The following article appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Suspense Magazine. Posted here with permission.
The findings have been tabulated and the data parsed. The results of the Authors Guild landmark years-long study on author income trends are surprising. And yet they are not. The hundreds of thousands of authors who cash a royalty check—other than the few hundred making a disproportionate percentage of the income, sales, and advances—have long known that the income trend has been downward: fewer sales, lower payouts, lower per-unit retail selling prices.
The Guild study, the largest survey ever conducted of US-based published professional authors, spanned eighteen participating organizations and five thousand authors. Mary Rasenberger, executive director of the Authors Guild, said that the goal was “to gain a comprehensive picture of what it is like to be an author today—how authors in general are doing economically and how different types of authors and sources of income have been affected by the tectonic shifts in the industry.”
Moreover, Rasenberger said that the study provided authors with key data they need to navigate today’s publishing industry. “The skill set that it takes to be a successful author, the financial incentives (or disincentives)—as well as the opportunities—are all changing, and authors need to be armed with that information.”
Of the survey’s respondents, 74 percent wrote fiction and 56 percent wrote trade (commercial) fiction. The results are therefore extremely meaningful to novelists who write, or aspire to write, thriller, suspense, and mystery works.
Consider this one figure: the federal income poverty line for a family of three is $2,252 per month, or about $27,000 per year. A little later, this figure will be compared to what the Authors Guild study found to be the median income for authors. Is it more—or less? (I write suspense for a living…do you think I’m going to give you the answer up front?)
For now, let’s drill down a bit fartherto better understand who the responding authors were. Of those surveyed, 46 percent were traditionally published, while 27 percent were self-published and 26 percent were hybrids (traditionally published authors who also self-publish).
And the envelope please…
The survey results, as noted earlier, were surprising both for the percentage drop since the previous studies and for the amount of money professional authors earn nowadays. “The median incomes for American authors are less than half of what they were just ten years ago,” Rasenberger said, when compared to the Authors Guild’s previous member income study results.
Peter Hildick-Smith, principal of the Codex Group and author of the Guild survey, put the results in perspective: “The number of published authors in the US has increased by at least a million in the last ten years as the low cost, digital self-publishing market has exploded, with virtually all barriers to book publication eliminated. At the same time, total US book sales have grown minimally. As a result, having a million more authors taking slices of that same size book sales pie means virtually every author’s slice will be much smaller. It’s basic math. Unfortunately, the industry’s great expectation for eBooks to dramatically increase the number of new book buyers and thus grow total market sales never materialized.”
The Authors Guild called the findings a “crisis of epic proportions for American authors.”
That said, the results were not all gloom and doom. According to the Guild’s survey summary, self-published authors were the only group to experience a significant increase in book-related income (including royalties, subscription income, subsidiary rights, etc.—but excluding other author-related sources like paid events, editing, coaching, translation, and “related”). This is a rise of 95 percent from 2013 to 2017. Rasenberger added that “self-publishing is very much on the rise and is increasingly a part of the overall author income landscape.”
However, that good news must be viewed in context: self-published authors still earned 58 percent less than traditionally published authors in total 2017 author-related income. Moreover, among all authors surveyed who ranked in the top decile for author-related earnings, self-published authors earned 50 percent less than traditionally published authors in the same uppermost group (a median of $154,000 versus a median of $305,000).
The realities of authoring in 2019
The publishing industry has been undergoing substantial change for the past twenty years: from the ways in which people spend their recreational time to the collapse of bookstores large and small, including the loss of over two thousand mall bookstores, to the point where physical bookstores now account for less than one-third of all book units sold.
Simply stated, online sales now account for two-thirds of book purchases. In addition, commodity pricing pressures (paper, ink, real estate/warehousing, fuel, and other trucking/shipping costs) have necessitated restructuring, economies of scale, and megamergers of the major houses. On top of this—or because of it—eBooks saw a reboot in 2007 under the seasoned hand of Amazon and became a massive hit, transforming book retailing (and author incomes) in unforeseen ways. It’s been the most significant upheaval of publishing since the printing press.
Consider some of the challenges authors have navigated: evaporation of newspaper book review sections; reduction in recreational reading time as people ramp up “screen time”; to wit, they stream movies, take, edit, and share photos and videos with their phones, play videogames, watch YouTube videos, post and communicate on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram…as well as the old standards: they go to bars, movie houses, comedy clubs, theater, etc. The competition for eyeballs is fiercer than ever.
While the demands on people’s time have exploded, many authors feel that the populace has experienced a societal reduction in their attention spans. But world-renowned child psychiatrist Bennett Leventhal, MD, feels that there is another explanation: “There isn’t a lot of evidence of an increase or decrease in attention span in larger society. Rather, there has been a change in what captures the attention of people. To the detriment of authors, this has proven to be a challenge as they have not figured out ways to be more attention grabbing than videogames, internet videos, social media, and even film/television.”
Leventhal, an avid reader of thriller and suspense novels, has also worked as a consultant in Hollywood (including the Bruce Willis hit film, Mercury Rising). As to what this means going forward for authors, “I suspect we’ve moved to an era in which a well-turned phrase, the careful introduction of a character, or the detailed and twisting plot is no longer sufficient to capture and sustain attention.”
That is certainly a sobering assessment. And the data show that Leventhal is correct. While the National Endowment for the Arts’ most recent (2017) national survey of US adult book reading does not show a statistically significant decline in the percentage of Americans reading books (52.7 percent) versus 2012, it does show a significant 8 percent decline in the percentage reading fiction: only 41.8 percent, down from 45.2 percent.
After some additional thought, Leventhal posited that “perhaps the novel [in its current form] lived longer than one might have ever expected. The question before you and your fellow storytellers is how the art form will evolve or be reborn in its next iteration. For as long as humans have existed, they’ve loved a good story. The demand (and, hence the market) will always be there. You folks just need to figure out how to fill the need.”
The industry did make one such attempt, while trying to navigate the depths of the Great Recession: eBooks 2.0 reshaped the landscape and gave birth to a previously inconsequential industry—self-publishing—while also giving legacy publishers the ability to adjust pricing on the fly, with a few clicks of a mouse. It also had the potential to breathe new life into previously out-of-print books—and provide a newfound source of income for seasoned authors or their estates.
But as is the case in any business in a capitalist society, there were unforeseen consequences. Amazon effectively set the list price for a new release at $9.99. The result was that readers felt they were being overcharged if a publisher released a front list title at $14.99 or even $12.99. (I recall getting one-star reviews on Amazon because “I” was gouging the reader—but my publisher set the price; as the author, I had zero control over pricing.)
The reduction in book prices did not stop at $9.99, however, as it quickly trended steeply downward. Self-published novels hit $1.99 before settling at $0.99…and even free, or virtually “free” through fast growing book subscription programs like Kindle Unlimited and Prime Reading. As my dermatologist—an avid reader of my novels—joked, “All due respect, but a roll of toilet paper costs more than that.” (For a more comprehensive discussion on current trends in publishing, see the article I co-authored with Peter Hildick-Smith in the December 2018 issue of Suspense Magazine.)
Books have thus been commoditized, whereby a majority of readers shop—or choose their books—according to cost rather than content and quality of writing. Book services, like Kindle Unlimited—have done to books what streaming did to music—reduced the content creator’s reimbursement for each time someone listened to a song or read a book.
However, the similarity between music and book publishing ends there: while some musicians can make up this drop in revenue—and rely less on income from sales of their songs—by selling concert tickets (and attendant merchandise), authors have no equivalent source of income. With the exception of Michelle Obama, we can’t hold readings in arenas where thousands of people will pay to hear us speak. Moreover, our products are usually one-and-done. Unlike a songwriter who receives royalties every time a song is played on the radio or streamed, when someone reads a book, the author gets paid once. If she reads it again, the author doesn’t get paid again. And if—gasp—that book is sold to a used bookstore—which resells it to another reader—the author, publisher, and agent get paid…nothing. This is not a rare occurrence: according to Peter Hildick-Smith, used books now account for nearly one-quarter of all books bought online and in stores. In fact, the used book market is now a multibillion-dollar industry, and unfortunately not one cent makes it back to the individuals who created those works in the first place, the authors.
I once had a bookseller boast that he had resold my debut novel, False Accusations, twenty-five times to different customers. He thought it was fantastic because he had made a fair amount of money off the same product. I thought it was not so fantastic, as I had earned only $2 for that copy, even though at least twenty-five people had bought it.
The economics are thus stacked against authors. For readers, however, the cost to buy and read books has plummeted. And that would lead one to believe that readership and literacy have soared in response. But it hasn’t.
The numbers tell the story
What is, and has been, the result of this precipitous drop in pricing—and author income? First, for perspective, let’s revisit the number I mentioned earlier regarding the federal poverty line for a family of three: $27,000 in annual income. The latest data shows that full-time traditionally published authors earned median book-related income of $12,400. Yes, that’s less than half the poverty level. For full-time authors who engage in supplemental writing-related activities—teaching, editing, translating foreign works, ghostwriting—their median total author related earnings were $20,300, still 25 percent below the poverty line.
As if $12,400 wasn’t bad enough, approximately 25 percent of all participating authors surveyed earned $0 in book-related income in 2017. That’s not a typo. Zero. Of those who are full-time authors, 18 percent earned $0 in book-related income during the same period.
Beyond the numbers
But, one might say, authors are content creators and artists, not merely a data set. And that means their anemic income has an impact on them as people, heads of families, providers, and contributing members of society.
As a result, full-time writers must work multiple jobs to earn enough money to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. Authors who have written books for decades and have made a living writing have now been handed the reality that it’s no longer a sustainable career.
“What’s happening now is something I call the ‘censorship of the marketplace,’” said bestselling author Douglas Preston, president of the Authors Guild. “These are the books that are not even written, because a talented author couldn’t make a living and was forced to take another job. This censorship is pernicious, because it suppresses diversity, it stifles unusual or unpopular ideas, and it silences the voices of marginalized communities.”
According to the Authors Guild, the precipitous drop in earnings “raises serious concerns about the future of American literature—books that not only teach, inspire and elicit empathy in readers, but help define who Americans are and how the U.S. is perceived by the world.”
That’s not hyperbole.
In addition, if an author is working full-time, and perhaps participating in family activities, there is not much left over to write a novel, let alone finish it within a year’s time (if you go longer between books, you risk having your audience forget about you). This means there’s less time to do research, plot, and create. The result risks further degradation of the novel as an art form: shorter, simpler stories, less accurate and less complex characters. None of this is a positive for anyone who cares about diving into a well-written story.
Against this reduction in the amount of time authors have available to create and hone their craft, they now spend an average of 7.5 hours every week on marketing and promotion. The role of marketer is now a core element of the writer’s discipline in this century, in both time and financial investment. It is no longer a task the publisher assumes beyond an initial push at launch. Authors have had to commit to a 14 percent increase in time commitment over the past five years—a 39 percent increase for genre writers.
Unfortunately, even though this is now a basic fundamental requirement to be an author, this time- and resource-intensive effort to get noticed literally does not pay off: only 8 percent of all published authors, across all genres, realized a significant increase in book-related income, while “literary authors” who have not adapted sufficiently to this new reality made among the least of all—their book related income is down 43 percent.
The last word(s)
What does all this mean? Now more than ever, building a writing career likely means you will need a primary occupation that pays the bills and helps you sock away as much money as possible into savings and investments while you write, release and market your books, and establish yourself. Once an earnings pattern is established and you are confident that you have a readership that will (1) be aware when you release a book and (2) purchase it, you can consider cutting back on your primary employment—or keeping it as a safety net in case the writing career derails.
If you intend to provide for your family, the whims of publishing and the uncertainty of readership going forward is enough to suck years off your life in the form of unrelenting pressure. It’s also difficult to be creative when you’re a stressed-out wreck.
But like the far reaches of space, there are pinpricks of lights visible amongst the blackness. Anyone can now publish a book digitally with zero barrier to entry. When I started my writing career in 1994, the only viable ticket was getting signed by an agent—which could take years, if at all—and then securing a contract from a publisher. The odds were almost akin to winning the lottery.
The definition of “author” in the twenty-first century has significantly morphed from the twentieth-century definition we’ve all held dear. While expectations need to be reset, millions more can now experience the joy of publishing their work. However—and this is a key point—making a livelihood out of it, much as millions of YouTube creators aspire, requires a far more cautious approach.
“I don’t believe being a published author was ever a guaranteed ticket to fame and fortune,” Hildick-Smith said. “Expectations have always been hugely inflated. They’re just a lot more deflated now with the million-plus new authors overwhelming an already crowded market.”
Authors, particularly those who actively engage in marketing their work and their brand, have become entrepreneurs. “Everyone wants to do a start up these days and be on Shark Tank,” Hildick-Smith said. “A former client and senior marketing executive from Wiley, who then moved to Microsoft, was planning on leaving and asked for my advice, having founded the Codex Group. She said she was ‘passionate’ about a particular business idea. I told she has to be a great deal more than passionate to make it work: more like insanely obsessed. Nothing less will come close, and even that’s usually no guarantee.”
To this point, I was recently asked to participate in a professional career day at my fraternity. I would be interviewed in front of undergraduate students and would field questions about the writing profession and publishing industry.
Ironically, the invitation arose a couple of weeks after the Authors Guild study was released. I was happy to give back, but I was conflicted over the message I wanted to convey. The trends of the past twenty-five years have not been kind to authors. Did I want to encourage young people to pursue a career where the rewards are intangible and the ability to support a family unlikely?
But without art, without the literary art form, our society will feel its absence. Literacy has been in decline and without quality writing to read, engage, and move the consumer of that story, this decline will only accelerate.
I decided to tell it like it is, provide the students with the facts, and let them go in with their eyes open. As we authors know, writing is often not a chosen profession, but a calling. We write because we must. But that does not mean we have to be blind to the realities of the marketplace.
Thanks to the Authors Guild, we have data by which to make such career choices. The full study can be found here.
Alan Jacobson is the award-winning USA Today bestselling author of more than a dozen suspense novels in the FBI profiler Karen Vail and OPSIG Team Black series. His books have been published internationally and several have been optioned by Hollywood. His debut novel, False Accusations, was adapted to film in the Czech Republic. Jacobson is active on Facebook (fansofalanjacobson), Instagram (alan.jacobson), Twitter (@JacobsonAlan), and his website, www.alanjacobson.com.
Author’s note: Special thanks to Peter Hildick-Smith, owner/founder of the Codex Group and Mary Rasenberger, executive director of the Authors Guild, for ensuring the accuracy of this article. In addition, I’d like to acknowledge my longtime copyeditor, Chrisona Schmidt, for raking her fine-toothed comb through this text. Her grammatical and stylistic eye is unparalleled.