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.

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

  1. Avatar
    Jackie Layton September 14, 2015 at 3:35 am #

    At the first ACFW conference I attended I sat between two published authors during a meal. One told the other she’d finally made $1000.00 in a year. One thousand dollars! That was an eye opener. Since then I realized giving up my day job isn’t going to happen. But I love writing, and I’ll keep on writing.

    Thanks for sharing these statistics.

  2. Avatar
    Jill Weatherholt September 14, 2015 at 5:28 am #

    I write because I love to create fictional worlds. My benefits from my day job are too good to give up.
    It’s funny how many people will ask, “Since you’ve got a contract, are you going to quit your job?”

  3. Avatar
    Tom Threadgill September 14, 2015 at 5:39 am #

    Great information. Funny how many people still believe that authors make a lot of money. I suppose they see the numbers for Rowling, King, Patterson, and the other big names and assume we all get a piece of that pie. A crumb is more like it, and even that’s not consistent. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Avatar
    Rachel E. Newman September 14, 2015 at 6:52 am #

    Great post! Realistic yet encouraging.

  5. Avatar
    rochellino September 14, 2015 at 9:15 am #

    Steve, terrific post! Your candor and forthrightness speaks volumes in credit toward your integrity as a person in general and as a person engaged in this specific industry.

    At times, there have been others that seem to string people along, keep them hoping against what are actually near impossible odds (at least for them) and otherwise prevent them from actually ever attaining their dream (in this case getting published). Months go by, then years, then decades and eventually somewhere along the line their fresh, bright, eager hope dims and dies a dark, quiet and sometimes bitter death. Nobody, other then maybe a few family, friends, church or hobby group ever knew they did indeed have a divine spark. A spark that if carefully established and nurtured could have eventually burst into a bright illuminating flame. We all have seen this tragedy repeat itself over and over in many different areas of endeavor. Sports, singing and stage to name a few and so on.

    You said something in this post that that informs, at least me, that you are forward looking and may have fragments of a glimpse into the future.

    “We are on the lookout for new opportunities and hybrid alternatives to the traditional models. But it isn’t easy.”

    I have a clear and concise vision of what your firm (as well as others for that matter) could be doing and, possibly, eventually will. This would be in addition to your current offerings not instead of. Believe it or not, not everyone thinks the traditional publishing model is the apogee of publishing. There is that “something else”, that “new opportunity” that has not become easily apparent or come into prevalence yet but most certainly will. It is difficult to see the vast forest when one has rightfully focused the preponderance of their efforts, for the most part, on each individual tree. Your firm is positioned (but not uniquely) to be “the first with the most”. Time will tell who recognized and seizes opportunity first. This is an exciting and interesting time to be in this industry. Change always leads the way for its companion, opportunity!

    Have a great day!

  6. Avatar
    Carol Ashby September 14, 2015 at 9:45 am #

    What do you mean, D.Q.Y.D.J.? I’ve already found traditional publishing remarkably rewarding.
    My works and income so far:
    60-page chapter in technical monograph: Total royalties less than $1000 in 20+ years
    60 page chapter in a volume of a physics series: Copy of the book
    50 page chapter in 980-page technical compendium: Copy of the $400 book
    50 page chapter in technical monograph: $200 one-time cash payment
    Coauthor of 365-page technical monograph. 2 copies of the book and 5% royalties. Less than $2000 over 9 years. This is my biggest cash cow. This fall it hit #28 in Kindle semiconductor books and maybe higher a few days before I checked. Someone somewhere is using it as a textbook so it peaks every fall.

    Total: less than $4000 worth of cash and books over 20+ years.
    Well, maybe the rewards haven’t been so much monetary. It is gratifying to have written something that others found useful, even if I didn’t even earn minimum wage for the hours spent writing.

    I’m hoping for a slightly better payback from my Christian fiction, but I’m known to be a hopeless (hopeful?) optimist. I will consider my fiction works a great success if readers share them with nonbelieving friends who decide to pursue their own relationship with Jesus because of the experiences of the characters in my novels. That would be treasure of the truest kind. It would only take one person to make all the hours of writing and rewriting and all the pain of building a platform worthwhile.

  7. Avatar
    Teresa Pesce September 14, 2015 at 10:22 am #

    Ya kinda gotta rethink “money”. I produce plays because it’s FUN! I am repaid by the process. I love the process. I revel in the result. I stand there in the dark at the back of the theatre and watch the finished product and there is nowhere else on earth I’d rather be. Each performance is a living treasure. I love it while it lives onstage and treasure the memory when it’s over. I clear a few hundred per production – enough to produce the next one.

    I’m gloriously reimbursed, it’s a perfect investment of my time. Writing is the same. I’m paid by the process. And I would be willing to bet all the money I don’t make that every writer reading your blog feels close to, if not exactly, the same way. And ~ it’s so nice to know you’re working hard on our behalf to make actual money. It’s true that you can’t spend satisfaction.

  8. Avatar
    Jeanne Takenaka September 14, 2015 at 10:54 am #

    I always appreciate numbers . . . they keep me grounded in reality. It’s good to determine our motivation for writing. This way, if we don’t expect a boatload of money (or that armored truck), we can write with a right heart, and hopefully not get too stressed out about writing the next NYT best-seller. Having my plans (and some of my dreams) grounded in reality gives a much greater chance for success.

    • Avatar
      Carol Ashby September 14, 2015 at 11:14 am #

      We might get a boatload as long as the boat is a 10-food kayak and the money is loaded as pennies. That’s assuming the pennies are not pre-1982, when they were 95% copper (excluding 1942, when they were steel). A post-1982 penny made of only 2.5% copper…maybe that’s a more likely boatload-worth of royalty for us to expect.

      I need to slap myself for such pessimism. I won’t deserve my nickname of Pollyanna if I keep this up

  9. Avatar
    Sally Bradley September 14, 2015 at 1:20 pm #

    I write because I love it–I have to write. But it’s nice to know that I’m over the poverty line in income this year. 🙂 It’s not enough for our family of five to live on, but it’s a very nice, unexpected secondary income this year. So thankful that the path God led me on lets me do what I love and take care of my family. Wish it were that way for all writers.

  10. Avatar
    Christine Henderson September 16, 2015 at 8:31 am #

    I’ve been doing interviews for years of best selling authors to beginning writers. Though many say they’re doing “well in sales,” when pressed for numbers off the record, they’re selling under 500 books. That’s why most writers still work a second job.

    One of my favorite interviews was with an author that had several of his books made into TV movies. When I asked why he still worked as an English professor, he replied that he still needed to pay the bills for college education for his kids. He added that the movies paid for the wedding expenses for his daughters.

  11. Avatar
    Susan Mary Malone September 29, 2015 at 9:32 am #

    Such a timely post, Steve. In this day of “instant publishing,” so many new writers are leaping into the waters, in large part to quit that day job. They contact me every day. And I’m always honest with them about the odds of that happening.
    As an author as well, I know this keenly. My books do well, but editing keeps everything constant.
    I’m just blessed to be able to live in this world of words.
    Because this truly is a labor of love.
    Thank you for this!

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