Authors Are Making Less Money? I’m Not Buying It.

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author income

A recent Authors Guild survey suggests that author income is down dramatically. There are plenty of signs that this is not true and plenty of ways to leverage your book to make additional income.

Every few years, authors have to endure news of impending doom — at least as it pertains to the publishing industry and their chances to profit in it. Case in point: The Authors Guild 2018 Salary Survey reported author income has fallen 42 percent since 2009. Reports like these contribute to a growing and troublesome identity crisis among writers — newer writers, especially.

I believe these reports are inherently flawed. For one thing, the data presented doesn’t show a complete picture — especially for self-published authors. The 2018 Authors Guild survey, for example, only represents a tiny slice of authors who are publishing today. It does not account for all self-published authors and is actively biased toward older, traditionally published folks.

If you accept the commonly-quoted number that over one million new books are published each year in the US, this survey — with the small sample size it offers — represents something close to one half of one percent of authors who are actually writing.

To get more into the specifics, the Guild’s conclusion in the 2018 survey was that the median writing-related income for all authors — including part-time, full-time, traditionally published, self-published, and hybrid-published authors — was just $6,080, which is down 42 percent since 2009.

Does this represent a “crisis of epic proportions,” as the survey proclaims? I’d argue it doesn’t.

First, it doesn’t speak to the success of working writers, the folks who earn money through writing in addition to other income streams. Among those folks, the numbers are actually very encouraging:

  • Median income for working published authors was $20,857, an increase of 13% since 2013.
  • Over 2,000 authors reported average publisher royalties from traditional publishing houses of almost $32,000.
  • Self-published authors registered stronger earnings, with over 1,600 of them listing average book sales of $31,000.
  • Overall, the top 30 percent of “full-time authors”  — authors who write regularly — had median incomes of over $50,000

No doubt, it is very, very difficult to make a comfortable living exclusively by publishing books. But does that mean all aspiring writers should quit? Of course not. The craft alone is inherently worthwhile. But, the reality this survey ignores is that the most successful writers today don’t rely exclusively on book sales for income. Rather, they use their books as springboards for other revenue opportunities. Their books create those opportunities, including additional writing gigs, speaking engagements, and brand/business building.

Additional writing gigs

A book is not the be-all and end-all for a writer. Whether or not publishing income is as lucrative as it was in the past, authors still find substantial revenue in magazine, newspaper, and web publishing.

In addition to new content that might ignite the next book idea, some authors create articles based on their book’s content or even excerpt parts of their books and sell them as magazine or blog articles. These published works provide the opportunity to mention the book title in the “about the author” blurbs, providing additional promotional benefit and potential book sales. This is something you can do even while your book is awaiting release, touting in your bio “new” or “upcoming” titles.

Of course, more generally, writing success begets more opportunity. Editors will be more likely to want to publish you, and you’ll have the chance to work on new projects you find interesting — and that can make you more money.

Speaking engagements

I attended the National Speakers Association Conference in 2018, and every single attendee had written — or planned to write — his or her own book. In many cases, their book was the ticket that provided them access to speak at the conference. And many speaking engagements, I might add, pay handsomely. Hundreds of BookBaby authors have leveraged their books into very lucrative speaking careers across a huge range of topics.

Simply put, writing and publishing a book helps authors to legitimize their careers and positions them as subject-matter experts.

Building your business and brand

Finally, I know several authors who have written valuable books that could generate serious royalties, but they choose to offer them for free on their websites. Why? Because people who download those free books became aware of the author’s consulting business, training programs, and other services.

Your book, in this sense, can serve as an introduction to the business and brand of you — a business and brand which, when it’s all said and done, could very well bring in 10 times the amount of money book sales alone would have.

Look, authors are motivated by a wide variety of things: prestige, status, professional validation, checking an item off the bucket list… It deserves noting that most writers are going to continue writing regardless of the monetary rewards.

Still, those rewards and motivations are important. That’s why I believe it’s almost irresponsible that traditional industry groups release surveys like the one which inspired this article. In some sense, they’re lobbing weapons against perceived publishing industry bad guys, like Amazon.

Bottom line: if you’re an author, don’t be dismayed by findings like the Authors Guild survey. Consider, instead, findings like those released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which noted the median income for “writers and authors” in the US in 2017 was $61,820 annually. It even estimates the field will expand 8% in the next decade. So keep writing!

 

BookBaby 2017 Survey Results

 

Related Posts
Trends In Publishing
Use Book Excerpts To Promote Your Book
How Authors Can Become Part of the News Cycle
Your Business Book Is A Marketing Tool
Your Author Brand: What It Is And Why You Need One

 

Steven Spatz
Steven Spatz is a writer, marketer, and the President of BookBaby, the nation’s leading self publishing services company. Spatz’s professional writing career began at age 13, paid by the word to bang out little league baseball game stories on an ancient manual typewriter for southern Oregon weekly newspapers. His journalism career continued after graduation from the University of Oregon at several daily newspapers in Oregon. When his family took over a direct marketing food business, Spatz redirected his writing and design skills into producing catalogs. The Pinnacle Orchards catalog was named "Best Food Catalog," received dozens of other national awards, and the business grew into one of the nation’s largest gourmet fruit gift businesses. After the company was sold, Spatz continued his direct marketing career with Fortune 500 companies including Mattel and Hasbro. He joined AVL Digital in 2004 to lead the direct-to-consumer marketing teams for music industry-leading brands Disc Makers, Oasis, and CD Baby. After serving as Chief Marketing Officer, Spatz was tapped to lead the company’s new publishing division in late 2014. In 2019, the AVL Digital Management team purchased the New Jersey brands, including BookBaby. The company is headquartered in Pennsauken, NJ (just outside Philadelphia, PA) and meets the printed book and eBook needs of thousands of self-publishing authors around the globe. Spatz lives in Glenside, PA with his two children, a demented cat, and some well-used bicycles. Steven loves to hear from authors, editors, and publishers in the BookBaby community with tales of publishing trials and triumphs. To tell him your story, write to steven@bookbaby.com.

9 COMMENTS

  1. Oh, wow, there are so many flaws, or optimistic “spins” on your thinking it is hard to know where to begin.

    First, I understand the encouragement and definitely think a prospective author should not be turned away, but most authors don’t write purely for the money–which is good.

    Second, we all should acknowledge the bias you as affiliated with BookBaby has and confirmation bias that we ALL have in doing “research” on the subject.

    I have written essays on this before and am not as Pollyanna-ish as you.

    Simply to keep space to a minimum, I will ignore “non-fiction” authors as the discussion on related/piggy back streams of revenue MAY be true, but those streams are rarely open to a fiction writer and at BEST limited. Additionally, when you combine the hours worked to achieve the multi-stream income, it gets pretty grim.

    Looking JUST at fiction:
    1) The total number of TITLES is indeed, as you point out is exploding. BUT
    2) the total $$ spent on ALL of those titles is flat. Thus, by definition the earnings per title are WAY down. Are there some very good winners? SURE. But a statistical AVERAGE it is way down, simply by the numbers and made WORSE by self publishing (from a “by the numbers” perspective). AGAIN, self-publishing is GREAT for those who are good at all the other aspects of the business. I absolutely agree. But you are self selecting….
    3) Your self selection is a self fulfilling prophesy. “Working writers” is carefully defined by you. It is a bit like the U.S. Unemployment rate…it ignores the people who can’t find a job and give up. The minute you give up, you are no longer counted!
    4) The sample size PER SE is not something to argue with. Statistical analysis allows for relatively small sample sizes IF carefully crafted. I DO agree with you that the survey data is skewed toward “traditional” author/publishers, but it is JUST AS LIKELY that those same author/publisher group is the HIGHER PAID group…in fact it is pretty easy to prove that it is, if you include ALL self published books as that number continues to explode with the slice of the ALL REVENUE pie that goes to that flattening out.
    5) Bureau of Labor Statistics “writers and authors” includes copy editing and/or a LOT of other forms of writing that a BOOK AUTHOR may not be interested in. It also includes writing for movies, TV, Video Games, etc. YES, those are encouraging, but you are spinning the data too.

    What supports a lot of the Author’s Guild survey is the depressing facts on the number of people who read BOOKS which is really what we are talking about.
    https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/03/23/who-doesnt-read-books-in-america/

    About HALF of Americans have not read a FICTION book in the past year.

    The most avid readers are those over 60, which in some ways might be encouraging as the nation ages, but long term bodes ill as indeed that curve will change.

    I could go on. My main point is that the stats are NOT positive, but I do agree that it is NOT the end of the world. Things have stabilized a lot, with even ebook growth flattening. The word “writer” will continue to evolve (but a writer is not the same as a book author). Bottom line is exactly what you touch upon at the end. Writing a book is for different reasons than pure money. It is VERY competitive out there. Writing a book is only a small part of the BUSINESS.

    I love Bookbaby and recommend you guys to anyone who is interested in self publishing…I think the model is done fairly and honestly with Bookbaby. The business aspect of this is very hard and many authors don’t have, or don’t want to deal with that part.

  2. I’m not “traditionally published folk.” After a few attempts to interest traditional publishers (including one that I had been specifically planning my first book for years before I actually proposed it to them), I got sick of the back-and-forth waiting and put my first book up on CreateSpace in 2015. It gradually climbed to around $50/month, peaking at about $200 in January 2017. Since then, I’ve published seven more books, and am now making $20-30 a month. Despite QUADRUPLING my list, I’m making HALF of what I was two years ago. Oh, and my first ebook–after four years with no problems (well one problem, a glitch in formatting causes one spot to have an inexplicable blank area where a hyperlink points), Amazon is suddenly accusing me of not having functional hyperlinks and sending “weekly” notices of my “quality issues” every day.

  3. Hi Steven:
    Here in Canada where we have a comparatively small publishing industry, the majority of book authors earn $10 K CAD p.a. and either teach, grumble or do other jobs to make up the gap in income. Looking back on nearly 40 years as a writer I have always had to scrimp and save but so what. I did exactly what I fought hard to do. If a person MUST write, can not NOT write, then he or she (or other pronoun) must be prepared to work very very hard and be resourceful. I have taught workshops, mentored writers, networked, word-slutted (written advertising and PR copy), written articles, columns, written for television, radio and periodicals, presented conference papers, authored books. All freelance. One year I made big bucks. Most years lived on about 5, 10 or 15K CAD and raised a fine son on my income.
    This time I’m going Selfie. With BookBaby, of course. Who else is there? Nowadays you have to do just as much work but the income figures look better with Self-Publishing. I’ll let you know!

    Yours in writing,
    Trysh Ashby-Rolls
    Author & journalist
    Triumph: A Journey of Healing from Incest
    Second edition due for release May 2019

  4. I am glad you are giving a more truthful representation of how much writers in the U.S. can expect to make, quoting the median income according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2017. I am entering the field of writing after retiring from teaching. I have a comfortable pension and investment income, but like most people, it would be agreeable to earn extra cash. It is good to learn that the publicized gloomy outlook merits a second look. I have a blog that I update weekly, I recently had a musical piece of mine performed by a church choir, and now I am concentrating on a children’s book series that I intend to self publish. Stephen, thanks for your article.

  5. I think writers simply need to be realistic, as with any artistic endeavor. There will be times of return and times of drought. You write because you love it, because there is a chance that you will make money… but that is not written in stone. It depends on the talent and the grit of the writer.

    • Lara:
      You are absolutely correct as you’ll see from my note above yours.
      One word of completely unsolicited advice: Run your writing career as you would a small business. Keep track of your income and expenses. I have a separate bank account and name for my “publishing company.” This makes what I do – write and publish books – legit, and keeps the taxman from the door. As well as my own light fingers for “just borrowing for a little something.”

      BTW, although talent and grit are a large part of it, luck is too. One year I had a smash hit with my first book. Now it’s coming out in its second edition. Already the next book is ready to go after a run through for typos, etc. and a lawyer’s beady eye.
      Cordially,
      Trysh Ashby-Rolls
      Author: Triumph: A Journey of Healing from Incest (May 2019)

  6. Interesting, we’ll researched article. But at the end
    Of the day one must conclude that there are too many
    Writers writing too many books and fewer people either
    Buying them, or reading, particularly since the tsunami
    of the digital age is upon us.

    Jim Fontana

  7. I’m glad I read this. I was a little concerned. I was averaging about 500 book sales a month and increasing steadily through the Kindle, create space line and then one day about 3 years ago book sales started to collapse. It’s been continuing for the last 3 years despite the fact that I have over 20 books for sale. Fortunately I’m a very wealthy man, and I don’t need the income. Unfortunately when you crank out a book about every four or five months you have to do something with it. Writing for five hours a day just generates lots of pages and like all other writers I simply can’t stop. Sure would like to see that 500 books a month climbed with a thousand or two though.

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