In its first study on author income since 2009, the Authors Guild delivers some jarring, if unsurprising, data. The survey, which will be released next week, indicates, among other things, that the majority of authors would be living below the Federal Poverty Level if they relied solely on income from their writing.
Mary Rasenberger, executive director at the Guild, acknowledged that the findings paint a grim picture. “When it comes to income there is no good news to report,” she said. Citing a swirl of factors, from online piracy to publisher consolidation to the rise of Amazon (and the shuttering of brick and mortar bookstores), Rasenberger said the takeaway from the survey is that authors should be receiving higher royalties from publishers. “Authors need to be cut in more equitably on the profits their publishers see, or we’ll stop seeing the quality of work the industry was built on.”
The survey, conducted this spring by the Codex Group, is based on responses from 1,674 Guild members, 1,406 of whom identified either as a full-time author, or a part-time one. The majority of respondents also lean older—89% are over the age of 50—and toward the traditionally published end (64%).
So what does that Federal Poverty Level statistic mean? Given that a single person earning less than $11,670 annually sits below the poverty line, 56% of respondents would qualify, if they relied solely on income from their writing. The survey also indicated that not only are many authors earning little, they are, since 2009, also earning less. Overall, the median writing-related income among respondents dropped from $10,500 in 2009 to $8,000 2014 in 2014, a decline of 24%. The decline came for both full-time and part-time authors with full-time authors reporting a 30% drop in income to $17,500 and part-time authors seeing a 38% decrease, to $4,500.
The 2015 survey, Rasenberger explained, was intended to gauge how digital innovation has affected authors; in 2009, when the Guild did its first income survey, e-books had not been significantly adopted by readers. Given this, Rasenberger said, the results are not without bright spots. “We’re on the other side of a storm, and in many ways it wasn’t as bad as some predicted," she noted. "But that’s not to say it’s been easy to weather.”
One thing the survey indicates is that more authors are taking a hybrid approach to their careers. While only 4% of respondents said they have only self-published, 33% reported having self-published at least one book. To Rasenberger, this stat shows authors are recognizing opportunities that self-publishing offers. She said the Guild suspects authors “are starting to see self-publishing as an outlet for projects that haven’t been supported by traditional publishing houses.”
While Rasenberger feels the rise in hybrid authorship “is an exciting development,” she drove home the point that the survey ultimately shows that authors are not getting the financial rewards they are due. Noting that both “copyright law and policy” need to be “tailored to put authors’ concerns at the forefront,” Rasenberger said the Guild hopes the survey will allow it to "more effectively advocate for working authors.”