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.
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.
At the same time, overall earnings have leveled off since 2013 suggesting that authors who are still in the business are getting better at finding ways to bring in supplemental income related to their writing. For those authors who were published before 2014 (i.e., excluding those who started publishing after 2013), median incomes from all writing related sources are actually slightly up from $6,250 in 2013 to $8170.*
In other words, 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.
“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: 27 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 one exception came among self-published authors, who saw book-related income almost double since 2013. Despite this uptick, overall median 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, lower royalties and advances for mid-list books (which publishers report comes from losses they are forced to pass on), including the extremely low royalties paid on the increasing number of deeply discounted sales and the 25 percent of net ebook royalty. The blockbuster mentality of publishers who grant celebrity writers massive advances and markets them wildly at the expense of the working writers is also certainly a factor.*
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.
Other key findings of the Authors Guild’s 2018 Author Income Survey are:
Authors are having to take on other work.
- Just 21 percent of full-time published authors derived 100 percent of their individual income from book-related income last year.
- Only 57 percent of full-time published authors derived 100 percent of their individual incomes from book- and other writing-related activities combined.
Self-published authors’ earnings are rising rapidly, but they still make less than traditionally published authors.
- While the median book-related income for self-published authors nearly doubled since 2013, rising to $1,951, they still earned 58 percent less than traditionally published authors.
- Among the authors surveyed who ranked in the top decile for book-related earnings, self-published authors earned 50 percent less with an annual median of $154,000.
Many long-time authors made no book income in 2017.
- Roughly 25 percent of all published authors surveyed earned $0 in book-related income in 2017; 18 percent of full-time authors earned $0 in book-related income during the same time period.
- Those zero earners are not included in the mean figures provided above. When the zero earners for 2017 are included, they bring the mean total author earnings down to $1,784 and the book earnings down to just $490.
In support of the survey results, Author Guild Council members have provided these statements:
Richard Russo, vice president of the Guild, said:
“There was a time in America, not so very long ago, that dedicated, talented fiction and nonfiction writers who put in the time and learned the craft could make a living doing what they did best, while contributing enormously to American knowledge, culture and the arts. That is no longer the case for most authors, especially those trying to start careers today.”
Nicholas Weinstock, a Guild Council member, said:
“Reducing the monetary incentive for potential book authors even to enter the field means that there will be less for future generations to read: fewer voices, fewer stories, less representation of the kind of human expression than runs deeper and requires and rewards more brain power than the nearest bingeable series on Netflix or Amazon or GIF on your phone.”
T.J. Stiles, another Guild Council member, furthered:
“Poverty is a form of censorship. That’s because creation costs. Writing requires resources, and it imposes opportunity costs. Limiting writing to the financially independent and the sinecured punishes authors based on their lack of wealth and income.”
Roxana Robinson, a past president of the Guild, said:
“Amazon’s market share (72 percent of the online book market and nearly 50 percent of all new books sold) allows it to lock publishers into a vise, relentlessly demanding increasing discounts and narrowing margins. Publishers pass on losses to the writers, by shrinking advances and royalties.”
“But maybe the worst blow to writers is Amazon’s online secondary market,” Robinson continues. “Within months of a new book’s publication, ‘new’ and ‘lightly used’ copies are offered alongside the publisher’s, for a fraction of the price, in a sale that provides no royalties to the author. Writers can’t survive without royalties. Copyright was intended to protect them from just this: the sale of their work without compensation.”
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.
 Book-related income is based on royalties, advances, ebook subscriptions contracts, subsidiary and international rights, audio and film rights, reprints, distribution rights and earnings from book awards or prizes. Writing-related income refers to 18 types of jobs that rely on professional skills published book authors possess to earn income beyond book sales, such as speaking engagements, teaching creative writing, freelance journalism, editing and ghostwriting. Author-related income is the combination of both these two amounts.
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