Authors Still Struggle to Make a Living

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:

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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 [2017].” 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.





35 Responses to Authors Still Struggle to Make a Living

  1. Brennan S. McPherson March 2, 2020 at 4:30 am #

    Yes! Great article, Steve. I always appreciate you breaking down news and numbers in publishing.

    What in the world was someone with a Ph.D. doing by not throwing out the 18% who made $0?

    Also, as an encouragement, the cumulative impact of a book launch, and the value of it being a step on your way to 5 years from now, can’t be quantified. If you keep growing, building, writing, learning, then in 5 years, that book may be worth much more (not because it sold more, but because it allowed you to grow to a point where your newest book DID sell more, and your impact on people is then greater). But what matters most is our faithfulness. Are we being responsible with our writing, marketing, social media, personal interactions, etc.? Is God honored with our lives and labor? Blessings everyone!

    • Carol Ashby March 2, 2020 at 8:37 am #

      (Scientific Ph.D. perspective here) It’s essential to include those who regard themselves as full-time writers who earned $0 in the year of the survey. They probably made money other years. I know of several wonderful mid-list and even some top-selling traditional authors who are having a very hard time getting contracts for their new book proposals right now. At least one went hybrid because of it. It was good scientific data handling to include those zero-income people. It’s bad scholarship to cherry-pick the data and leave those data points out.

      • Brennan S. McPherson March 2, 2020 at 5:39 pm #

        All the time, people running statistical studies delete outliers or bad data that skews results. I don’t know a single author who has been published in the last several years who isn’t getting at least $1 in royalties… I’m sure there’s some out there, but 18%? If I were conducting the study, I would think it obvious that the self-reporting had led to spurious results, and make a note. Of course, I suppose it depends on how you define “full-time author.” Yet for the purpose of a functional report to actually help people, the definition should attempt to shoot for what normal humans think of when they hear the term, “full-time author.” A full-time author, in every-day language, is someone who is writing for pay. So…

        • Brennan S. McPherson March 2, 2020 at 5:42 pm #

          Disclaimer: I didn’t read the actual report yet. 🙂

        • Carol Ashby March 2, 2020 at 6:00 pm #

          It is the analysis of the income for a single year, so a person could be full-time with zero income where they earned money in previous years but not the year of the study. They might even have been so successful they were able to quit an old day job to write full time. All you have to do is look for the new novels of a few highly successful people of two or more years ago, and you might not find a single new book from them through a traditional publisher. I could name several that I’ve read and loved personally, but I won’t do that in this open forum. At least one I think almost everyone here would recognize is now self-publishing.

          Do read the report. I think you’ll enjoy it.

        • Carol Ashby March 2, 2020 at 6:07 pm #

          For a scientist to delete an outlier legitimately, we have to know why that data point isn’t relevant to the study. We have to be able to explain what was done in the experiment that made it bad data. We can’t just decide to delete something because it’s an outlier. If we do, it’s not good science, and colleagues will consider it unacceptable practice. We’d never approve of ignoring the dead mice in a study of the long-term side effects of a drug because they didn’t complete the trial.

          • Brennan S. McPherson March 2, 2020 at 8:01 pm #

            I get what you’re saying, but a survey is not the same as finding a dead mouse. And neither is a paper on the current state of publishing the same as a study on the efficacy of a new drug. I would personally be alarmed enough by the results of the survey to think that it likely wasn’t a good basis for a paper on “the profession of author in the 21st century.”

            This reflects reality much better, and I’m glad she included it: “For ‘full-time authors’ who earned any income (excluding those who earned zero income), the median writing-related income was $20,300, of which book-related income was $11,900. These full-time authors contributed 48% of their household’s total income in 2017.”

            • Carol Ashby March 2, 2020 at 9:10 pm #

              There are definitely encouraging things in the report. It’s worth reading it all.

            • Brennan S. McPherson March 3, 2020 at 4:46 am #

              Will do, friend! And thanks for clarifying for me some of the finer points of outliers. 🙂 It’s been awhile since my statistics classes…

  2. March 2, 2020 at 5:15 am #

    Thank you for your analysis of the report. You have a way of making unpleasant news palatable and giving the “other side” of the issue.
    I enjoy your blogs, they seem to be always realistic but encouraging.

  3. Molly Jo Realy March 2, 2020 at 5:25 am #

    This is a very timely article for anyone who wants to understand the financial angst of writers. Although some of these numbers aren’t necessarily “true to form,” the ideas in the report are eye-opening.

  4. Judith Robl March 2, 2020 at 5:26 am #

    Thank you, Steve. We need the reminder that “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. ”
    If God has called us to write, we don’t need to know whether his purpose is to make us wealthy or to have our words make an eternal change in someone else’s life. If it comes to a choice, I prefer the latter.

  5. Gordon Palmer March 2, 2020 at 7:13 am #

    Thank you, Steve, for bringing it home to God. Judith beautifully summed up what I was going to write. I decided early on that my income would come primarily from other sources so my writing could stay more focused on His guidance.

  6. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser March 2, 2020 at 7:20 am #

    Pursuant to ‘why you write’, don’t chase what you may not want to catch.

    Success she is a tightrope
    above a cruel abyss;
    men creep along in timid hope,
    but they cannot resist.
    Success she is a harlot
    beside the city gate;
    lured on by her scarlet
    gown, men find out too late
    that she would be their master
    and have them as her slave
    unto riches and disaster,
    unto an unmarked grave
    that awaits the gold-desire,
    the doorway to eternal fire.

  7. Bryan Mitchell March 2, 2020 at 7:23 am #

    What really gets me is why in the world would roughly 5000 writers stop writing to answer a 72 question survey just for a chance at some measly gift cards. I bet they were Starbucks or Amazon gift cards. It’s always Starbucks and Amazon which makes it even duller. I guess I can’t be too critical of them, I got an egg McMuffin today just because it was free. …But I’ll at least add some Tabasco sauce to it.

    • Carol Ashby March 2, 2020 at 8:54 am #

      The drawing was for 100 $50 VISA gift cards. With 5K respondents, that gave a 1-in-50 chance of winning one. Pretty good odds. Plus, for people who want to know what’s going on in their field, many will be glad to help form an accurate picture by contributing their info to the study.

    • Damon J. Gray March 2, 2020 at 9:18 am #

      People just do this, Bryan. I don’t get it either. People will fill out a survey for nothing! Amazon asked, or survey monkey asked, so people willingly carve out (it will only take five minutes of your time) fifteen minutes and answer the lineup of questions.

      • Carol Ashby March 2, 2020 at 11:31 am #

        I don’t do random surveys, Damon, but as a female scientist, I always took part in the surveys by the professional societies that were trying to understand our profession. This is in the same category. I probably would have participated if I’d been asked. It’s a help to other people in the field to see real data, even from a limited survey.

  8. Thomas Womack March 2, 2020 at 8:23 am #

    Excellent perspectives tagged on there to the summary of the report. Thank you, Steve!

  9. Carol Ashby March 2, 2020 at 8:44 am #

    Fascinating post, Steve, and thanks for the link to the original report. Here’s some info from it that I found particularly interesting. (Median = the midpoint in a distribution, with half the numbers being higher and half lower.)

    “…the top 10% of authors had a median book-related income of $167,500 in 2017 (ranging from $84,200 to $9.3 million), while the bottom 20% earned zero.”

    “For “full-time authors” who earned any income (excluding those who earned zero income), the median writing-related income was $20,300, of which book-related income was $11,900. These full-time authors contributed 48% of their household’s total income in 2017.”

    “For all authors who earned income, including full and part-time, the median “writing-related” income (which includes book income and other income related to writing, such as freelancing or editing) was $6,080 (including only authors who reported income); of that, just $2,560 came from books.”

    For a 52 weeks x 40 hr/week = 2080 hours, that supposed $1.25 per hour author only made $2,600. As a moderately successful (by monetary measures) self-published historical fiction author selling at $2.99/e-book to support affordable international sales, that would be only 1300 books a year. My sales are higher than that. How is it that a highly successful traditionally published author made so little? I think the author must have been exaggerating to make a point, not reporting real income.

  10. Damon J. Gray March 2, 2020 at 9:14 am #


    Thank you for providing the sanity check at the end of the Author Guild’s Gloom Festival.

    I just returned from the West Coast Christian Writers LIT Masterclass, and am thrilled to report some feedback from (Laube Author) Susy Flory. A similar industry outlook was mentioned by the agent panel, and in response, Susy noted that while this may be true industry-wide, it is not alarming for the Christian writing community, because Christians are some of the most voracious readers on the planet.

    In response, one of the agents (cannot recall which) responded affirmatively, noting that this is why secular labels are buying up Christian publishing firms – they’re profitable!!

    In closing, let me just apologize for any anomalous wording above. I’m typing this response without my glasses, and what I see on the screen is an excellent blur of lines. 😉

  11. Roberta Sarver March 2, 2020 at 9:58 am #

    Bravo, Steve, for pointing out the misnomers! Most of us write because of our calling, anyway, knowing we’re probably not going to get rich from it. What matters is our faithfulness to that calling.

  12. Joseph Bentz March 2, 2020 at 10:07 am #

    Great article, Steve! Thank you for placing the statistics into multiple perspectives rather than just listing statistics in a simplistic way.

  13. Norma Brumbaugh March 2, 2020 at 10:13 am #

    Thank you. Thank you for distilling this information for your readers. In my writing I am guided by a sense of urgency…that I have a lot to say but limited time to say it. It would be different if I were younger and writing was part of a career path. Now I accept what is and keep moving forward. But it’d be nice to get paid a little for my time and effort. Alas; such is life. We need a few bright spots on the journey. The spoken word has power and potential to move hearts and change lives. I like how you share that gem here. So true.

  14. Morgan Tarpley Smith March 2, 2020 at 10:28 am #

    Great info, Steve! Thank you!

    Would be nice but I am not in this for the money. lol

  15. Jeanne Takenaka March 2, 2020 at 10:35 am #

    Steve, this was a great post. It’s easy to look at “solid numbers,” but it behooves us to take into consideration the sources—those who did, and didn’t contribute to the research.

    This here was so encouraging: “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.”

    Thank you for this.

  16. Linda Riggs Mayfield March 2, 2020 at 11:33 am #

    Kudos for including the Beward of Statistics section and the final sentence of the post! I’m especially grateful for Carol’s astute analyses and observations– they are totally on point. One of my PT jobs that brings in more income than my writing (;-D) is consulting/coaching doctoral scholars as they design their research and report their findings. I also consult for a former dissertation client who is teaching research design in a state university. I stress honesty and ethics with all my clients. It’s pretty amazing what one can do with statistics in order to have the answer come out as hoped for without ever saying one thing that was untrue: it only requires intentional cherry-picking and selective ignoring. Being realistic about expectations is always wise for writers, but it’s never wise to “crash and burn” over someone’s doom-and-gloom assessment based on data specificially selected to support a point. Highly informative post, Steve. Thanks!

  17. Rebecca Barlow Jordan March 2, 2020 at 11:57 am #

    Thanks for your encouragement, Steve. I can testify to what your client said. Writing is one of those professions where we won’t always know the results and how our words have affected others positively. But when someone takes the time to let us know, it’s a powerful incentive to keep going no matter what. Here are just a couple of the many ways that has happened for me.

    Several years ago, I was speaking at a conference and a woman approached me afterwards with the words, “Your writing changed my life.” While contemplating suicide, she had read the first devotion in one of my 40-Day devotional books. That devotion focused on God as “The God Who Whispers.” She tearfully relayed how God whispered hope to her through that simple message and turned her life around.

    Another woman contacted me to thank me for a poem of mine published on a pocket card over twenty years ago–a message of hope carried in her late soldier son’s uniform pocket.

    Paychecks are nice, but when someone takes the time to let me know the impact of my words, the result is always life-changing for me. God’s faithfulness to accomplish what we could never envision, whether through a novel, a memoir, a devotional, a poem, or whatever, is worth more than any paycheck. Whether someone tells us or not, we can be confident that when we give our writing totally to God, He has promised to complete what He started in us the way He sees best–regardless of what the current statistics say. It’s much more fun to put Him in the headlines, than us!

    • Gordon Palmer March 2, 2020 at 3:42 pm #

      Thank you for sharing that, Rebecca.

  18. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D. March 2, 2020 at 3:50 pm #

    Thanks for the insight, Steve. I write to help others. That is my reward so far, though I wouldn’t mind a little financial reward……I wouldn’t turn it down!

  19. Donna Stearns March 2, 2020 at 8:54 pm #

    The gospel of John holds the reason I write.
    “But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God: and that believing ye might have life through his name “ 20:31.

  20. Paula Geister March 3, 2020 at 3:37 am #

    Thanks for passing on an overview of the report. It helps a lot.
    I finished reading and immediately wondered, “What would my (so-called) success as a writer look like if I’d submitted more work? What would it look like if I’d even finished some of that word so I *could* submit it.
    Yeah, it’s always been hard and sometimes I sabotage my (so-called) success.

  21. Willy Elliott March 3, 2020 at 8:26 am #

    You have got to take everything with a grain of salt.

    Obviously, Christine Larson, Ph.D. put forth her best effort in writing her article, and while we may or may not agree with all of the conclusions she has drawn, she signed her name to the article and stands behind it.

    And while there are wild, wonderful success stories of numerous bestselling authors, the reality for the majority of us writers is the struggle. The bestseller lists usually only give you a top ten.

    One of my professors at college said to our class that she didn’t write because she wanted to, she wrote because she had to. It was one of the passions of her life. If she didn’t write, she just would not be true to herself and her calling.

    If God is calling you to write, then he might only give you an audience of hundreds or thousands, but others might reach millions. You just have to be true to your call.

    As David Platt pointed out in his book, Radical:Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream, when Jesus ascended back in to heaven after the resurrection, there were only 120 disciples on that hilltop watching him go. In some circles today, that number would be considered a failed ministry, but it was just the right amount and the right people to bring the Word all the way down through time to you and me, here and now.

    Our amazing God works in mysterious ways, that is what the Christian writer has going for him or her.

  22. Debbie Ewald March 3, 2020 at 2:42 pm #

    Thanks, Steve, for this encouraging post.

  23. sara March 12, 2020 at 2:25 pm #

    I just wanted to write. I didn’t even know I’d get paid for it, until I started doing a ton of research. So, all in all, God is good, he will provide, he will make a way.

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