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.

35 thoughts on “Author Incomes: Not Great, Now or Then

  1. Some additional notes that I didn’t put into the piece because it’s kind of wander-y as it is:

    1. I have a fairly strong suspicion that the more authors that participate in the survey, the more the median income will go down, as a) most books, traditionally or self published, make very little money, b) ancillary income from writing-related activity (events, etc) tends to flow toward the writers with successful books. Also, it’s much easier to self publish these days than it was in other eras, so there is a larger pool of authors overall. Add all of this together, and I think it will be surprising if the median income in that particular survey ever goes up.

    2. From the phrasing of the AG material and of the NYT article I link to, I sense a slight bit of emotional investment by the Authors Guild with respect to “literary authors”; it seems very concerned about their plight. Whether this is simply because the measured decline in that segment’s fortunes, or indication of bias toward genres and non-fiction is inconclusive.

    3. I also really feel that AG is underselling, not the fact it’s opened up it survey to writers outside of its organization, but how much opening up the survey to others has an impact on its findings; commensurately I’m not entirely sure how responsible it is to compare the finding this year to findings in previous years, given the disparity of the data sets.

    4. In the interest of disclosure, please note that Amazon is publisher of mine, via its Audible subsidiary, which distributes most of my audiobooks.

    5. If you dig into the data of the survey, one interesting thing about it is that a full three deciles of overall respondents report no income from books or book-related activities in 2017. So if you made a dollar from your book in 2017, you did better than 30% of authors, and that’s a hell of a thing. If you made $51k, you’re in the top ten percent.

    6. In “author-related income” — income not directly from writing — what I don’t see listed is crowdsourcing income, like Patreon or Drip. I wonder if that’s because the AG didn’t think to include it, or because that’s seen as direct writing income (and as self-publishing). It’s something to think about.

    7. Hat tip for the John Brunner article to File 770.

  2. Entirely anecdotally, the thing about being an author now that I personally find delightful is that you can write whatever weird thing you want to write and there’s at least a chance that you will find some people who are as weird as you are who will enjoy it. I spent some time in the 90s as a freelance writer and decided that it was a horrible job — I did reasonably well, I supported myself, and I would have been significantly closer to the BLS income level than the Author Guild level, but I was working hard, trying to please people, and writing a fair amount of both technical and PR material to achieve that success. It was not fun. I did the sensible thing and got out of the business. Now I’m a full-time freelance writer again, but I write what entertains me and I toss it out into the universe and hope it finds a few people out there who are also entertained, enough to happily shell out $3.99 or $4.99. It often does, enough that I’m hitting that Author Guild median full-time writer income. But the freedom is also worth something. Maybe it’s impossible to put a dollar value on it, but from my POV, being an author is now an excellent job, in a way that it was definitely not back in the 20th century.

  3. If you write non-fiction for either print or non-print outlets, you know your income potential has been reduced. Lots of content is now written in-house, especially online, by people who mine your books for ideas and content, producing articles that clearly are drawn from them – usually without any credit or reference to your book. They also frequently call or email, asking for your time and knowledge without any compensation. Online outlets also ask you to blog for them, without any pay, for “exposure” as John has noted before. Although, with interviews or blog posts, you can insist your book is promoted.

  4. One of the most frustrating things I’ve been dealing with since signing my contract is that a lot of people I know assume I’m going to be rolling in money and fame. I’ve had to repeat the “Authors do not get rich automatically and most never do” lesson in how it all works over and over and over again, including telling them how much my (very small) advance was. They’re shocked–they all assumed I’d get some kind of six-figure advance, like the famous books they hear about, and I have to remind them I’m not a Kardashian.

    But most people, when I tell them the realities of publishing and how little money and fame I even hope for, think I’m just being self-deprecating. It’s hard to get people not in the industry to understand how it all works.

  5. A slightly different perspective on the ‘pay me what you owe me’ writing for fun and profit, that bolsters what our Esteemed Host has said several times. One of our friends is trying to get his foot in the door writing for Hollywood, with a small amount of success. He bumped into Harlan Ellison at one point, who notably told him, “If it’s good enough to publish, it’s good enough for you to get paid. Never let them sucker you into doing it for the exposure.” There was also a bit about writing ‘on spec’, which had a lot more f-bombs (well, it was Ellison); the general tone was “Hell, no!”

  6. I can’t find the story, but I seem to recall that when Brunner (or Zelazny?) died, Silverberg (?) wrote about how Brunner died broke, but Zelazny was getting by, due to a few film options and other semi-extracurricular sources. Zelazny tried to help Brunner, but Brunner didn’t want to play money games – he wanted to write his novels and get paid.

    Now I realize that I probably got all the names and facts wrong in this leftover scrap of an anecdote. But the moral is strong: Writing, even the writing of a genius like Brunner, doesn’t always pay.

  7. More from the Authors Guild Survey . . . “The drop appears to affect almost all categories of authorship, with writers of literary fiction experiencing the biggest recent decline in book earnings: 43 percent since 2013.”

    Is this cliff-like drop the result of increasing competition – more authors chasing fewer readers – or decreasing competition on the distribution end – aka the Amazon Effect?

    Perhaps it’s the confluence of both.

  8. I am very unhappy to see I am not the first in the comments section but that is due to my entirely too large ego….The greatest addition I can make to a Man who is willing to discuss Anything ( everything under the Sun ) is to mention ( for You since I assume You would discuss it eventually) that there are those who feel, in the matter of fictional Writing everything that could be written about has been, including now even the pay given out to authors of Fiction. Grins. In the older days of this Republic Philip K. Dick himself stated ( or should have ) before his untimely death, (unquote here) : There is nothing new under the Sun in Fiction to write about, everything has been discussed, and sometimes by more than by one Author…I believe here and now I have given out hope for you in the manner of a new topic to take on in an email some day…Perhaps. Good Day Sir….

  9. As a kid growing up in the 60s and 70s, I read every ScFi book in my local (Lincoln City) library, and I always imagined that authors lived a grand life with wealth and comfort (because they were so important – and millions of books at prices I couldn’t afford). It has been a source of great disillusionment to discover that my pedestrian job of writing software that only hundreds of people use makes me a much better income earner than some of my favourite authors.

  10. Insightful update, John.

    Yeah, these figures seem discouraging, but I expect you’d come by similar data if you polled large portions of actors, for example. Everybody’s in it to be the next Tom Cruise, but the majority will be lucky to break even.

    I’ve made a successful career of writing in video games and technology for two decades. Meanwhile, I released my first book last year and even with good reviews and fair sales, it’s earned a fraction of a fraction of my salary. So definitely no plans to give up my day job.

    But goddamn, it’s fun to write fiction. Don’t care if lose thousands on each book—just gonna keep doing it. That probably makes me an idiot and I accept that.

  11. In Traveler of Worlds (which I read when it was up for a Hugo in 2017), Robert Silverberg says, “[A] short story sold to one of the top magazines would get you $150; that for me was a month’s rent at my elegant, five-room apartment.” (p. 234)

    That five-room apartment was in Manhattan, by the way. So while the dollar value of 1960s short-story sales may not have been that great, the purchasing power was far ahead of where it is today. Or are any of the top magazines paying $4,000 or so for a short story?

    Looked at from the other end, an SFWA qualifying market may pay as little at 6¢ per word. At that rate, to make just the rent on the kind of place Silverberg says he was living in (not counting little things like food, utilities or taxes), an author would have to be selling upward of 65,000 words per month every month.

    People sometimes get a little cranky when I say that writing SF short stories is a hobby not a profession, but that’s what 6¢ a word adds up to.

  12. So, the Government’s figure is TEN times that of the Author’s Guild!? Lies, damned lies, and statistics?

    Good points about survivorship bias and the Good Old Days, which, of course, were nothing of the kind. I also suspect there are far more authors now, both in absolute numbers and proportion of the population, than ever before. There are, of course, about twice as many people overall in the USA than there were fifty years ago.

    A couple of years ago, the agent Kristin Nelson was asked what she missed about the past in publishing. Her answer? Nothing! She missed nothing.

    And, speaking of averages, who wants to be average?

  13. johntshea:

    It’s that the government’s figure is tracking something different but related (in that their figures and Authors Guild’s figure feature an overlapping population of full-time writers).

  14. If 30% of people in the survey made no income, the Authors Guild should have a second chart that excludes them. If I wrote a book and put it up for sale on Amazon then no one bought it, that would put me in the 30% right? They should have a second chart for for people who made at least $1.

    @johntshea: I think the government numbers are employment figures. So that is writers who work for peope. I am not sure how they collect the data. If they collect it from employers then it couldnt include self employed writing. If its based off of how people classify themselves on their tax returns then it could (not sure if that is even legal). I think the authors guild numbers are people who produce their own intellectual property and sell it. Most of the people in the government median of $61,000 will be people who work for someone. The Authors Guild would consider this a day job.

    I find it interesting that government salary numbers dont include Technical Writers. They are people who write manuals and internal documentation. Is that classified separately because its pays better? I am just speculating. It may have been moved to something else so it does not skew the data.

    One last point, when they say ‘full time writers’ average $20,000. That is too low to make sense. How many people would quit their day job for $20,000 ? Does this include people who are self employed full time like John was, but made most of his money contracting for 10 years? That would skew the data and make it somewhat misleading. Contracting is still a day job. So my guess is that the $20k is from their own intellectual property, but since they are independent contractors who write based on contracting they are still classified as full time writers? That is part time for your own intellectual property.

  15. Indeed, assuming the BLS figure excludes part-time authors. It is still three times the roughly equivalent AG figure.

    Speaking of which, John Brunner wrote in 1967:-
    “Consider, meantime, that a reliable source (the Bulletin of the Authors Guild of America) has published an estimate that there are 250 full-time writers in the whole of the United States.”
    TWO HUNDRED AND FIFTY!

    Thanks for the intriguing and informative links. I particularly like the part where Brunner’s imaginary SF writer mails his manuscript to an NYC publisher called Trump Books Inc.!

  16. Wow. I knew the standard advice for writers is “dont quit your day job”. But I didnt know the statistics were this bad. Just, wow.

  17. Throwing this question out there, both to Scalzi and to other writers who have or had day jobs: how many part-time writers have day jobs that aren’t writing related?

    I ask because I have a non-writing day job. Currently, I’m a crisis counselor, meaning I work for my county’s local branch of the suicide hotline (plus six other crisis-adjacent lines like NA hopeline, RAINN, etc). Anyway, I really love my job, and I don’t make a whole lot from writing at the moment. But, if I ever want to be a full-time creative writer– which, I know isn’t a guarantee even if I write well– is it important to try to switch to a day job like PR or technical writing, or content writing or something? Or is it enough practice to just keep writing my stories and novels every day around my non-writing “desk job”?

  18. @Guess the people I know who make $20k per year or less generally pool their income with others (spouse, gf/bf, parents, shared housing situation). Or, they’re low income enough to receive housing, food, and Medicaid benefits in their region, so $20k meets their needs.

    The average salary for an employed woman where I live (my county, not my state) hovers around $9,000 – $10k per year. Culturally, it’s very common here for women to only work part time in order to take care of kids, or to work full time hours at two crappy retail jobs because that’s what is available. So, I am not sure how typical the economy in my county is to the rest of America, but I know a lot of women who’ve become writers, for whom $20k was twice what they made prior.

    All depends on you POV. Quit your day job if your day job is at WalMart and you can make twice as much from home.

  19. Guess:

    “If 30% of people in the survey made no income, the Authors Guild should have a second chart that excludes them.”

    If you dig through the PDF of their presentation, you’ll see they did, although the resulting numbers aren’t all that much better.

    lgmerriman:

    “how many part-time writers have day jobs that aren’t writing related?”

    Lots, and I suspect probably most.

  20. Amazon’s current terms for self publishing are pretty friendly to authors, especially for ebook purchases. (The percentage that authors get from sale of print-on-demand physical books will always be much lower because of the cost of making the books.) The problem with Amazon’s market dominance is that there is no guarantee that the terms will always be as favorable; they could choose to take advantage of their near monopoly to squeeze authors.

    For writers of shorter works, the emergence of sites like Medium is a promising development. Some writers there are making enough money to do it as a full time job. Most of those are not writing fiction, but the platform is also available for fiction writers.

  21. Now is definitely a fantastic moment in which to write interactive fiction (that is, something akin to Choose Your Own Adventure novels, but usually in digital format and read on phones and devices). Specifically, it’s a brilliant moment for people like me who are not particularly computer savvy to write digital fiction that is on the “more text” end of the interactive fiction scale. the US company Choice of Games (I am not associated or affiliated with them in any way… but I do have several “Hosted Games” on their web site which is where a good chunk of my income comes from) offers a $10,000 advance based on an outline. Well worth checking out.

  22. lgmerriman, IMO, if you have a writing-related day job, you’re much less likely to add your own fiction-writing to your day. There are only so many hours one can spend in writing mode, after all. A job that’s dramatically different makes sitting down to write a lot more appealing.

  23. Next weekend will mark ten years since the first time I submitted a story. Since then my annual writing income has averaged — well, about the cost of going to one small con. So, definitely not quitting the day job.

  24. Some thoughts on lies & statistics:

    Silverberg’s one-short-story-rent: rents in the 1960s in some parts of Manhattan were notoriously low, even by the standards of the time. This is why places like Chelsea and the Village became hippie meccas; you could literally borrow a few $hundred from your relatives and live income-free for a season there. So that’s like me saying “I can sell one software magazine article and pay rent and food for a month in Detroit.” True, but that’s a trick of local economics, not a statement on authorial income. Link: https://www.6sqft.com/new-york-in-the-60s-when-chelsea-apartments-were-111-a-month/

    BLS vs. AG: Speaking of software magazine articles, I’m pretty sure that I’m included in the BLS statistics, whereas I would NOT be included in the AG survey data. Since software articles pay a lot better than short stories these days, this would be one of the many reasons the BLS median is higher.

    Decline of Literary Fiction: I suspect that this “43% decline” is a combination of two things: first, literary fiction as a genre is in decline and talented authors are seeking work elsewhere (like YA, which seems to be doing well), and second, that the AG is tracking a relatively fixed pool of authors as their literary fiction authors, most of whom are past their peak and facing declining writing income.

  25. Guess: I have friends with trades like fine metalwork who earn about that $20,000/year after expenses who would have had a large shop full of apprentices and customers dripping with gold any time from 1000 BCE to 1800. Graduate students routinely give up whatever else they were doing to live on sums like that for five years. A friend in the tabletop gaming industry reckons that many other game designers would do better on minimum wage in Canada http://forums.sjgames.com/showpost.php?p=2229971&postcount=239 A few creative people have disabilities which make it hard to work a day job (remember R.J. Stevenson’s consumption?), a few are excluded from the labour market, a few are seduced by dreams of being the next Steven King with mansions and groupies and don’t realize that is less likely than winning the lottery, and more just have an itch to create and the minds of makers not financiers.

  26. I always wish my favorite authors got paid more, and I’m really glad Patreon exists for that purpose. It’s not in my budget to give to all of them all the time, but at least I can chip in for a bit, typically on the order of $5 per book I read for authors that have a Patreon account. It’s not a lot, but it’s closer to what I would like them to be receiving per book that they sell.

  27. Forgive me if this has been asked and answered before but when you say “corporate consulting”, what sort of things does that mean? I’m not asking specifically what you did, but more in general. To those of us on the outside of the traditionally corporate world it is a vague and undefined term, and when our nieces and nephews ask what it means and what they should be aiming for at school to move into the white collar world (and maybe into a creative industry too), it would be nice to be able to give them an answer.

    Sorry if that is beating an old drum there.

  28. THANK YOU for working through the early lean years, and for continuing to work through the more prosperous years, to give fans like me many excellent stories! (This was originally posted to the wrong day’s blog – OOPS!)

  29. Thank you, this is very interesting! And reassuring, since I’ve been feeling a bit down lately about watching several authors and artists I know quit their day jobs.
    I suspect that the BLS numbers are so different because copywriters and other business writers fall into that category, and may even make up the majority of that category. I may have been included in that BLS category at some points in my career even though I wouldn’t have qualified for the Author’s Guild survey. I now work with freelance writers (and pay them a fairly standard rate for the type of work they do) at my day job. I know many of them have successful businesses with multiple other clients, so I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn they’re making above $60k per year.

  30. I wonder how a survey of booksellers compared to other retail occupations would look. Back in the late 70s/early 80s I worked in a bookshop in Scotland as one of the most senior employees below the manager – I became the branch paperback buyer. After 4 years (when I left to relocate back to England) my wage was still only a few pence/hour above the applicable* legal minimum wage then in force (* some occupations had special rates; bookselling was one and its was, if I recall correctly, slightly below the general rate).

  31. I’ve not read the surveys in detail yet since, ironically, I’m on a deadline for a client (albeit for software not prose) but to expand on Demetria’s point, I think the data needs to be sliced finer and defined to compare like groups. Maybe this is already done but I’d want to know figures for:

    1) Fiction authors who publish both novels and shorter works but not non-fiction or contract work.
    2) As above, but only for authors who published a novel in 2018 or who got an initial advance then.
    3) The inverse of #2, people who did not get an initial advance or have a novel published during the year.
    4) People who published fiction but not novels (poets, people who did only short works, etc)
    5) What these figures look like if you a) limit them to people who made any money at all AND if you lop off the bottom and top 5% with the idea that those could distort the group.

  32. This is a topic that we (meaning me and my wife) have been following for a good forty years, particularly but not exclusively in the SF/F area. The conclusion we’ve always come to has been “Don’t expect to make a living at writing. Do not give up your day job.” I can’t recall the exact figures, but what we discovered when we first looked into it didn’t sound like a reasonable income–and this was before health insurance and benefits became a central issue.

    We gathered plenty of anecdotes, going back to Phil Klass’s memories of getting along OK on short fiction in the early 1950s, thanks mainly to rent-controlled NYC apartments and magazine word-rates. The latter of which stagnated while inflation continued. Phil’s financial salvation was his move into the academy. For every Silverberg (who made himself into a copy-generating machine) there were dozens or even hundreds of scribblers who needed the day job–or who took the artistic vow of poverty. This was largely anecdotal stuff, but over four decades we’ve collected a lot of anecdotes, hung out with agents and editors and publishers, and gotten to know many working writers.

    Hell, we’re both “working writers.” I spent a couple decades doing freelance journalism and tech writing, and it’s a good thing I’m married to a university professor, because I would have starved at the word-rates I got, even as busy as I was. I used to joke that as a faculty spouse, I was the one making the laughable second income–“Kinda like running a bead shop,” I’d say. Until someone told me that a bead shop could actually do pretty well. Maybe I should have said “Telemarketing boiler-room worker.” The financially successful freelancers I knew of were constantly on the hustle and often re-used or self-syndicated their material.

    We also know quite a few people in the other arts–mostly musicians, a few visual artists–and the advice there would be the same: Don’t expect to make a living from your art. Our little city is home to a number of highly skilled working musicians, and I doubt that more than one or two of them make their livings at music alone, or don’t have a spouse with a decent job.

  33. Dear folks,

    I’ve been a professional writer since 1975. It’s not my only profession, never has been, but there’ve been many years when it paid most if not all the bills. It’s not a part-time gig for me, just one of several gigs.

    Looking through my old records, what I could make from writing pretty much kept up with inflation. By which I mean REAL inflation, not the Consumer Price Index, which underestimates by 1/2-1% per year.

    This is not good news for would-be writers. Because during those four decades, I went from being a noob to one of the world’s authorities in the subjects I wrote about. To put it in “How to Succeed in Business…” terms, it’s as if I worked my way up from the mailroom to chairman of the board, and my income only kept up with inflation.

    Magazines and newspapers (and their online equivalents) pay less now (in corrected dollars) per word than they did then. There have been booms and busts (more of the latter than the former, sadly) but if you plot real-dollar pay rates vs. time over the last four decades, it has steadily gone down.

    I can’t speak to all aspects of the fiction market, just one data point. Last year, the top primo rate that Asimov’s was paying was $0.10 a word. I don’t recall what they were paying when they started up in 1972(?), but there’s been tenfold real inflation since then. I am pretty sure their top rate then wasn’t one cent a word. (I have this vague sense it was two or even three, maybe someone here remembers?)

    You don’t need surveys to figure out that it is much harder to make a living as a writer today than it was 20 or 40 years ago. There’s no reason to think the picture will improve in the future.

    Here is advice for those who would make writing their business —and I do mean business. if you’re writing for fun or because your muse won’t let you do anything else, that’s another matter. I’m talking about trying to make a living at what you’re doing.

    First, sit down and figure out how much you need to live on each month, and how many hours a month you are willing to work. Divide one by the other, add 20% for taxes, and that is the living wage you need to make as a writer. It doesn’t matter how much you sell; if you can’t make that much per hour, you will starve or be on the streets.

    Next, find out what your intended markets pay. Everyone will be happy to tell you. At least, everyone reputable.

    Third, REALISTICALLY estimate how many words of FINISHED prose you can write per hour. Multiply that by your market rates. Is it more than your minimum living wage? You have a chance. Not a good chance, but a chance. If it’s less, forget it. Write for fun or for your own amusement. Don’t attempt to write to make money, as you will lose on every item and you will not make it up in volume.

    – pax \ Ctein
    [ Please excuse any word-salad. Dragon Dictate in training! ]
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