by Sara Wolf
It is a frequent occurrence in the news to hear about authors cutting multi-million (or even billion) dollar book or movie deals. Famous examples of ridiculously successful authors, such as J.K. Rowling, E. L. James, and Stephen King, often lead people to think that becoming an author will undoubtedly lead to an equally as lucrative outcome. However, it turns out that the average author makes much, much less.
The University of London released a report of almost 2,500 working writers which found that fifty-four percent of traditionally-published authors and almost eighty percent of self-published authors earn less than $1,000 a year. But even earning this small amount of money is an accomplishment; according to the same report, in 2013, seventeen percent of authors made no money from their writing. Long gone are the days where the only thing a writer needs is a room of her/his own to make it in the publishing world. Now, one needs dedication, luck, and probably a day job.
Of course, some people do make it big by writing books. According to the same survey, less than one percent of self-published writers, one point three percent of traditionally published writers, and over five percent of hybrid writers reported earning more than $100,000 a year from their writing. Jeremy Greenfield, co-author of the report and an editorial director for Digital Book World, explains that, “The top 2% or so of authors make a good living and the most successful authors—including self-published authors—make a tremendous amount of money.” A quote from the report echoes this statement by saying, “It appears that writing is a profession where only a handful of successful authors make a very good living while most do not.”
After the study was published, many people had commentaries to add about the nature of this business. Award-winning author Philip Pullman points out the divide between these statistics, and those of the publishers. He remarks, “In the past ten years, while publishers’ earnings have remained steady, the incomes of those on whom they entirely depend have diminished, on average, by 29%.” Nicola Soloman, the chief executive of Society of Authors, adds, “That confirms our observations that publishers are tending more and more to concentrate on safe choices and celebrity brands, sometimes at the expense of supporting backlist and midlist authors who sell steadily but more slowly.”
Others also point out the inequities between different authors or genres. Fiction authors are much more likely to make money from their writing compared to non-fiction or academic writers. Similarly, women make eighty percent of what their male counterparts earn. Clearly, a great deal of disparity exists between authors, with some (like celebrities) being potentially predisposed to success, and authors (like women or non-fiction writers) facing a much harder time making adequate money from their work.
While all of this may sound discouraging, Greenfield’s co-author Dana Weinberg helps put these numbers into a more realistic perspective. She notes that, “The question of money is a tricky one. Publishing a book for sale is a matter of both art and commerce. I would agree that for most writers publishing is not only about money; it’s about a lot of other things including touching readers and sharing stories….”
It is also important to recognize that no report can perfectly capture all nuances. Self-published author Hugh Howey says, “…a conservative estimate would be that five to ten times as many people are paying bills with their craft today as there was just a few years ago. And that should be celebrated.” Clearly, there is more to being a writer than just what the black and white numbers of reports can capture.
While becoming a wealthy author may take more than a room of one’s own in today’s market, it still remains possible for many writers to supplement their incomes, and also possible for others to rely entirely on their craft. While you probably won’t become filthy rich from being a full-time author, you can still enjoy the gratification from the difficult but rewarding act of publishing something you wrote yourself.
Guest post contributed by Sara Wolf at the Blooming Twig. The Blooming Twig is an independent, boutique publishing house that supports the adventurous tastes of its readership.
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