In what the Authors Guild is calling the “largest survey of U.S. professional writers ever conducted,” the organization reports the median income published American authors received for all writing-related activity in 2017 was $6,080 in 2017, down from $10,500 in the guild's 2009 survey. The survey further found that the median income for specifically book-related income for published authors declined 21%, to $3,100, in 2017 from $3,900 in 2013 and just over 50% from 2009’s median book earnings of $6,250.
The survey was conducted by the Authors Guild in collaboration with 14 other writer and publishing related organizations, and includes data from more than 5,000 published book authors. Previous surveys had focused mainly on guild members and drew a smaller number of responses. A guild spokesperson acknowledged that the surveys have different pools of respondents, but said the guild still believes the figures indicate the general income decline holds true for guild members and for published authors as whole.
Indeed the results of the survey has prompted the Authors Guild to invoke a “crisis of epic proportions for American authors” when it comes to making a living from writing, especially for literary authors. Authors Guild president James Gleick said of the results, “When you impoverish a nation’s authors, you impoverish its readers.”
According to the survey, literary authors suffered the largest decline in income (down 15% over the last four years) they received from book publishing, followed by authors of general nonfiction, whose income from books declined by 8%. Roughly 25% of all published authors surveyed earned no money at all from book publishing in 2017; while 18% of full-time book authors also received zero income from book publishing during this period
While the rise of self-publishing platforms (in particular Amazon’s platform) has expanded income opportunities for self-published authors as whole, the report notes that while income for self-published authors doubled between 2013 and 2017, they still earn 58% less than traditionally published authors. Even among well-paid authors, the top self published authors have a median income of $154,000 compared to traditionally published authors who earned a median income of $305,000.
According to the report, “full time mid-list and literary writer are on the verge of extinction.” The report maintains that even full-time book authors are now compelled to work multiple jobs to survive. According to the survey, 57% of full-time published authors, generated 100% of their income writing-related work—speaking, editing, translating, ghostwriting, etc.—in 2017, while only 21% of full-time published authors could make 100% of their income from books.
Unsurprisingly, Amazon—described as a dominant force in bookselling and book publishing-- figures prominently in the income survey, cited as both a positive and a negative force. Amazon has “democratized” publishing enabling more people to publish books than ever before and the survey found that 76% of self-published authors used one of Amazon's platform. Amazon's requirement that authors sell exclusively on their platforms limits the amount of money they can make by being forced to participate in Kindle Unlimited and receiving only a 35% royalty on books priced at over $9.99, the report says.
Moreover, the survey found, Amazon's dominance over online bookselling (the e-tailer controls 72% of the online market, the report found) forced traditional publishers to effectively suppress the income for traditionally published writers. “Amazon puts pressure on them to keep costs down and takes a large percentage, plus marketing fees, forcing publishers to pass on their losses to authors,” the report said.
The report includes a number of proposals to counter the slide of authors earnings. Among them the report calls on Congress to allow authors to join together to bargain collectively with giant self-publishing platforms like Amazon, Google and Facebook for better terms; calls on online resellers to pay royalties on the sales of new books; asks for better library funding to allow them to deliver a royalty to authors for lending books to the public; urges publishers to pay higher royalties on e-books and on deeply discounted books; and urges publishers to destroy all book returns to prevent these titles from reaching the secondary market.