‘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 .
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: [ ].
- It’s harder to make a living as an author now than in the past. Indeed, writing incomes have dropped by 24 percent since 2013. Three major factors account for this trend:
- Fewer Americans read books than ever before, as consumers increasingly turn to screens for news and entertainment—just 53 percent of Americans say they read books for pleasure down from 57 percent in 2002 according to the NEA.
- Amazon’s introduction of the Kindle, along with online physical book buying, precipitated a devaluing of books overall, while its current pricing practices eat into authors’ advances and royalties.
- The mass shuttering of more than 2,000 U.S. newspapers, as well as the loss of print and online magazines and news sites, has resulted in fewer opportunities for authors and journalists to supplement their book earnings with short stories, essays, book reviews and other literary or critical content.
- Half of full-time authors earn less [from their writings] than the federal poverty level of $12,488. Literary authors are the hardest hit, experiencing a 46-percent drop in their book-related income in just five years. Other relevant data:
- 80 percent of all authors earn less than what most people would consider a living wage. Authorhood is not a conventional, salary-paying career. Most authors patch together other forms of income, from teaching to full-time day jobs in a wide variety of fields. The profession of author signifies the broader challenges of the “gig economy,” where more and more people juggle multiple part-time jobs and contract work and receive no employee benefits.
- Authors of color earn half the median income of white authors (and the gap seems to have grown in the past five years). Taken together with the fact that 85 percent of editors are white, this finding has troubling implications for equality of voice in book publishing.
- Authors are expected to do what publishers once did—market their own books.Authors spend a full day per week promoting their books, which takes them away from writing and results in longer stretches between new books being published and lean years for many writers.
- Self-publishing income is growing rapidly, but still remains very small compared to traditional publishing. While the median income of self-published authors increased by 85 percent over the past four years, led largely by the success of e-romance novels, self-published authors still earn 80 percent less than traditionally published authors. Part of the problem is that supply far outstrips demand; Bowker reports more than 1.68 million self-published book titles in 2018, up 40 percent from the year before.
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  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?
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