The Yin and Yang of Writing (Part 2)

The gig economy is booming for millions of freelancers according to the Freelancers Union, while facing legislative threats in some states because of that success. Book authors, on the other hand, are not doing so well, based on a recent national survey conducted by the Authors Guild. (More information about the Freelancers Union and Authors Guild surveys can be found in last month’s Confidential.)

The American Society of Journalists and Authors, Inc., was formed to promote and protect the careers of freelancers through educational programs, networking opportunities, and advocacy, and we remain steadfast in those goals. While it might not be entirely fair to lump book authors, who often takes years on a project, with the usual one-and-done inhabitants of the gig economy, any decline in income for an important segment of ASJA’s membership is troubling.

So, what does the earnings landscape look like for the “typical” ASJA author?

First, some demographics comparing the responses of all published book authors who took part in the Authors Guild survey—more than 5,000 of them—with the survey responses of ASJA members who participated. It’s probable that the ASJA cohort is not a completely accurate representation of all book authors among our membership because only 107 ASJA members (about 10 per cent of our members) participated in the Authors Guild survey. The numbers are, nevertheless, a very good starting point. Based on an in-house survey ASJA conducted after the 2019 New York conference, about one-third of our members are book authors exclusively or write books while also working in journalism and/or content marketing.

  • A majority of the ASJA book authors who participated in the Authors Guild survey—76 per cent—identified themselves as female. Among all survey participants, 66 per cent identified as female. We don’t actively track members’ gender, but a quick look at the crowds attending any of our conferences suggests a ballpark female-to-male ratio in line with the Authors Guild survey.
  • The survey results also are skewed toward older book authors, with 45 per cent of the ASJA members who responded listing their ages at 65 years or more, compared with 37 per cent in the overall survey. Results for other age groups also show more ASJA members in the 55-64 group (32 per cent compared to 25 per cent). The numbers shift for younger age groups, though: 20 per cent of all survey respondents in the 45-54 group and 14 per cent in the 35-44 group, compared with 12 per cent and seven per cent, respectively, in those age groups for ASJA members. The youngest age group, those authors 25-34 years of age, accounted for four per cent of both groups.
  • Not surprisingly, book authors are well educated. Majorities of all survey respondents (54 per cent) and of the ASJA contingent (51 per cent) earned graduate degrees. Holders of undergraduate degrees accounted for an additional 27 per cent of ASJA respondents.
  • Most ASJA members in the survey (90 per cent) considered themselves “professional authors,” while only 36 per cent classified themselves as “fulltime” book authors. The wide gap between professional and fulltime authors also was reflected in responses from all published authors responding to the survey. This probably reflects the challenges of relying exclusively on book income.

And now, about the money.

The Authors Guild survey reported books authors’ median income for 2017 in two different areas: “Book-Related Income” (including advances, royalties, licensing of subsidiary rights, monetary awards, and contract author fees) and “Non-Book, Writing-Related Income” (including teaching, grants, coaching, editing for other authors, appearance fees, freelance and staff journalism, and ghostwriting).

  • The ASJA authors who responded to the survey reported median “Total Author Related Income” in 2017 of $19,750, including “Book-Related Income” of $4,000. The median “Total Author Related Income” for all published authors in 2017 was substantially lower, just $6,080, including “Book-Related Income” of $2,594.

If you don’t recall your last statistics class, the median for a distribution of numbers (reported income in the survey) is the number that divides the group into two equal parts, half higher than the median and the other half lower. The median may be more accurate than an average because the impact of outliers, those authors who earn a lot and those who earn very little, is reduced.

  • The good news in these numbers is that half of the responding ASJA authors reported earning more than about $20,000 in “Author Related Income” in 2017. The bad news is that half of the reporting authors earned less. And, just as troublesome, the median “Book-Related Income” is trending downward. Comparing information from published authors in both 2013 and 2017, and adjusting for inflation, the “Book-Related Income” for participating ASJA authors declined 12 per cent, from $5,207 to $4,600. For all published authors in 2013 and 2017, the decline was even worse, 24 percent.

This isn’t a new problem for authors. Maybe Norman Mailer (or was it playwright Robert Anderson?) got it right when he said that “a writer can make a killing, but not a living.”

More information about the Authors Guild survey is available here.