The above doomy headline is intended to catch your attention. However, it is merely a reflection of a report released on February 19 by the Authors Guild called “The Profession of Author in the 21st Century,” written by Christine Larson, Ph.D., an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Colorado. (You can read the full report here.)
She wrote, “The days of authors supporting themselves from writing may be coming to an end. The changing economy of publishing today means that reliable income and time—the metaphorical room for writing—are increasingly out of reach for many authors.” In other words, you can’t make a living as a writer.
The Authors Guild highlighted four major takeaways from this 52 page report. [My thoughts are found below the list.] These are from their website:
- It’s harder to make a living as an author now than in the past. Indeed, writing incomes have dropped by 24 percent since 2013. Three major factors account for this trend:
- Fewer Americans read books than ever before, as consumers increasingly turn to screens for news and entertainment—just 53 percent of Americans say they read books for pleasure, down from 57 percent in 2002 according to the NEA.
- Amazon’s introduction of the Kindle, along with online physical book buying, precipitated a devaluing of books overall, while its current pricing practices eat into authors’ advances and royalties.
- The mass shuttering of more than 2,000 U.S. newspapers, as well as the loss of print and online magazines and news sites, has resulted in fewer opportunities for authors and journalists to supplement their book earnings with short stories, essays, book reviews and other literary or critical content.
- Half of full-time authors earn less than the federal poverty level of $12,488. Literary authors are the hardest hit, experiencing a 46-percent drop in their book-related income in just five years. Other relevant data:
- 80 percent of all authors earn less than what most people would consider a living wage. Authorhood is not a conventional, salary-paying career. Most authors patch together other forms of income, from teaching to full-time day jobs in a wide variety of fields. The profession of author signifies the broader challenges of the “gig economy,” where more and more people juggle multiple part-time jobs and contract work and receive no employee benefits.
- Authors are expected to do what publishers once did—market their own books. Authors spend a full day per week promoting their books, which takes them away from writing and results in longer stretches between new books being published and lean years for many writers.
- Self-publishing income is growing rapidly, but still remains very small compared to traditional publishing. While the median income of self-published authors increased by 85 percent over the past four years, led largely by the success of e-romance novels, self-published authors still earn 80 percent less than traditionally published authors. Part of the problem is that supply far outstrips demand; Bowker reports more than 1.68 million self-published book titles in 2018, up 40 percent from the year before.
A few of my comments:
Beware of Statistics
It is always a risk to take something like this report to task; but anytime statistics are used, especially to make comparisons, one must always go to the original method for compiling the statistics.
For example, the data in the above report is based on a 2018 survey (reported here) that reveals a tidbit of information. Of all the authors surveyed, “18% of full-time authors earned $0 [zero] in book-related income during the same time period .” If that is true, then how can they be counted as “full-time authors”? And if those 18% were removed from the calculations, the results would change rather dramatically. The averages, for example, spike much higher.
I’m not saying the numbers are wrong, only that they should not be seen as an absolute threshold.
Another question is who DIDN’T respond to the survey? If it were only members of the Guild, then what about those who aren’t members? And what of highly successful authors who don’t like filling out surveys for fear of getting on a “big potential donor” list? And what about successful self-published authors who did not submit their data?
It is like much of the polling results that we read in the media. They ask 1,000 people a few questions and then post the results. While they can reflect trends, they cannot be an absolute firm picture. Whenever you read these polls, ever wonder why you were never asked because you might have have answered differently?
The Sky is “Always” Falling
Isn’t it a journalistic cliché that “if it bleeds it leads”? Bad news always carries the headline. The news in this report is dour, even depressing. It speaks to the fears of every writer that no one is reading any more and no one can earn a living as an author.
I suggest you read this article titled “The Death of Reading” published in the Los Angeles Times Magazine. The article claims, “the total time people spent with reading as their primary activity has dropped more than 30% …, from 4.2 hours a week to 2.8.” The article is chilling to read. Such terrible news!
However, please note that the article was published in 1991, twenty-nine years ago.
Back when “the sky was falling.”
It has Always Been Hard
Making a living as a writer has always been hard. I’ve heard this truth for many decades. One bestselling author, during a keynote speech, proclaimed, “I made the mistake of calculating my hourly wage while writing my last novel. Total earnings divided by research and writing time. Ugh. I made $1.25 an hour!” But the author did not regret a minute of it.
Another problem is defining an author’s living wage. Much depends on where you live, your expenses, whether you are the sole income earner, if you still have kids at home, etc. The Author Guild statement #2 above uses $12,488 in the headline as the U.S. Federal Poverty Level. That is true, for a single person. For a family of four that number was $25,750 in 2019 (the numbers are a bit higher for 2020).
What is absolutely true is the statement above, “Authorhood is not a conventional, salary-paying career. Most authors patch together other forms of income, from teaching to full-time day jobs in a wide variety of fields.”
It has always been this way. Especially in all forms of the arts. Musicians, artists, dancers, writers–they all wrestle with finding a path to a steady income.
While the dream is to be wildly successful and leisurely write when you want, where you want, the reality isn’t quite so dreamy.
Why Do You Write?
If you write to make money, that is fine. Treat it as a profession like any other. But don’t expect the market to reward you. This isn’t an entitlement; you have to work for it.
At the same time, if you are only in this for the money, the above report should give you pause. Many years ago I was at a writers conference and one man, upon finding out how little a writer can make on their first book, proclaimed, “Then what the heck am I doing here?” I laughed and said, “For most of the others at this conference, it’s not about the money.”
Money can be a measure of how our writing is received. Some authors are well compensated for their work. But is it the only measure?
How do you measure the impact of your words? Last week a client wrote, “A reader contacted me and basically spilled out her life story. She had read [my novel] and it brought back memories of her broken childhood and absent Dad. … That woman is healing after connecting with an experience of one of my characters.”
Next time the world tells you how awful it is to be a writer–and how silly and naive it is to be a Christian writer–remember our God is bigger than any headline. His authority is higher than any pundit. His presence is guaranteed despite an atheist’s claim. His grace is greater than anything we can ask or imagine. Stay true to your calling and let the naysayers wallow.