The Authors Guild’s 2018 Author Income Survey, the largest survey of writing-related earnings by American authors ever conducted finds incomes falling to historic lows to a median of $6,080 in 2017, down 42 percent from 2009.
“When you impoverish a nation’s authors, you impoverish its readers”
The Authors Guild surveyed its membership and the members of 14 other writers organizations in 2018, receiving detailed responses from 5,067 authors. This included traditionally, hybrid and self-published authors who have commercially published one or more books. When discussing median incomes, the survey looked at both full-time and part-time authors.
The respondents reported a median author income of $6,080, continuing a sharp decline over the last decade: $8,000 in 2014 and $10,500 in 2009 (per the Authors Guild’s 2015 Survey), down again from $12,850 in 2007, as reported in a joint Authors Guild/PEN survey.
Earnings from book income alone fell even more, declining 21 percent to $3,100 in 2017 from $3,900 in 2013 and just over 50 percent from 2009’s median book earnings of $6,250.
The survey showed a shift in book earnings to other writing-related activities, such as speaking engagements, book reviewing or teaching. Including those sources, respondents who identified themselves as full-time book authors still only earned a median income of $20,300, well below the federal poverty line for a family of three or more. To access the full results and data, please click here.
“When you impoverish a nation’s authors, you impoverish its readers,” said James Gleick, the Authors Guild’s president. He noted that more books are being published than ever, but that books of quality often demand time and research that can’t be sustained if an author also needs to teach and lecture to make ends meet.
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. This raises serious concerns about the future of American literature—books that not only teach, inspire and elicit empathy in readers, but help define who Americans are and how the U.S. is perceived by the world.
The only exception came among self-published authors, who saw book-related income almost double since 2013. Despite this uptick, self-published income levels remain 58 percent lower than traditionally published authors.
Among the factors contributing to the pressure on authorship, the Guild cited the growing dominance of Amazon over the marketplace, forcing publishers to accept narrower margins and passing those losses onto authors through lower advances and royalties, including the extremely low royalties paid on the increasing number of deeply discounted sales and the 25 percent of net ebook royalty.
In addition, many electronic uses, such as classroom course packs, Google Books and Open Library, are now made on a royalty-free basis arguing fair use, whereas royalties traditionally were paid for comparable analog uses.
Increased competition from Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program adds to the equation, as do the massive number of books sold cheaply as new by Amazon resellers right alongside the publisher’s copies, often even claiming the buy box.
Amazon controls approximately 85% of the self-published market and so most self-published authors have no options other than to accept Amazon’s non-negotiable terms.
“Amazon, but also Google, Facebook and every other company getting into the content business, devalue what we produce to lower their costs for content distribution, and then take an unfair share of the profits from what remains for delivering that reduced product. We get that they like to move fast and break things, but it’s no longer in their own interest to break us. If even the most talented of authors can no longer afford to write, to create, who’s going to provide the content?” asked Authors Guild vice president Richard Russo.
What Can Be Done?
Publishers and self-published authors should be able to negotiate collectively with Amazon, Google and Facebook to equalize the bargaining power. Congress should enact an exemption to antitrust law to permit it.
Royalties should be paid by resellers to authors for resellers’ sales of new books.
U.S. should establish a federally funded equivalent of a public lending right to provide authors a benefit from the public use of books; and libraries should be better funded.
Publishers should pay higher royalties on ebooks and deeply discounted books; and they should destroy all bookstore returns to prevent them from getting into the secondary market.
The following writers organizations and publishing platforms participated in the survey: Authors Guild, Romance Writers of America, Society of Children’s Book Writers, Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers, Textbook and Academic Authors Association, National Association of Science Writers, American Society of Journalists and Authors, Association for Garden Communicators, Independent Book Publishers Association, PEN American Center, Authors Alliance, Next Big Writer, B&N Press, Authors Registry, IngramSpark, Reedsy and Lulu.
About the Authors Guild
The Authors Guild is the nation’s oldest and largest professional organization for writers. Its mission is to empower working writers by advocating for the rights of authors and journalists. The Guild protects free speech and authors’ copyrights, fights for fair contracts and a living wage and provides an engaged and welcoming community for all published authors. For more, visit www.authorsguild.org.