Authors’ (Financial) Self-Pity

The Authors Guild has released its report, The Profession of Author in the 21st Century, and therein they play their role as advocates quite well. And though they are arguably on my side, working for my potential, hypothetical benefit, I cannot help but ponder if a similar report was penned by some scriveners’ guild at the advent of the printing press.

We are greeted firstly with the figure that

half (54%) of full-time authors surveyed earned less than the federal
poverty threshold of $12,488 from their writing.

$12,488 divided by 2,080 (full-time hours per year) equals almost exactly $6.00 per hour. So, right off the bat, we’re expected to believe that anyone is writing full-time for less than a fast-food restaurant’s entry wage. Perhaps it is judgemental of me, but it sure seems like these “full-time authors” are either

  • of independent means, in which case the profitability of their writing does not effect their ability to continue writing
  • playing fast and loose with “full-time.”

Quickly on this figure’s heels comes the claim that

An alarming 23% of full-time authors reported earning zero income from books in 2017.

The definition of spending 40 hours a week on a pursuit that doesn’t generate income is a “hobby,” not a “full-time” job. I say this as one hobbyist among many who would love to transition to full-time some day.

Later, we get a little less fast-and-loose with the definition when we are told that

For “full-time authors” who earned any income (excluding those who earned zero
income), the median writing-related income was $20,300, of which book-related income was $11,900. These full-time authors contributed 48% of their household’s total income in 2017.

The U.S.’s median household income in 2017 was $61,372. Multiplied for the other half, this means households with a full-time writer in them achieve a median of $40,600, or 2/3rds that of their non-writer peers. I am not economically-fluent enough to hazard a guess, but I would still pose the question: is 2/3rds really that shocking, when one considers that this is an artistic profession competing against trades and sciences?

Perhaps more interesting is the insight that

The number of self-published books increased 40% between 2017 and 2018 alone, to 1.6 million titles, according to Bowker, the agency that issues ISBN numbers.

Here we have a concrete factor that may harm serious authors (be they hobbyists or working professionals). They are being drowned out and diluted down by everyone-and-their-monkey’s-uncle “publishing.” One suspects that this began with social media itself rather than the availability of self-publishing services; for good or ill we have made everyone with an opinion “a writer,” however informed, original, or vice versa they may be. Who dares try to put the lid back on Pandora’s box?

After a few mandatory lashes of leftwing self-flagellation about inequalities in publishing (including the ‘no duh’ instances of Stephen Kings and JK Rowlings financially kicking our collective behinds), we finally get to the heart of the matter.

In 2017, only about 53% of Americans read a book that wasn’t for work or school, down from about 57% in 2002; only about 42% of Americans read a novel, according to the National Endowment for the Arts.

In a country where only half of people read by choice at all, and where most of them–like any other human–are only going to take a purchasing chance on a name they’ve heard before, shame on us if we’re surprised that writing isn’t a viable profession any more. Jeff Bezos may be the antichrist of the publishing world, but he isn’t the one who made Americans decide to stop reading.

The final and perhaps most cringe-worthy instance within this study is its unironic citation of the essay How to Lose a Third of a Million Dollars Without Really Trying. To summarize, this is the sadly-true tale of an author who made the transition from hobbyist to professional, only to find that making the financial decisions of a stereotypical 1980’s rockstar was probably a bad move. Numerous repetitions and variations upon, “why didn’t someone tell me?!” ensue. I have a couple thoughts on this.

  • If you have the discipline to read books in order to research your own, you can take an afternoon to read Dave Ramsey.
  • Anyone who could go through the current smarmy hazing ritual of seeking a literary agent, only to then expect that they are going to offer you sage advice at the pyramid’s peak, probably needs to live a little bit longer before they try to impart information to others in book-form.

To summarize: Bukowski was right, and now we know how painters feel.