The Yin and Yang of Freelancing (Part 1)

Surveys and polls are sometimes useful and often suspect: useful because they can show how a designated segment of society feels about a topic or can provide information about those individuals’ lives; suspect because there is no guarantee that the individuals responding to the questions are truly representative of the target group. With that caveat, two recent surveys are worth reading.

“Freelancing in America: 2019” is the sixth annual survey of the nation’s freelance community conducted by Upwork and the Freelancers Union. The survey results were released in October 2019 and show an independent workforce that is strong and growing stronger, with freelancing income approaching $1 trillion a year. Freelance journalists, content writers, and book authors are a small segment of the 6,000 US workers surveyed, however, and trying to find ASJA members’ place in the numbers is difficult. Nevertheless, “Freelancing in America: 2019” is a generally optimistic look at the gig economy—good news!

More specific to a particular segment of ASJA’s membership, the book authors among us, is the “2018 Authors’ Income Survey” conducted by the Authors Guild. Billed as the “largest survey of U.S. professional writers ever conducted,” the Authors Guild survey generated responses from 5,067 published book authors. ASJA was one of 14 writers’ organizations, plus several independent publishing platforms, that participated in the survey. Preliminary results were released early in 2019; a complete breakdown of the numbers, including comparisons between ASJA respondents and all respondents, came later. Overall participation in the Authors Guild survey was almost on a par with “Freelancing in America: 2019,” but the results painted a picture that was far less rosy.

First the good news from Upwork and the Freelancers Union survey:

  • Freelancing income (nearly $1 trillion) contributes more to the US economy than some major industries such as construction, transportation, and the information sector and accounts for nearly five percent of the country’s gross domestic product;
  • Freelancing is becoming a long-term career choice rather than stop-gap work between “real” jobs;
  • Freelancers are most likely to be skilled professionals;
  • Freelancing is becoming a viable employment option for individuals whose personal circumstances preclude working for traditional employers;
  • Freelancing is age-related: 29 percent of Baby Boomers (age 55 and up), 31 percent of Gen X workers (ages 39-54), 40 percent of Millennial workers (ages 23-38), and 53 percent of Gen Z workers (ages 18-22) freelanced during the past year.

Among the most interesting facts to come out of the survey was the growing appeal of freelancing as a long-term career choice for about half of the respondents, a significant increase from the 2014 survey when twice as many individuals considered freelancing only a temporary option. Conventional wisdom has been that a strong economy should reduce the number of people freelancing because of the greater availability of traditional full-time work, but the survey results suggest otherwise. With the US economy at its strongest in several years, the number of freelancers is growing.

External factors like the demise of print newspapers and magazines (down 60 percent since 1990, according to federal Bureau of Labor Statistics) make extrapolation to ASJA’s membership of nonfiction freelancers difficult. If the overall trend continues and includes our members, ASJA’s opportunities to educate new generations of freelancers should increase.

There are common stumbling blocks that affect both our members and freelancers across the board, however, and they should sound familiar to everyone.

“More than one in three Americans are freelancing,” Freelancers Union Executive Director said. “But the workforce continues to face significant challenges in being able to access affordable health care and fundamental protections so they can get paid fairly and on time for the work they do.” ASJA remains active on both fronts. We continue the difficult search for a decent health care option for our members and to educate lawmakers about the harmful unintended effects of legislation that limits the ability of freelancers to work.

The Authors Guild survey hits closer to home for some of ASJA’s members. The numbers are a mixed bag:

  • Median income representing all writing-related activities for responding book authors (including part-time, full-time, traditionally published, self-published, and hybrid published authors), was $6,080, down from $10,500 reported in the Authors Guild survey in 2009;
  • Median income representing only book-related activities for all published authors was $3,100, down from $3,900;
  • Full-time authors fared better compared to the overall average, but worse from a historical perspective. They earned $20,300 from all writing-related activities, up three percent from 2013, but still lower than the median income of $25,000 reported on the 2009 survey;
  • Approximately one-quarter of all authors surveyed, and 18 percent of full-time authors, reported no book-related income;
  • Self-published authors earned significantly more than in the past, up 95 percent from 2013, but earned about half as much as traditionally published authors earned during the survey period.
  • Most troublesome are indicators that full-time authors are finding it more difficult to earn an adequate living with their writing.

According to an in-house survey ASJA conducted after the 2019 New York conference, 11.49 percent of responders listed “books” as the way they earned most of their income, 8.11 percent listed books and journalism, and another 8.11 percent listed a mix of books, journalism, and content marketing. More details about how ASJA members who responded to the Authors Guild survey compare to the “average” published book author—favorably in most areas, thankfully!—will be the subject of my December contribution to ASJA Confidential.

More information about the “Freelancing in America: 2019” survey is available here:

More information about the Authors Guild survey is available here: