Is Writing a Cottage Industry?

A recent editorial in The Bookseller contained an interesting sentence that set me thinking.

Most books in this country are not self-published, and most are sold at prices that sustain a sector not a cottage industry.

He’s right. Most traditionally publishing books are priced to support a sector , namely the traditional publishing industry. And that sector currently needs plenty of money to keep it going. For example, the books published by Penguin have to support an impressive headquarters in an impressive area of London: a building that must have cost a fortune. They also have to support all the staff in that building and make sure that Penguin’s CEO continues to earn more than half a million pounds a year.

The interesting issue is how well traditionally published books support the people who actually write them. They rarely get more than 7.5% of the cover price of a paperback and, in these days of high discount sales that trigger lower rates, they frequently get far less.

Advances have dropped and are continuing to fall. They are also paid in instalments so authors rarely receive more than half up front, where they need it to live on while they write the book. Worse still, the final advance payment is often made on publication – a date that’s normally a year or more after the actual work was done. Try that technique with a plumber and you won’t get far.

Wikipaedia defines a cottage industry as one where most people work at home, often part time. On that basis, writing is definitely a cottage industry. And the money from traditionally published books is not being used to sustain that industry – it’s sustaining the publishing sector instead.

Authors faced with falling royalties and increasing bills have to look around for other sources of income, and one of those is epublishing their backlist. This is remarkably easy and, once they’ve discovered how much more they earn per book that way, it’s logical to make the jump to self-publishing their next new book instead of handing it over to the traditional system.

The book trade has two vital components – the writers and the readers. Unless publishers look after the first, they’ll eventually have nothing to offer the second. So maybe it’s time for them to give up their prestigious offices and high managerial salaries and offer a better deal to the people without whom there would be no publishing industry at all.


If you are interested in self-publishing, you’ll find plenty of information to help you on


5 thoughts on “Is Writing a Cottage Industry?

  1. Cathy Butler

    Very good post!

    It’s not just the publishing industry that books support, though – it’s also the physical bookshop, which also has premises, staff, etc. to maintain. We may think of publishers and physical bookshops as unwanted middle-men, or as useful institutions that add value to our books and find them extra readers, but either way, both are sustained by books, and e-publishing cuts out both.

  2. Stroppy Author

    I absolutely agree that publishers should pay the people who produce their product properly, but it’s perfectly consistent with the economic model that writing can be a cottage industry while publishing isn’t. Look at all those people who hand-knit jumpers for big design houses. And, similarly, they are paid very little though the jumpers sell for a lot.

    Unfortunately, just about all industries pay people who do the real work a little and support massive buildings and overpaid executives, so I don’t see any chance of publishing being the first to change, I’m afraid. It would be nice, though.

  3. Leslie Wilson

    How well you put it, Diana! Traditional publishing puts us into the role of out workers, struggling in our hovels and paid a pittance – not enough, in fact, to keep body and soul together. And at least the out workers are paid when the work is done.

  4. Jennie Walters

    Well said, Diana! And you didn’t even have to mention expense accounts or Christmas parties…

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