Authors making $8,000 per year? Why write free? A #FutureChat recap

Image - iStockphoto: Stacey Newman
Image – iStockphoto: Stacey Newman

‘Question is, are you making money for someone else?’

That’s the  historical fiction author Jane Steen, English, based in Chicago, during our live Twitter conversation at the end of last week.

But not for nothing do independent writers like to “celebrate their diversity,” as they tend to put it on a good day. Views of this thing of writing free posts and articles “for the exposure” in various media were widely varied in our chat.

Authors GuildYou get a sense for how challenging a post like president of theAuthors Guild is, in fact, during a #FutureChat like Friday’s (22 May). In our walkup to the discussion, we asked The FutureBook digital publishing community — which includes a great many authors — what they thought of Guild president Roxana Robinson’s call for authors to avoid writing articles and posts free of charge, especially for corporate-owned media.

During our conversation, Steen pointed out that no less august a publication than The New Yorker doesn’t pay for short stories, as is made clear in this piece at The Write Life from Kelly Gurnett. In Sarah Shaffi’s article for The Bookseller, Robinson, herself an author shortlisted (Sparta) for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, had certainly landed one rather sobering thought:

The idea that software writers be well compensated and that their work should be protected but book writers’ should not . . . that’s a real problem.

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And Robinson’s commentary doesn’t come out of nowhere. In April, the Authors Guild (which eschews apostrophes for plurality) ran what it describes as its first “major member survey” in five or six years. Peter Hildick-Smith of theCodex Group is in charge and expected to present final results — to be made public — this month. In a post at the Guild site, AG Panel Explores Drop in Authors’ Earnings, the staff writes:

Preliminary results, which suggested that 49% of U.S. authors assessed their writing income has decreased over the last five years. Respondents’ median writing-related income decreased 24% in that time frame, to $8,000, while they spent nearly 50% more time marketing themselves and their work. And, interestingly, 30% of those surveyed have self-published a book.

Remembering that the Guild is an organization the membership of which is primarily traditionally published authors (although at great pains to remind everyone that independents now can join), this kind of information is significant.

Authors facing $8,000 median writing-related incomes in the States

The UK writer’s 2013 median income was £11,000, according to the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS). That’s about $17,000 USD, which may not look quite as bad, although obviously nobody in his or her right mind is happy with either figure.

And how about that 30-percent figure on respondents self-publishing? It’s getting harder and harder to keep a good stigma going, isn’t it? Mind you, be careful with that number for now: the Guild survey, we understand, included 1,300 non-members in its sample, and it will be interesting to know whether the majority of self-publishing is being done by Guild members or others.

We look forward to learning more from Hildick-Smith’s analysis and the Guild’s response to the new survey. Because in a curious way, if traditional publishing money for authors is shown to be as skinny as all this, you could imagine a “” effort arriving to balance the job done by Hugh Howey and “Data Guy” in arguing that self-publishing can produce good money. Perhaps traditional publishing may be the next choir that needs to sing about its revenue potential to writers. (Antiphonal stuff, I can’t get enough of it.)

And so to selected comments from our #FutureChat about this idea that authors shouldn’t write articles, posts, stories, and whatnot free. Long a topic of contention among journalists around the Huffington Post, the extension of the issue to the author camp interesting. And kept us hopping.

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By Porter Ander­son

The FutureBook: Authors making $8,000 per year? Why write free? A #FutureChat recap

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