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Survey of Canadian Author Incomes Shows Retired Authors Aren’t Earning Much

One of the favorite pastimes of the publishing community is sharing author income survey reports, and wringing hands over the results. The reports are usually bullshit for various reasons (more on this in a later post), and usually wildly misinterpreted.

Both generalizations are true in the case of The Writers' Union of Canada annual report on its members' income.

The TWUC’s report was publishing last month, but it only crossed my desk last night when the CBC covered it.

It’s a story as old as the craft itself: an impoverished author, serving coffee or scrubbing floors while writing what would become a seminal novel.

Except in Canada today, tales of financial hardship extend to writers who are established, have published several books and even those who have won major prizes.

When the Writers' Union of Canada recently surveyed its members about their incomes, the results were sobering: an average writer made $9,380 a year from his or her writing. That’s 27 per cent less than what writers made three years ago, and a whopping 78 per cent less than they made in 1998.

The problem with this report is the makeup of the survey group.

If you go download the report from the TWUC website, you’ll see that, of the 1,499 respondents, 62% are  over the age of sixty (another 20% of the survey group were in their fifties).

The thing about this age distribution is that only about 31% of Canada’s adult population is over the age of 60 (Wikipedia).

What’s even crazier is that 31% of the survey group were over the age of 70, while at the same that age cohort only makes up about 14.4% of Canada’s adult population. This population is over-represented in the survey group even though they are statistically more likely to be dead than working.

This survey is not a representative sample of the population, and should not have been published. Then again, the same can be said for just about all surveys on author income.

The problem with these surveys is that they are conducted by groups living in the past. All of these groups share the assumption that author income is controlled by external forces when in reality author income is market-driven. Writing is a skill and writer and author are both professions.

An author’s income is dependent on how good they are at marketing their work, but do you ever hear one of these reports being framed in those terms?

Nope. Every time one of these reports is published, the group behind it always talk about somehow changing the external forces that supposedly control authors' incomes. They never talk about this business matter in terms of authors learning to be better business people; oh no, authoring is a noble calling, and it cannot be sullied with crass commerce.

Any group that feels this way has achieved the zenith of irrelevancy, and should be allowed to continue to wither away into nothing.


image by waferboard via Flickr


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Doris November 23, 2018 um 4:44 pm

Nate, don’t worry about the meager book income of Canadian writers. The worst scenario:
Everyone in Canada receives a $1,500 pension per month guaranteed income anyway. (if they lived at least ten years in Canada)
So the writing income is on top of that.


Allen F November 24, 2018 um 6:19 pm

The old answer because they have nothing better to do – the young are busy trying to live their lives (and the smart ones have done the math and are skipping trad-pub and going indie for more buck per sale – which I’ll bet this survey wasn’t interested in. 😉 )

Hmm, maybe they should focus on how much trad-pub makes off each of those writers, now and in the past.

Or maybe they can look into the slush pile and tell us how many writers got nothing for all their hard work.

Marilynn Byerly November 26, 2018 um 11:50 am

An avalanche of books has hit the world in recent years, courtesy of self-publishing, ebooks, and print on demand. The older books beneath this avalanche have almost no chance of being found unless the publisher or author sends up a marketing flare, or the author continues to produce new works which helps sell the backlist.

The ebook reader promotion newsletter, Early Bird Books, specializes in successful traditionally published authors now no longer publishing. Unless your publisher decides to use this service, you are pretty well out of luck if you don’t do anything yourself.

Paul W. November 27, 2018 um 8:44 am

The headline might as well have said ..retired _______s aren’t earning much.

My grandfather raised a family during the Great Recession. He frequently told me that anyone who didn’t save from every paycheck and plan investments for the future was living above their means. Still true.

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