New York (February 19, 2020): The Authors Guild, the nation’s largest and oldest nonprofit professional association for published writers and journalists, today issued a report, “The Profession of Author in the 21st Century,” detailing the underlying social, economic and technological factors contributing to the ongoing decline of author incomes.

“For much of literary history, only the most privileged—those with wealth and leisure and education—could hope to publish. The 20th century created laws and practices, however, that allowed many [American] writers to earn a living, and as a result, an explosion of important books were published—by women, by authors of color, and others once shut out of authorship by financial need,” states Christine Larson, Ph.D., author of the report and an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Colorado, who studies the impact of technology on media workers and culture industries. “But the days of authors supporting themselves from writing may be coming to an end. The changing economy of publishing today means that reliable income and time—the metaphorical room for writing—are increasingly out of reach for many authors.”

To compile her research, Larson conducted interviews with book authors, publishing executives and industry analysts. She also drew heavily on the data from the most recent Authors Guild’s Authors Income Survey. Below are four meaningful takeaways from the commissioned report:

  • It’s harder to make a living as an author now than in the past. Indeed, writing incomes have dropped by 24% since 2013. Three major factors account for this trend:
    • Fewer Americans read books than ever before, as consumers increasingly turn to screens for news and entertainment—just 53% of Americans say they read books for pleasure down from 57% in 2002 according to the NEA.
    • Amazon’s introduction of the Kindle, along with online physical book buying, precipitated a devaluing of books overall, while its current pricing practices eat into authors’ advances and royalties.
    • The mass shuttering of more than 2,000 U.S. newspapers, as well as the loss of print and online magazines and news sites, has resulted in fewer opportunities for authors and journalists to supplement their book earnings with short stories, essays, book reviews and other literary or critical content.
  • Half of full-time authors earn less than the federal poverty level of $12,488. Literary authors are the hardest hit, experiencing a 46% drop in their book-related income in just five years. Other relevant data:
    • 80% of all authors earn less than what most people would consider a living wage. Authorhood is not a conventional, salary-paying career. Most authors patch together other forms of income, from teaching to full-time day jobs in a wide variety of fields. The profession of author signifies the broader challenges of the “gig economy,” where more and more people juggle multiple part-time jobs and contract work and receive no employee benefits.
    • Authors of color earn half the median income of white authors (and the gap seems to have grown in the past five years). Taken together with the fact that 85% of editors are white, this finding has troubling implications for equality of voice in book publishing.
  • Authors are expected to do what publishers once did—market their own books. Authors spend a full day per week promoting their books, which takes them away from writing and results in longer stretches between new books being published and lean years for many writers.
  • Self-publishing income is growing rapidly, but still remains very small compared to traditional publishing. While the median income of self-published authors increased by 85% over the past four years, led largely by the success of e-romance novels, self-published authors still earn 80% less than traditionally published authors. Part of the problem is that supply far outstrips demand; Bowker reports more than 1.68 million self-published book titles in 2018, up 40% from the year before.

What now?

The report asserts that authors’ incomes in the U.S. will continue to sink even further unless lawmakers, publishers, content distributors, authors, literary advocates and the American public step in to stop the decline.

“Anger, frustration and sorrow are three of the most common emotions expressed by authors cited in the report said noted novelist Doug Preston, president of the Authors Guild. “Reading it also reinforced the importance of the Authors Guild in helping to prevent the total sidelining of professional writers in the new literary and information landscape and protecting their ability to earn a living in this brave new world.”

To download a copy of “The Profession of Author in the 21st Century,” see below.

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.