The Majority of Authors Earn Below Poverty Line, And Other Clickbait

The Majority of Authors Earn Below Poverty Line, And Other Clickbait DeBunking surveys & polls The Authors Guild Late last week PW published a scary report on a recent The Authors Guild survey. According to Rachel Deahl, the state of the American author was dismal, with the majority earning below the US poverty line (56%, in fact).

While that datum is indeed in the report, and so were all the other details shared by PW, but what Deahl left out of her story speaks volumes.

I have the unreleased data in front of me, and it paints a very different picture. Yes, 56% of respondents indicated that their 2014 income from writing was less than $11,670, but another section of the report also said that 39% of respondents "supported themselves exclusively through writing related work" in 2014.

Narrow that down to full-time book authors, and the number jumps to 53% (up from 51% in 2009). Only 31% of part-time authors could make a similar boast.

The authors who had an agent earned an average of over three times as much as those without ($4,000 vs $14,500).

Authors who had a 4-year degree tended to earn the most from their writing ($12,500), and the average income dropped as the level of education increased. A graduate degree (or even just a few classes) cut the average author's yearly income from writing to $8,000, and an MFA reduced it to $7,000. Getting a PhD dropped an author's income to $6,250, and an MD or JD reduced it the most, to $3,750.

Income also inversely correlated with age, with authors under 45 earning the most ($25,000) and older authors earning less as we progress from one age group to the next.

Authors with ages between 45 and 49 earned an average of $12,500, while the 50 to 54 crowd earned $13,500, those ages 55 to 64 earned $8,750, and the senior citizens earned $5,500.

The correlation between income and age is especially important because it shoots down the premise behind Deahl's clickbait headline.

Remember, 89% of the survey group were older than 50 years of age. Half of that 89% was over 65 (629 out of 1,406), with the next largest concentration in the 55 to 64 bracket (425 out of 1,406).

This means that the age groups which were disproportionately over-represented in the survey were also the one that earned the least.

Obviously that throws off the earning figures, but it also casts a new light on the 60% of the survey group that aren't earning all their income from writing.

Given that at least 44% of the survey group are receiving retirement benefits from the US govt or from their pension, suddenly that 60% doesn't mean nearly as much as you would think.

And while we're on the topic of disproportionate representation throwing off the results, a quarter of the survey group had a JD, MD, or PhD. Around 11% had an MFA, and another 25% had a graduate degree. (Do you suppose that may have biased the results just a little?)

There are all sorts of small details that change the entire picture, but perhaps the most interesting detail that Deahl left out of her PW piece was the fact that the 11% of respondents under fifty are earning a heck of a lot of money. Furthermore, the data shows that the younger age groups are earning far more in 2014 than they were in 2009, while the older age groups tended to earn less.

Far from showing the demise of the American author, this survey actually shows that the youngest authors are better off than they were before.

I can't give you a specific reason as to why (we would need a larger sample group from the younger cohort for that) but I bet you can guess the answer.

Suddenly this survey doesn't look nearly as pessimistic as it when you read about it last Friday, now does it?

image by Jorge Franganillo

Nate Hoffelder

View posts by Nate Hoffelder
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader. He has been blogging about indie authors since 2010 while learning new tech skills weekly. He fixes author sites, and shares what he learns on The Digital Reader's blog. In his spare time, he fosters dogs for A Forever Home, a local rescue group.


  1. Mackay Bell16 September, 2015

    Terrific insights, Nate. Very interesting.

  2. […] Well, I certainly agree, even if I’m one of those who can remember “the time of the dinosaurs”. Full fisking here. […]

  3. Allen F16 September, 2015

    In this day and age when you can’t hide the data, why do these people keep thinking they can cherry-pick and not get called on it? 😉

  4. Cathryn Cade18 September, 2015

    Nate, This part of your article cracked me up!

    ” Authors who had a 4-year degree tended to earn the most from their writing ($12,500), and the average income dropped as the level of education increased. A graduate degree (or even just a few classes) cut the average author’s yearly income from writing to $8,000, and an MFA reduced it to $7,000. Getting a PhD dropped an author’s income to $6,250, and an MD or JD reduced it the most, to $3,750. ”

    If I had to guess why this inverse proportion works, it would be that the more education (esp. literary degrees), the more a writer can’t stop ‘massaging’ a story to death, instead of publishing the damn thing and moving on the next money maker!

  5. Rebecca19 September, 2015

    Where is this info coming from?? I’m a hybrid author who’s EASILY earning well over $350,000 per year. Between my advance from my publisher ($150,000-$250,000 per book), and my independently published works, since entering this industry in late April of 2012, I’ve not earned less than $125,000 per year, each year’s income rapidly increasing as my backlist grows.

    I can also safely say that the ‘majority’ of my peers earn around the same, their income comfort level from writing allowing their spouses (like mine) to leave their job’s so they, too, can write fulltime.

    In the circle of authors I associate with, we’ve considered those who’ve made roughly $30,000 off one of their book’s to be a flop. These are authors whom usually pump out anywhere between three to five books per year. Do the math. Even if they released three books of which “flopped” per our terms, that’s still a very lucrative income of approx. $90,000, before taxes.

    PS- It must be mentioned that I only completed high school, so that’s another “huh?” I had whilst reading this article. :-/

    1. Nate Hoffelder19 September, 2015

      Hi Rebecca,

      The survey group was drawn from members of The Authors Guild. Are you a member?

  6. […] the Authors Guild that suggested that the majority of authors earn below the poverty line. A recent response on Digital Reader says that PW emitted some important data that makes the financial situation for […]

  7. Shawn5 November, 2015

    “The survey group was drawn from members of The Authors Guild”

    That is a huge problem then. The title of the article is that the “majority of authors earn below the poverty line” but the majority of authors are not part of the Authors Guild

    1. Nate Hoffelder5 November, 2015

      And that’s one of the clickbait items I could have raised, yes.

      My point in using this title was to call BS on the original article by sharing more if the stats. But you’re right in that i could have done more.

  8. […] published authors revealed that most fell below the poverty line. [Indie Reader, the Guardian, the Digital Reader, Publishers Weekly] […]


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