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The Authors Guild Claims Author Income is Down

Sorry to keep beating an old drum, but a new survey report on author incomes was released late last week, and it is just as useless as the previous ones.

On Saturday The Authors Guild reported that author income fell 42% since 2009:

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.

You can download the report on The Authors Guild’s website. It does not contain all of the data or the survey questions, however. (For example, there’s no info on the age distribution of the 2009 survey respondents – was the average age lower than in 2018?).

This report shares many of the same issues as similar reports from the UK and Canada. They are about as useful as the reports claiming vaccines cause autism.

The Authors Guild report in particular is flawed because it is based on a self-selected survey group where self-published authors are under-represented and retirement age traditionally authors are over-represented.

As any polling expert can tell you, when you let individuals select themselves into a group, you create a biased sample that doesn’t reflect the larger population. The formal name is self-selection bias. It is a known problem in research in sociology, economics, psychology, and many other social sciences, where it even has a pithy acronym (S.L.O.P., for "self-selected listener opinion poll").

When it comes to The Authors Guild survey, the survey group is biased towards older traditionally-published authors. Senior citizens are twice as prevalent in the survey group as in the population as a whole, while younger authors are almost nonexistent among respondents.

TAG tries to brush the issue off with the argument that "very few authors publish before the age of 35". While that may have been true in earlier eras where publishers acted as gatekeepers, it is now 2019, and self-publishing has has made it easy for anyone to publish. (And frankly, there’s no current data to back up that claim about the typical age of first-time authors.)

Furthermore, self-published authors only accounted for a quarter of the survey group when common sense would tell you that, when it comes to the industry as a whole, indie authors outnumber traditionally published authors by a significant margin.

While it would be great to have useful data on author incomes, this report doesn’t actually tell us anything we can use. Its poor methodology invalidated its results, making it a complete waste of everyone’s time.


image by jamjar via Flickr

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Allen F January 8, 2019 um 12:27 pm

They’re the ones beating the drum. And it’s still off pitched as they’re numbers never count the +99% of books/authors that didn’t survive the slush pile whose hard work earned them a big fat zero.

At least tossing it out on Amazon might buy you a cup or three of coffee. 😉

Mary Rasenberger January 8, 2019 um 2:33 pm

Hi Nate, I don’t know what you have against the Authors Guild, but it’s downright silly. Out of all the misleading posts you have written about us or our initiatives, this one might be the most slanted. Let me clarify a couple points for you since it is not clear you read all of the materials. 15 organizations sent the survey out, including those with many or mostly self-published writers. It was specifically targeted to authors who write as a profession. What you missed is that half of all respondents self-publish at least some and that incomes are way up for self-publishing. That to us shows true promise for self-publishing. More and more authors are getting smart and not self-defining as indie or traditional authors, but doing both, and hybrid too, depending on the book.

Mary Rasenberger

Nate Hoffelder January 8, 2019 um 5:19 pm

The reason I don’t like your organization is that it has a history of serving publishers rather than authors, even taking the publishers' side in their fight against Amazon. For example, you yourself participated in the 2015 anti-Amazon FUD campaign lead by Authors United.

Furthermore, your organization has a culture of hostility to Amazon. Yes, the company has its issues, but Amazon has also created enormous opportunities for authors to reach readers. It has done more for authors than publishers have, and yet you keep taking the side of the legacy publishing industry.

That is your prerogative, but I hope you know that this will lead to TAG becoming irrelevant. So long as your org is seen as siding with publishers, you will repel authors who got their start because of Amazon. And with trad pub signing fewer new authors every year, your pool of potential members is shrinking.

just an FYI

Len Epp January 10, 2019 um 7:49 pm

Nate – Just a couple of personal observations, in addition to agreeing with everything you say here:

1. What they count as a "full-time author" also skews their results. Consider this:

"18% of full-time authors earned $0 in book-related income during the same time period [2017]"

I’m going to try hard to avoid the obvious opportunity to be sarcastic here, and just say that if I were doing this analysis, I would actually use the fact that someone had made zero dollars in a whole calendar year, to define them as *not* in fact being a "full-time author".

Extending that principle to "all authors," that means that roughly 25% of all authors who responded to the survey should not be counted as authors at all (because they made zero dollars from any book sales in 2017). That would change the results significantly.

2. One thing that bugs me about the AG is what you might call their presumptuousness. For example:

"The quality of books written by authors holding down other jobs may be affected since their attention is divided and writing is often pushed to what spare free time is left."

Obviously this is a highly questionable position in a number of ways, and in reality, not a serious position at all. Just on a basic level, I’m reminded of Mordecai Richler’s old remark, that if you want to write a book about a cab driver, go work as a cab driver.

In any case, I seem to recall that e.g. Twain and Dickens had a lot more going on in their lives than just book writing. The representation of authors as these trembling, precious creatures that are somehow owed a middle-class living from their book writing alone, and are incapable of handling any other kinds of work (not to mention the naive implication that anyone too poor to write full-time is somehow automatically excluded from the great authors club), is more damaging to American culture generally than annual median incomes going down by a couple thousand dollars.

The AG’s assumption of the position of guardian of high culture, against a "crisis of epic proportions," makes it particularly vulnerable to this kind of criticism. I was going to make the old critic’s joke that the greatest calamity to fall upon American literature, was the elevation to "literary" status of novels about middle-aged English professors from New Hampshire in the wake of their latest divorce, but then came across this description of the most recent winner of the Pulitzer prize for fiction:

"You are a failed novelist about to turn fifty. A wedding invitation arrives in the mail: your boyfriend of the past nine years is engaged to someone else. You can’t say yes — it would be too awkward — and you can’t say no — it would look like defeat. On your desk are a series of invitations to half-baked literary events around the world."

Fuh. I don’t care that the book is supposed to be funny – if organizations like the Pulitzer are giving fiction prizes to novelists writing twee white-people’s-problems travelogues about failed novelists going to literary events, it is perhaps no wonder that people classified as authors of literary fiction are maybe making less money than they used to.


Robert Nagle January 19, 2019 um 9:52 am

Nate, about older authors being overrepresented: When you are in the last part of your career, you’re not as open to trying a new way of publishing (esp because you have existing relationships with publishers and agents). On the other hand, you’ve had more time to grow a fan-base and more of a track record.

Wow, I’m sorry to get personal, but your previous commenter’s suggestion that "full-time author" category exclude those who make little from publishing suggests a certain ignorance about how authors operate.

Even moderately successful authors have times during their lives where revenue streams from writing are zero.Indeed, I would argue that the 25% that Mr. Epp cavalierly dismisses as "not counting as authors" are in fact one of the most important segments of authors today.

Epp’s castigation of academic-oriented authors is misplaced. Perhaps it might have been legitimate in the 1980s and 1990s to say that many authors were insulated from real world concerns when they resided in academia. But those full time and tenure-track jobs in creative writing really don’t exist anymore; instead we have PT, adjunct, single event workshops, nothing very steady. An increasingly small percent of authors today are making a living from universities these days; often these are plum assignments given to award winners. In retrospect, this mockery of the author insulated by working in academia seems overblown, unjustified and unfair. (Many authors wrote respectable things while working at universities).

On the other hand, from 2000 on, there were more opportunities in Internet companies for authors, so that kind of made up for the decline of jobs at universities.

I am no expert on Twain and Dickens, but I think most of their income streams derived from public lectures made as a result of their literary fame. It’s wrong to imply that either author somehow had managed to make a comfortable living from some profession other than writing.

Over the past decade I have wavered from love/hate/indifference/ambivalence about Amazon. At the moment, I agree with Mark Coker’s contention that authors are signing their own death warrants by signing up to exclusive arrangements with Amazon — which make them dependent on Amazon’s rules and business models.

My response to the AG report is not that this report is somehow self-serving but that the reality is far bleaker than AG paints it out to be. Some indie authors are breaking out under Amazon’s ecosystem — especially if they are writing for a niche audience and publish frequently (cf. Chuck Tingle). But most aren’t, and trying to price-compete below Amazon’s price floor of 2.99 is basically forfeiting 70% of your profits to Jeff Bezos and company.

I think the problem with Amazon can be mitigated somewhat if Amazon were to lower its price floor to $1.50 or $2. (Thanks to deal newsletters and other things, the most competitive price point is now 2-3 dollars). But then again, why would Amazon ever want to do such a thing?

Damned Statistics! – paulpens April 23, 2019 um 11:54 am

[…] has got his head screwed on right, and in his excellent Digital Reader blog, points out the inaccuracies of the methodology used by the Authors Guild: read the Comments at the bottom, in which the AG’s Executive […]

The Authors Guild Rehashes Bogus Author Income Survey as a "New" Report | The Digital Reader February 21, 2020 um 5:08 pm

[…] to the decline in the writing profession. Alas, this report is based on the flawed survey that I debunked last January, making it the epitome of the "garbage in, garbage out" […]

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