Authors do love to moan, don't they? There's no heavy lifting or wiping other people's bottoms for a living; it's just sitting there going tap-tippety-tap all day, complaining about how little you're being paid, isn't it? And yet ... new research just published shows they (we, to be honest) may have something really worth moaning about. Something shocking is happening in the world of publishing that means we could end up with very few books at all except the ghost-written memoirs of airhead footballers and models.
The average author earns about [pound]16,000, a third less than the national average wage, it is revealed. So what? They're doing what they love. But hidden behind that figure released by the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) is a grimmer truth: when you take away the superstars who are earning shedloads, the actual figure for the rest is closer to [pound]4,000.
That's less than it was last time anyone looked, seven years ago, and far less than the distant days when the Net Book Agreement kept prices high. Forget living on baked beans in a garrett; this is barely enough to buy stale bread and a tarpaulin for shelter.
And it is only for the lucky ones: fewer authors are being signed up unless they're famous, advances are shrinking, and those who sell only moderately well are dropped, ending careers early.
Peter Kay need not worry. His autobiography The Sound of Laughter sold a record-breaking 600,000 copies in its first six weeks.
The comedian may now win both the Biography and Book of the Year prizes at the National Book Awards, whose shortlists were announced on Thursday. The Nibbies, as they insist on calling themselves, will be the usual glamorous, televised affair at the end of the month, hosted by Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan. Famous names dominate the shortlists as usual: TV chef Gordon Ramsay is up for Best Biography; England footballer Steven Gerrard may win Sports Book of the Year; and the relentless advance of Ricky Gervais on all media fronts continues with Flanimals of the Deep in the kids' category.
These people are earning fortunes. "The top 10 per cent of authors earn more than half the total income," says the ALCS, whose job is to make sure its 55,000 members get what they are owed. Altogether, British authors earn [pound]907m each year - but the 5,500 bestselling authors get at least [pound]453m of that.
Most were already rich and famous before they put their name to a title: the second rank of contenders includes the US politician Al Gore and Richard Dawkins, the fundamentalist evolutionist whose ability to make science understandable is exceeded only by his talent for self-publicity. He was at it again last week, goading Kay about God.
People like that live in a different world from "Jane". She is now on her fourth book, in her forties, with a devoted band of readers. They see her on stage at literary festivals, elegant and eloquent and just a little bohemian, and think: "There is a writer who's made it." They don't know that the advances have dwindled down to [pound]10,000 a time (from which the agent and taxman take their share; and for a book that usually takes about two years to write). They don't see the bills threatening to make her sell her house.
Jane doesn't want me to use her real name in case it upsets her publisher or fans. Neither does she want them to know that she works in the local Waitrose for cash, as well as teaching and tutoring.
"People come and see me all bright-eyed, dreaming of being a writer," she said.
"They've got the idea that anyone can do it.
That's what people think: that it's so easy. I wish! I tell them I've been training since I was seven." Others do have talent. "They tell me it's their calling. I say it will have to be. I don't want to crush them, but the best advice if you want to eat is: 'Do something else. …