Monday, February 9, 2015

How much do writers make?

Short answer: not a lot.

Take a gander at the graph above.

According to The Guardian, author income has collapsed to 'abject levels': a British survey of 2,500 working writers in 2013 found the median income was a mere £11,000, down 29% since 2005. When all writers were included, the average income was £4,000 in 2013, down from £8,810 in 2000.

The minimum standard of living income in Britain is £16,850.

For many, writing is either a hobby or a secondary job (at least, in terms of income. Soul fulfillment wise, might be the other way around). Only 11 percent of authors earn their entire income from writing, which is also down from 40 percent in 2005. This coincides with the collapse of revenue for newspapers and magazines and the rise of independent publishing. Classified sections used to pull in up to half of newspaper revenue, and now they’re on Craigslist—for free. And with millions of self-published books available, a tough market is getting tougher.

I was talking to a former journalist a couple years ago, after the 2008 recession hit, and she claimed newspapers have been using interns to write material that would once have been done by paid journalists. Sadly, these young people are jumping from one internship to another, without any prospect of getting rewarded with a paid job down the line. It’s like a form of volunteer slavery, accessible only to those who have alternate forms of income to fall back upon, or rely upon family support.

The whole system is in upheaval as revenue streams dissipate.

The music industry isn't any better off:

After 20 years in the music business, (Diana Williamson) says she’s seeing songwriters “leaving in droves. If you can’t make a living, if you can’t afford go to the dentist, you’re going to leave.” This is a lament you’ll hear from artists everywhere these days: We can’t afford to do this any more. The well has dried up. Freelance rates are what they were when the first Trudeau was in power. Rents rose, and royalties fell. Novelists are becoming real-estate agents; musicians open coffee shops.

This sense of doom and gloom has spawned websites such as Newspaper Death Watch. On the plus side, papers have been pushed out of their complacency and are now trying hard to innovate, monetize, and remain relevant. Marc Andreessen, for example, is bullish on the future of the news industry and sees the light at the end of the tunnel.

Let's hope he's right. People are going to want news in some form or another. Yet things are likely to be in a state of flux for the foreseeable future, as technological change accelerates and leads to further shifts in the way books are delivered and 'consumed'.

And then there is Will Self, who wrote a cheeky article for The Guardian called The novel is dead (this time it’s for real):

'How do you think it feels to have dedicated your entire adult life to an art form only to see the bloody thing dying before your eyes?… I do not mean narrative prose fiction tout court is dying – the kidult boywizardsroman and the soft sadomasochistic porn fantasy are clearly in rude good health.'

What a relief. I was worried for my soft sadomasochistic porn fantasy's prospects.

One thing I found surprising was that most of the authors on top of the NYT bestsellers list aren’t making a living at it. Novelist Lynn Viehl, writer of the bestselling Twilight Fall:

'My income per book always reminds me of how tough it is to make at living at this gig especially for writers who only produce one book per year. If I did the same and my one book performed as well as TF, and my family of four were solely dependent on my income my net would be only around $2500.00 over the income level considered to be the US poverty threshold (based on 2008 figures). Yep, we'd almost qualify for foodstamps.'

Which makes the mad production rate of indie writers understandable: some produce a book a month, albeit short ones of roughly 35,000 words, and report income of tens of thousands per month, far higher than most in traditional publishing. Which is awesome. It can be done.

James Smythe, a sci-fi author who’s won awards and been given glowing reviews, has not yet had any of his five books for HarperCollins earn out. That means none of them have earned back the advance he was paid to write them. They lost the publisher money, as most books do, because publishers are often overly optimistic about how much a book will earn. He teaches at a university to make ends meet:

"Being a writer can't be treated like it's a job. It maybe was once, but no writer can treat it as such nowadays. There's no ground beneath your feet in terms of income, and you can't rely on money to come when you need it.”

The industry survives on breakout hits, which subsidize the much larger number of failures. For publishers, its a matter of throwing enough stuff at a wall, waiting to see what sticks, then lavishing all their attention upon it. Which leads them to 'prey' upon self-published authors in the same way large corporations 'prey' on small, innovative startups. Innovation is costly, risky, and difficult for large, calcified corporations to do effectively. So they sit back and watch while daring, nimble startups take the risks. When one is finally successful, they sweep in, buy them out, and save themselves headaches, development costs, and risk.

Little wonder publishers keep a sharp eye on what sells in the indie market.

I went to a talk by Hugh Howey last year, the author of the best-selling WOOL series, and he said that when publishers first came after him, they only offered him $50,000 for publishing rights. He said no, but they kept coming back with higher offers. He continued to decline. Eventually the number reached into the millions, along with very favourable terms. Finally he said yes. But if he’d not held out, if he’d had any doubts about his work, he’d have gotten poor terms.

Everyone is out for the best deal they can get, after all, on both sides.

Bottom line? It's a tough business that requires perseverance, dedication, and hard work. Those who rise to the top are the ones writing a thousand words or more every day.

Me? I've got no plans to quit my day job.

But I hope you can.

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