One of the great misconceptions the public has about authors is that once you publish a book you are invariably sprinting toward that heady world of six, seven, and perhaps even eight-figure incomes.
Here’s a wake-up call. For every J. K. Rowling, Stephen King or Dan Brown there are a hundred thousand authors who barely make enough money from their writing to pay their monthly water bill or keep gas in their cars.
That is pretty much the conclusion of a recent study by The Author’s Guild, the nation’s oldest (1912) and largest professional organization for writers. I am a member of the Author’s Guild, and as such, I am aware of just how difficult it is to make a living with words. However, I was not expecting such a grim appraisal.
The Author’s Guild study found that a majority of authors would be living below the poverty line in the United States if they relied solely on income from their writing.
The survey said income for full-time US authors fell 30 percent, from $25,000 in 2009 to $17,500 in 2015. The drop was even greater for part-time authors who saw their income fall 38 percent during the same period from $7,500 to $4,500.
“Authors’ income is down. This is the result of a confluence of factors,” the study said. “The ubiquity of e-books means that online book piracy is more of a threat than it was in 2009. We’ve seen major consolidation within the traditional publishing industry, which means less diversity among publishers and their increased focus on the bottom line.”
This is true. Unless you hit the best-seller list (and as I have said in previous posts, that’s a little like winning the lottery today), you cannot survive on the sale of your books. Thank God I write because I just enjoy it and don’t need the $$ I earn from book sales.
The report also singled out Amazon as a reason for the decline in author earnings. Amazon’s dominance has led to the shuttering of thousands of brick and mortar bookstores and has “made the business of authorship both more diverse and less profitable than it was six years ago.”
Amazon has been both a blessing and a curse for authors. On one hand, it provides authors with a marketing and sales platform, but there are so many books in its online store (millions), and the selections are so vast that earning potential is significantly diluted. Nevertheless, this is the publishing world today, and I can’t see anything changing it.
As the Author’s Guild study points out, a big problem today is e-piracy of books. Another problem is Amazon’s “Kindle Unlimited” program, which allows consumers to buy as many books as they want each month for a flat fee. You can imagine what that means for royalties.
My book currently sells for $5.99 on Amazon, but via Kindle Unlimited, it may sell for as little as 20 cents if it is part of someone’s Kindle Unlimited package of 10 or 15 books. Great for consumers, bad for writers.
“The picture’s not pretty, but there are silver linings,” the study said.
“The rise of hybrid authorship is an exciting development: authors can now have more freedom in choosing a method of publication and promotion that suits the needs of the specific book they’re trying to market,” the study said. Also, the unprecedented rise of self-publishing and publishing on demand is eroding the long-time dominance of traditional publishers of the marketplace.
The study added that this phenomenon has resulted in “opportunities for author-reader engagement that are unsurpassed in the history of book publishing — even if this engagement competes with an author’s writing time.”
E-books are another reason we have seen incomes flatten, according to the study. In 2009, the e-book hadn’t yet gained a foothold in the marketplace.
In a survey from that year, fewer than 5% of book buyers had purchased an e-book in the last month. In 2015, nearly 50% of readers had purchased an e-book in the last month, a tenfold increase from 2009.
Another discovery in the study revealed that of the authors surveyed, 33% have self-published a book.
“It appears that authors increasingly feel they have a choice of whether to go through a traditional publishing house or taking the indie route on a per project basis,” the study said. “And, we suspect, authors are starting to see self-publishing as an outlet for projects that haven’t been supported by traditional publishing houses.”
Traditional publishers’ promotional budgets have all but dried up, the study said, and many publishing contracts now require authors to maintain a web and social media presence. Many authors, both traditionally- and self-published, have proven adept at using new technologies to connect with readers.
The survey also shows, for full-time authors, writing-related income increases with experience: but when the market contracts, they see the biggest losses. In the new economy, it appears that experience isn’t translating into rising income.
Ultimately, writing, like most everything else, comes down to individual talent.
Moreover, while talent doesn’t always translate into success, if writers can demonstrate a flair for words and language and tell an original and compelling story, there is always the chance of producing that breakthrough book that may allow you to pay your water bill and fill up your car’s gas tank.
To view the study with its graphics click on the following link: