Author Incomes: Not Great, Now or Then
What’s being passed around among authors in the last few days: The latest Authors Guild survey, which shows that the median income for all authors (from their books) is $6,080, while the median income for full-time authors is $20,300. That $6k median figure is down significantly from previous years. So if you made more than $6k from book earnings last year, congratulations, you made more than half of your authorial compatriots.
Before everyone panics about the declines too much, please note: “The Authors Guild’s prior surveys were focused on Authors Guild members. For our 2018 survey, we greatly expanded the number of published authors we surveyed to provide a much larger, highly diverse pool and wider perspective,” i.e., the comparing the results this year to previous years isn’t apples to oranges, but might be comparing a Honeycrisp to a Red Delicious.
Interestingly to me, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America does not appear to have participated in this survey, and I’d be curious to know how its participation would have nudged figures one way or another (I suspect not much either way). Also, these are self-reported numbers from about 5,000 North American authors, which is a) only a small slice of those writing books, either full-time or part-time, b) represents those who knew about the survey and were motivated to answer it. I’ll note I was not aware of the survey and (thus) did not participate.
It’s not to say the survey is inaccurate or especially alarmist, rather that it’s a snapshot of these 5,000 specific authors, with income noted from specific places, and conclusions made from that specific data. As a contrast, the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that in the United States, the 2017 median income for its category of “writers and authors” was $61,820 annually, with 131,200 jobs in the category (which excludes PR specialists and technical writers, but does include people who write PR and offer technical consulting, so go figure).
The Author Guild and the BLS data sets overlap (the full-time authors) but aren’t the same, but that’s the point I’m making. The BLS would tell you it’s not a horrible time to be in the category of “writers and authors” — it estimates the field will expand 8% in the next decade! — while the Author’s Guild is sending up red flags all over the place. Who’s right and who’s wrong? Well, neither is wrong. But perhaps the immediate lesson one should take from this is that if you’re hoping to be an author, you should probably keep your day job as you do it.
Which, it should be noted, is not new advice, either. I’ve been giving people that suggestion for literally decades now, and kept that advice myself well into my authoring career. For the first decade of my book publishing career, the majority of my income came from my “day job” of freelance writing and corporate consulting. As an overall percentage of my 28-year professional writing career, “full time author” accurately describes only about a third of that time. I kept my “day job” until it didn’t make economic sense to do so anymore. For some people it will always make sense to keep one’s day job. It doesn’t mean they won’t write excellent books in the meantime, or that the day job will be a hindrance rather than a solid economic foundation.
The Authors Guild’s survey points out some things that authors should rightly be concerned about, including the economic domination of Amazon over their particular commercial sphere (particularly if they self-publish, as Amazon has something like 85% of that market, and Amazon’s terms for participation there are non-negotiable). But it also has Authors Guild higher-ups saying things like this in the New York Times:
“In the 20th century, a good literary writer could earn a middle-class living just writing,” said Mary Rasenberger, executive director of the Authors Guild, citing William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and John Cheever.
I mean, okay, first, Faulkner, Hemingway and Cheever maybe aren’t the best examples of the writing middle-class, since by the height of their careers they were festooned with bestsellers, awards, film adaptations and general fame; I mean, two-thirds of them have friggin’ Nobel Prizes, which also suggests they are seen as better than just “good” in their field. But second, it’s also worth noting that even these celebrated authors didn’t see a uniformly comfortable existence from “just writing.” Faulkner memorably decamped to Hollywood in the 30s because he wasn’t earning enough “just writing” to support his growing family. Hemingway equally famously expatriated himself to Paris in the 20s because it was cheap to live there on a writer’s income. Cheever, who for a time made a living writing summaries of novels for MGM, got a Guggenheim fellowship at the right time, which was nice for him, since it allowed him to focus on “just writing.”
The Authors Guild’s problem here appears to be one of survivorship bias, namely, that the authors its execs can name off the top of their head as being writers making a living “just writing” in the 20th Century are the ones that are the literary equivalent of the one tenth of the one percent. When you’re reaching for a name of a “middle-class living” writer and you pick a Nobel Prize winner, you’re not exactly bolstering your argument. And you’re also eliding years of impecunious anonymity and/or economic volatility writers often suffer before they got to the place where they would be at the top of mind when you’re reaching for an example of 20th Century authorial “middle-class living.” I’m more curious how the jobbing authors of the mid-century fared; the ones who didn’t win Nobel Prizes or hit the bestseller lists or got film adaptations of their works. I’d like to know more about whether they managed a middle-class living, and whether that middle-class living was consistent, or more about being in the right place in with a particular economic phenomenon that supported their specific type of writing.
Which brings me to this interesting curio, in which the mid-20th Century English science fiction author John Brunner offers up an account of what it was like to be a jobbing author in the UK in the 1960s — a period of time in which one major income stream for SF writers (short story magazines) was declining whilst another (novel publication) was ascendant, and it was possible to generate income from both. This piece was published in 1967, a couple of years before Brunner would capture his share of fame with the Hugo-winning Stand on Zanzibar, and release his most notable novels, culminating with The Shockwave Rider in 1975.
What’s interesting to me about Brunner’s depiction of what it’s like to write SF in the 1960s is how similar it is to what it’s like to write it today — how much of it depends on volume and hustle to counteract the general low advances and pay, how variable the pay can be depending on factors that have little to do with the author themself, and how Brunner himself acknowledges that his own “middle-class living” relies on location, in his case the less-than-glamorous-at-the-time UK, rather than what he saw as the rather more expensive United States.
Did his string of novels from Zanzibar to Shockwave solve his economic worries? As the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction notes, not really: “Unsurprisingly (with hindsight), though these novels received considerable critical attention, they in no way made Brunner’s fortune. He was always extremely open about his finances and his hopes for the future, and made no secret of the let-down he felt on discovering himself, after these culminating efforts, still in the position of being forced to produce commercially to survive. This naivete was humanly touching, but fatal to his career.”
Brunner’s tale here is anecdotal, and as with all anecdotes one should be careful not to make more of it than it is. But at the same time, as an anecdote, Brunner’s tale has more to tell us about middle-class author jobbing in the 20th Century than the tale of Ernest Hemingway or William Faulkner. And to bring it around to where we started with this piece, it does suggest that at all times, it’s a hard time to make a living — middle-class or otherwise — solely as an author.
Is it harder now? It might be. It’s different than it was fifty years ago, with different players and challenges, but also with different opportunities — it’s the best time in decades to be writing novellas, for example, and the best time ever for writing work meant for the audiobook format. And if the BLS has anything to tell us, it’s not the worst time ever to be a writer in a general sense, at least in the US.
Just, you know. Maybe keep your day job. Still.