By James Gleick


If you’re an Authors Guild member, you should have received an invitation to participate in a survey on earnings from authorship. If you’re like me, this didn’t thrill you.

I hate doing surveys. Often I doubt their value or reliability. I ignore phone calls from pollsters. So I’m not in a position to tell you that you should fill out this one.

But I’d like to persuade you that it would be useful: a service to your community.

We’re already hearing from writers who feel the survey doesn’t apply to them because they hardly make any money from books anymore. Some of you are content with that: the satisfactions of book writing lie elsewhere. For example, Chris Dickon is a veteran broadcast journalist and author whose seven books tell little-known stories of American history and are read by policy makers at home and overseas. “Those things are the wages of my work,” he tells me (he is allowing me to quote him here), “certainly not the several hundred dollars per year they yield in royalties, which don’t even reach one percent of our household income, and which can’t possibly be broken down in any meaningful way for rigors of the survey. I had to give it up.”

I told him what I’d like to tell all of you. We know very well that many authors are not motivated by money. Many, or most, have more meaningful sources of income than their books can provide. We support those authors and advocate for them.

But the ability of authors to earn a living from their work remains critical for many, and it remains core to our mission. Speaking personally, I had the chance thirty years ago to give up a safe job in journalism and make a go of it as a writer of nonfiction books. I’ve watched the economics of book writing change, and in the current landscape I’m doubtful I’d be able to do that. These changes matter—not just to me, not just to authors, but to the health of our culture.

It may seem futile to you to share your financial experience with us when your real motivation for writing lies elsewhere. It may even annoy you that we’re asking. But it’s important. If writers like you pre-disqualify yourselves, our results will be skewed.

Here’s why we need the information. We’re producing what we hope will be a definitive and much needed assessment of the changing economics of authorship. The survey is going not only to Authors Guild members but to authors who will hear from other writers groups and organizations that are partnering with us.

We’re gathering data from other sources as well, but publishers are not always eager to share their numbers, and Amazon is even less transparent. A comprehensive report on this subject is long overdue. We need it to inform our work with policy makers in Washington and elsewhere; with librarians and with the big tech companies. We are striving to change the ecosystem in ways, small and large, that will protect the writing life.

So please help. Once again, here’s the link:

Authors Guild Income Survey








Photo credit: Giliola Chistè