A friend once confided in me that he was nearly finished with his first novel, but that he was keeping it secret from his co-workers. He planned to quit when the novel sold and earn a living as an author.
He was young, optimistic and enthusiastic.
I didn’t want to crush his dreams, so I said nothing.
We all believe we will defy the odds, and maybe we will. Maybe my friend’s novel will earn a huge advance, the movie rights will sell immediately and the never-ending sales of licensed t-shirts, trinkets and video games will keep his coffers full. Then, maybe the second novel will take off, too.
But a new survey from the Authors Guild, the largest of its kind, suggests otherwise. The Authors Guild, in cooperation with 14 other author organizations, collected surveys from 5,067 published authors who are U.S. residents about their 2017 earnings, and the picture it paints is rather grim.
The median incomes of all published authors (This includes part-time, full-time, traditionally published, self-published, and hybrid-published authors) was $6,080, and that’s not just royalties. That figure includes money earned from freelance writing, speaking engagements, teaching — anything writing-related.
From books alone, authors earned a median income of $3,100.
But those figures include everyone.
Here is a more specific breakdown:
- Median income for full-time authors for all writing-related activities: $20,300.
- Median book-related income for self-published authors: $1,951. (That climbs to $10,050 for self-published romance and romantic suspense writers.)
- Median book-related income for traditional authors: $12,400.
These figures do not include the 25 percent of all published authors and 18 percent of full-time authors who earned no royalties on their books in 2017. Yes, that happens. Books often take a long time to write. In a year without new publication, it is possible to earn nothing at all.
It’s not all bad news though. The highest paid authors in 2017 still did well:
- Traditionally published: $305,000.
- Self-Published: $154,000
But that is for just one year. It is possible to get a large advance from a publisher for a book, and then never make anything more. A writer’s income is rarely consistent, which is another reason so many writers need day jobs.
Does that mean my friend should give up his dream? Absolutely not. Most of us write because we have a passion for writing. It’s in our blood. If we can make money doing what we love, even if we still need to hold onto our day jobs, why shouldn’t we?
We can also work together to improve the situation for each other. We can share ideas on marketing and promoting books. We can join organizations like the Authors Guild, which advocates for writers by keeping them informed and providing access to free and discounted services. We can promote the love of reading and writing in our communities.
Maybe I should have warned my friend about the financial status of the industry, awakened him to the reality, but I was selfish. I wanted him to enjoy the ignorance a little longer. I learned these things piecemeal, beginning in my college days, and each time a bit of industry news got me down, something else pulled me back up — a published short story, a friend’s success story, a contract offer from a publisher 17 years after starting my first book. (Yes!)
I want that for him.
A career as an author does not make financial sense, but a trip to a local book store is evidence that writing is about more than the money. All those authors. All those books. They happened anyway. He will find out soon enough, or maybe he already has, but I still expect to see his name on those shelves someday alongside my own.