using Bibby's Reckoner)

At first glance, we might look askance at these figures. Are we really worth this much? I'd argue that, of course, we are. We multitask as educators, motivational speakers and creators. We write commissions (creative copywriting of a kind), we read our work (often in a performance style) and we share our extensive knowledge (sometimes even parachuted into classrooms as though we were substitute teachers...). Meanwhile, we're constantly having to learn and relearn our craft, fill in lengthy application forms, and submit our work in the knowledge it may very well be rejected dozens of times before finding a home. Royalties alone are not fair compensation.

But let's also remember that there's lots of competition. We're competing against every other writer and creative practitioner out there. So the likelihood is, we won't be working 133 paid gigs a year. Even after overheads, then, it's unlikely we'll be earning the figures stated above. But if we at least ask for a fair rate, it'll prevent us from falling to poverty. There's a problem if we don't have the time to write because we're having to juggle numerous unrelated part-time, low-paid jobs instead. If we ask for the right fee upfront, we'll be much happier and better able to support ourselves. What falls on us next, then, is to advocate for writing as a skillset that is worth remuneration.

Making the case for your requested fee

Asking for fair pay is something that we sometimes shy from. British propriety apparently teaches us we shouldn't talk about money, which makes it harder to advocate for our worth.

Clarity

Here, then, are some key things to remember:

  • an 'hourly’ or 'day’ rate is not just for an hour or a day’s work (there’s travel time, prep time, admin time, time spent developing the craft and skills you’re going to share and time applying for commissions or submitting to prizes, etc);

  • rates have to reflect a contribution to overheads, which employers normally pay on behalf of their employees;

  • writers shouldn’t be the only unpaid (or even the lowest paid) adults in a room when giving a talk, reading or workshop.

Invoicing

I recommend that we all itemise our invoices properly. For example, when asked to 'come in for a day’, it's important to clarify that this equates to prep/research, admin, travel time and recovery time (the time it takes to unwind after an event before we can start working again). We need to be realistic about the footwork we have to put in for that 'one day’ in a school. In actually, it’s a process that merely culminates in that one day of face-to-face time. Those who hire us don't see all the work that goes on behind the scenes, so we have to make them aware of it.

If we all start being clear about this, then it makes our stance firmer and dispels much of the resistance we might get initially from those who don’t understand the economics of what we do. A good analogy is that of tradesmen: we expect a visit from a tradesman to cost a few hundred quid. You can rest assured that they’ll charge what they need to in order to eat and to keep working. Why, then, should anyone (let alone anyone on a salary) expect writers to work for free? Nicola Morgan has a good breakdown of how she charges for events.

It's also worth adding a note about payment timescales. Up to 30 days from invoicing is fine, although you're perfectly within your rights to ask for payment within 7-14 days, but you should always be clear about this at the time of booking. Add a note at the end of your contract that late payment will be subject to the statutory late payment fee and interest. I find the following wording works:

Payment is due within 30 days of invoice date. Statutory interest will be charged on overdue payments (Late Payment of Commercial Debts (Interest) Act 1998 as amended and supplemented by the Late Payment of Commercial Debts Regulations 2002). The statutory administrative fee will be charged on overdue payments (Late Payment of Commercial Debts Regulations 2002: Section 5A).

Statutory interest is, at the time of writing, 8% plus the Bank of England base rate of 0.5%. That's 8.5% annually, but you should calculate the interest owed daily and send weekly reminders with updated interest calculations (8.5% / 365 will give you the daily interest accrued). The statutory late payment fee is £40 on debt of less than £1,000 and £70 on debts of £1,000 or more. (If you're owed £10,000 or more, it increases to £100.) The late payment fee can be added once. You can also claim for the reasonable recovery of debts. Check out HMRC's guide to late payment of debts.

In summary

My recommendations, then, are as follows:

  • a minimum of £200 per one-hour session should be considered 'standard practice’;

  • a minimum rate of £300 per half-day is recommended (feel free to go higher);

  • a minimum rate of £400 per full day is recommended (feel free to go higher);

  • you should always charge travel expenses and ask for lunch (or dinner) to be covered if you are working over a mealtime.

I also strongly recommend you calculate your total based on the number of sessions you do (so if you're doing three sessions, ask for £600) and that you ask for a minimum fee, even if you will only do one session on the day. Not only does this encourage employers to book you for more sessions on the same day (which is more cost-effective for them and more time-effective for you), it means you won't have to travel half the day just to do a 'quickie' one-hour session that is neither quick nor truly an hour's work. It's easier for you to repeat the same session three times to different groups on the same day than it is for you to do three one-hour sessions on different days and in different cities for the same amount of money. Therefore, stating that your minimum fee will be for half a day, even if you're only needed for one hour of that time, is a good start.

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