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The Authors Guild’s 2020 Report

Image – iStockphoto: Gulcin Ragiboglu

‘The Changing Economy of Publishing Today’

On Wednesday (February 19), the Authors Guild released news of a new report it commissioned from the University of Colorado’s Christine Larson.  Called “The Profession of Author in the 21st Century,” the report is important reading for anyone who is working in the trade as an author or would like to.

As you may recall from our earlier mentions of the Authors Guild, it’s the oldest and largest author-advocacy organization in the United States. At more than 10,000 members, it may eventually evolve into a labor union, leveraging collective bargaining on behalf of book writers and others in its membership.

Building on the Guild’s 2018 survey of author incomes, the new study is an effort to understand what’s pressuring the moneymaking potential and realities of authors. The top-line quote from Larson’s report: “The days of authors supporting themselves from writing may be coming to an end. The changing economy of publishing today means that reliable income and time—the metaphorical room for writing—are increasingly out of reach for many authors.”

You can certainly take comfort in this report’s evidence that you’re hardly alone in your own fiscal challenges as a writer. And nobody who values storytelling, let alone writing, can take any pleasure in the fact that authors are in such a disadvantageous position. But like the Society of Authors in the UK, the Guild’s news here is something every author needs to know, needs to consider, and needs to contemplate–as the Guild’s leadership is doing–in terms of what can be done.

Author Douglas Preston, who serves as the Guild’s current president, is quoted in this week’s roll-out of the study, saying, “Anger, frustration and sorrow are three of the most common emotions expressed by authors cited in the report.” He goes on to clarify that the Guild’s purpose is “helping to prevent the total sidelining of professional writers in the new literary and information landscape and protecting their ability to earn a living in this brave new world.”

You can read the full report here [1].

And I’ll give you the top-line points the Guild is highlighting, pulled from their media messaging, which got to our offices on Wednesday. Bolds and italic emphases are theirs. In any points I’ve clarified something, that clarification is in brackets like these: [  ].

Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh

Looking for Responses

My provocation for you today has to do with what economists and others sometimes call a “structural” point about a change in the context in which authors exist and work. This is my quick explication of what the Guild is describing in deep detail in order to help the writing world understand what’s happening:

The advent of the Internet–and the multiple media channels that are driven by it–has inspired vast new numbers of people to think of themselves as authors. Writing itself is more accessible to more people. So far so good. But the arrival of the Internet and those media has also caused much of the audience to turn away from reading, something reflected in the Authors Guild report. More writers, fewer readers.

On its face, this is an amazing Catch-22. The very thing that floats so many people’s writerly boats is the same thing that has sent their potential readers to film, television, gaming, video, music, and more, all on the devices in their pockets.

When I was speaking earlier this month in Dubai, a fellow speaker kept saying that people today are so starved for “story.” No they’re not. They’re inundated with story. Every television commercial, every tweet, and every football game is a story. We’re drowning in stories. And this makes authors’ jobs infinitely harder because authors no longer are the prime bringers of story: the village griot may not be needed, in the opinions of many.

The Authors Guild’s news is important because a clear-eyed assessment based on actual market forces has a lot better chance of producing a successful response than turning a blind eye to the iceberg off the starboard bow.

So today, I ask you: What’s the response?

When we spoke with author Andrew Keen [2] recently, he told us that he’s convinced today that he must be on many platforms–”If you just sit in a room and write a book, it’s not enough,” he told us. Is that it? Do authors need to become masters of the many channels, as Keen has done? Or is there another way forward? 

About Porter Anderson [3]

@Porter_Anderson [4] is a recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [5], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Priors: The Bookseller's The FutureBook [6] in London, CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, and the United Nations' WFP in Rome. PorterAndersonMedia.com [7]