Writing has never been a lucrative career choice, but a recent study by the Authors Guild, a professional organization for book writers, shows that it may not even be a livable one anymore.
According to the survey results, the median pay for full-time writers was $20,300 in 2017, and that number decreased to $6,080 when part-time writers were considered. The latter figure reflects a 42 percent drop since 2009, when the median was $10,500. These findings are the result of an expansive 2018 study of more than 5,000 published book authors, across genres and including both traditional and self-published writers.
“In the 20th century, a good literary writer could earn a middle-class living just writing,” said Mary Rasenberger, executive director of the Authors Guild, citing William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and John Cheever. Now, most writers need to supplement their income with speaking engagements or teaching. Strictly book-related income — which is to say royalties and advances — are also down, almost 30 percent for full-time writers since 2009.
Writing for magazines and newspapers was once a solid source of additional income for professional writers, but the decline in freelance journalism and pay has meant less opportunity for authors to write for pay. Many print publications, which offered the highest rate, have been shuttered altogether.
The decline in earnings is also largely because of Amazon’s lion’s share of the self-publishing, e-book and resale market, Ms. Rasenberger said. The conglomerate charges commission and marketing fees to publishers that Ms. Rasenberger said essentially prevent their books from being buried on the site. Small and independent publishers, which have fewer resources and bargaining power, have been particularly hard hit. Book publishing companies are passing these losses along to writers in the form of lower royalties and advances, and authors also lose out on income from books resold on the platform.
In some ways, these changes are in line with a general shift toward a gig economy or “hustling,” in which people juggle an assortment of jobs to make up for the lack of a stable income. But the writing industry as a whole has always eluded standardization in pay. In a conversation with Manjula Martin in the book “Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living,” edited by Ms. Martin, Cheryl Strayed said, “There’s no other job in the world where you get your master’s degree in that field and you’re like, ‘Well, I might make zero or I might make $5 million!’”
In a recent call, Ms. Martin said that “the people who are able to practice the trade of authoring are people who have other sources of income,” adding that this creates barriers of entry and limits the types of stories that reach a wide audience. There is also, she added, a devaluation of writing in which it is often viewed as a hobby as opposed to a valuable vocation.
“Everyone thinks they can write, because everybody writes,” Ms. Rasenberger said, referring to the proliferation of casual texting, emailing and tweeting. But she distinguishes these from professional writers “who have been working on their craft and art of writing for years.”
“What a professional writer can convey in written word is far superior to what the rest of us can do,” Ms. Rasenberger said. “As a society we need that, because it’s a way to crystallize ideas, make us see things in a new way and create understanding of who we are as a people, where we are today and where we’re going.”
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