Newsflash: Most Writers Don’t Make a Lot of Money

This past week the Author’s Guild released a survey revealing that 56% of their surveyed writers made less than the poverty line, when only counting writing revenue.

Publisher’s Weekly reported the findings this way: “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%).”

What is that “Poverty Line”? The U.S. Federal government defines it as a single person making less than $11, 670 per year.

Okay, today’s blog headline was a little sarcastic. The survey isn’t really “news” but it serves as a starting point on a larger topic.

When teaching writers in an all-day seminar, I ask a question near the end of the sessions. “Can you make a living as a writer?” Inevitably the room goes still and silent, every eye and ear are anticipating my answer. I usually turn and write on the board, “D. Q. Y. D. J.” and declare “Here is your answer! Don’t Quit Your Day Job.” This is usually greeted with nervous laughter.

The writing life is one of solitude and toil for little compensation, especially in the beginning. We have many clients who make a nice living as a writer, some are even the major, if not the sole, source of income for their families.

But others are not as well compensated. In every case there is usually another source of income that takes care of financial needs. It is not unusual or uncommon. Some might fall under the poverty threshold above, if all they counted was their writing income.

I know of a writer who for over a decade got up at 5am and wrote until 7am, and then helped the kids get to school and afterwards he went to work, at his day job. He wrote nearly 10 books during those early morning hours and they all sold fairly well. But they never earned enough to quite the day job.

As a literary agent, we work hard to maximize the potential earnings for our clients. Advances, royalties, subright licensing, etc. We are on the lookout for new opportunities and hybrid alternatives to the traditional models. But it isn’t easy.

No matter if you are traditionally or Indie published you are still competing for eyeballs and pocketbooks. Publishers and aggressive Indie authors use every skill at their disposal to generate sales.

This begs the question, Are you writing for the money? or Are you writing because you must? One well known author said she hesitates to calculate how many hours she has devoted to her writing and divide it into the amount of revenue she has earned. She jokingly said that $5 an hour might be a generous result of the calculation. But she still writes and works hard. Why? Because she is called to it. She can’t not write.

I’m not trying to say you shouldn’t be compensated for your work. The Bible says “The worker deserves his wages” (1 Timothy 5:18 NIV) But I am asking what is your primary motivation for writing? If you are anticipating the armored truck full dollars to pull into your driveway, you might be in for a long wait.

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