As any working writer today knows, the writing profession is dramatically evolving. Traditional nonbook sources of income that a book author might count on—including freelance journalism, fees paid for university copying, and book advances—continue to dwindle, while new opportunities are still in their infancy in terms of pay. The Authors Guild is committed to protecting authors’ existing income sources and advocating for new business models that ensure that writers, and not just the intermediaries, profit from them.
The guild recently conducted an author earnings survey to better understand the financial impact of the digital transformation on sales of various types of books. We wanted to know how authors are doing economically, and how different types of authors and sources of income have been affected. Given the tremendous shifts in the industry, we felt it was important to obtain more detailed, nuanced data than in past surveys so that we can advocate effectively and provide authors with the necessary insights about the factors impacting their incomes. For instance, which types of books, genres, and publishing platforms do better than others? What profitable new sources of author income exist? How much income does self-publishing generate? What forms of supplementary writing-related income, such as blog writing or teaching, are most profitable?
To answer these questions and more, we reached out to published authors from 18 writer organizations and platforms to conduct a larger survey than ever before. Ultimately, 5,067 traditionally published, self-published, and hybrid-published authors completed the survey. Of those surveyed, 53% described writing as their primary occupation, and 37% stated that they are full-time book authors, making this the most comprehensive and, we believe, the most accurate reflection of the incomes of professional writers today.
As previously reported in PW, the survey results show a profession largely in crisis. The median writing-related income of respondents who earned any writing income in 2017 was a mere $6,080, down 42% from 2009. And while full-time published authors earned a median income from all writing-related sources of $20,300, only $12,400 of that income derived from their books. Such incomes fall near or below poverty levels, making it impossible for authors to rely solely on writing and writing-related income to support themselves.
The survey also showed, fortunately, that authors who exclusively or mainly self-publish did much better in 2017 than they did just a few years ago. However, their median income still falls below that of traditionally published authors.
Because we asked more questions and received input from a wider group of writers than we have in the past, the data does not align perfectly with our previous surveys. Nonetheless, the prior surveys serve as important benchmarks—and the only points of comparison available. The new survey data will also establish a baseline for future surveys.
The results of the survey will help us and the other participating organizations better match our advocacy and author education efforts with reality. Until recently, writers who had significant publishing success could generally afford to devote their days to writing more books. That’s no longer true for many full-time writers, especially literary ones.
From a policy perspective, we should ask what impact this may have on the quality of books moving forward, and what we can do to correct the income drops. The guild’s legislative priorities for the year share the principal goal of directing more money toward authors. And later this year, we will release our new model trade book contract, which contains provisions to help curtail income losses due to the reseller market on Amazon, piracy, and deep discounts. Last, we will use the data from the survey to help authors envision new ways of earning money from their books and to find other sources of income compatible with writing. An upcoming white paper will take a deeper look at the data.
We invite all who value books and believe in the importance of a rich American literary culture to join us to examine the role that everyone in the publishing industry, including writers, plays in the ongoing decline in author incomes. It is in everyone’s interest to ensure that authors survive the digital disruption.
Mary Rasenberger is the executive director of the Authors Guild.