In an effort to gather as much information as possible about how much authors earned in 2017, the Authors Guild conducted its largest income survey ever last summer, reaching beyond the guild’s own members to include 14 other writing and publishing organizations. In all, the survey drew 5,067 responses from authors published by traditional publishers and from hybrid and self-published authors as well.
The findings of the new survey are in line with previous studies: income for authors continued to decline. The new study found that the median income received by published American authors for all writing-related activity in 2017 was $6,080, down from $10,500 in the guild’s 2009 survey. The survey also found that, specifically for book-related income, the median income for published authors declined 21% in 2017 to $3,100 from $3,900 in 2013, and it was down just over 50% from 2009’s median book earnings of $6,250.
A guild spokesperson acknowledged that the new survey has a different pool of respondents than previous studies but said the guild still believes the figures indicate the general income decline for authors holds true for guild members and for published authors as a whole.
Peter Hildick-Smith, president of the Codex Group, which conducted the survey, said that the major trend that has impacted guild members between 2009—the beginning of widespread digital publishing—and 2017 has affected other authors as well. During this period, he noted, overall book revenue has remained largely stable and has not risen substantially, in spite of the tremendous increase in the number of published authors and new titles enabled by digital and self-publishing. As a result, that same revenue pie is being sliced into smaller pieces. (Asked by PW to break down how Authors Guild members themselves fared between 2013 and 2017, the Codex Group indicated that the book-related median income fell 41%, to $2,450 in 2017.)
The results of the survey prompted the Authors Guild to decry a “crisis of epic proportions for American authors” when it comes to making a living from writing, especially for literary authors. In a prepared statement, 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 received from book publishing (down 15% over the past four years), 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 no income from book publishing during the period.
The sheer volume of data released in the new study, as well as the fact that there were more respondents to the 2017 survey than there were to earlier surveys, makes direct comparisons between it and older studies difficult, and caused some confusion and criticism.
The rise of self-publishing platforms has expanded income opportunities for self-published authors as a whole, but the report noted that, though income for self-published authors doubled between 2013 and 2017, they still earn 58% less than traditionally published authors. Authors Guild executive director Mary Rasenberger said that having more people publish books is a positive, but including their incomes in the 2017 survey lowered the median income. The survey found that writing-related income for authors who have been publishing since 2013 was up, from $6,250 to $8,170, even though their median book income was down, from $3,900 to $3,100, in the same period. Adding in the newer authors brought the overall median down from the $8,170 longtime authors earned in 2017 to the overall median of $6,080.
Rasenberger added that one of the key findings of the survey was that longtime writers are finding ways to earn income beyond just their writing. When adding in all publishing-related activities, full-time authors had a median income of $20,300 in 2017, up 3% from 2013, but, the guild noted, below the $25,000 median income full-time authors earned in 2009.
One factor that the survey said contributed to the decline in authors’ median income is Amazon’s dominance in self-publishing. An Amazon spokesperson responded that the company has had “thousands” of independent authors who each had earnings surpassing $50,000 from the sale of books on Amazon. The spokesperson also noted that authors who make their books available through Kindle Unlimited “earned more than $260 million in 2018 from the KDP Select Global Fund alone.”
The report found, however, that in addition to its control of the self-publishing world, Amazon’s dominance over online bookselling (the e-tailer controls 72% of the online market, according to the report) forces 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.
Other causes of decline in author incomes, the report found, include the stagnation of royalty rates, particularly of the 25% rate for e-books; huge advances for potential blockbuster titles that drain money from midlist authors; the increased number of books being sold by resellers on Amazon; and the “perennial problem” of book returns that find their way back to the market.
The report included 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 such as Amazon, Facebook, and Google for better terms; it asks online resellers to pay royalties on the sales of new books; it argues for better library funding to allow libraries to deliver royalties to authors for lending books to the public; it suggests that publishers pay higher royalties on e-books and on deeply discounted books; and it urges publishers to destroy all book returns to prevent these titles from reaching the secondary market.