How Much Do Authors Make? On the Authors Guild Survey and the Complex Topic of Income

The Authors Guild logo.
Photo Credit: The Authors Guild.

The Authors Guild released a survey a few weeks ago about how much the average author makes, and hooooooooo boy, it’s not good. According to the survey, the median income for all writers is about $6,000, while the median for full-time authors is around $20,000.

On top of that, roughly 25% of all authors surveyed earned $0 in book-related income in 2017, and 18% of the full-time authors earned $0 in book-related income in the same period.

There’s a lot of really good data in the survey, and it’s worth checking out the Authors Guild takeaways and the survey itself.

And now that you’ve read the survey, it’s time to read the critiques!

Unsurprisingly, there has been a ton of talk about this survey. Here are a few fun ones:

  • Fantasy Author Michael J. Sullivan has an in-depth Reddit post on the matter, and explains that it’s much more complicated than that–that income from the sales of books does seem to be going down, although there are many other opportunities for forward-thinking authors to make money
  • Jane Friedman, author of the excellent The Business of Being a Writer, explains why the data might not mean what the Authors Guild says they mean, and the challenges of getting authentic data on income. (But still emphasizes that it’s rare for authors to make a living on only their writing–and that that has always been the case.)
  • …Which links to John Scalzi’s take on the matter, the very clearly named: Author Incomes: Not Great, Now or Then.

All this points to a very complex picture: it’s really hard to measure the average full-time author’s salary. The way authors are being paid and where that money is coming from is rapidly evolving, and self-publishing and the Internet have drastically changed the playing field.

And then there’s the sobering fact that full-time novel writing has always been a low-income endeavor, and it’s not clear that the average writer in any era was ever supporting themselves on book sales and nothing else–writing has always been a field where only a small percentage of people make a lot of money.

So it’s complicated. And fascinating.

The topic of writing and income is fascinating. Everyone outside the writing world imagines that writers make BIG BUCKS. (I wish I could find a Twitter post I read a few weeks ago where an author said something like, “I just published my first novel with a big 5 publisher and was shocked when my friends assumed I was wealthy now.”) Countless people decide that they want to write novels for a living, and think the path goes something like “Write a single book –> Publish it –> Make as much income as your probably-more-than-minimum-wage job.” The idea that anyone who has a hardcover version of their book available at Barnes & Noble is wealthy is strangely embedded in society.

Of course, once you actually start writing, the advice you get from writers is bleak: you can be a New York Times bestseller and still need a day job or a family or life situation that means you can live without an income. Many authors had to publish dozens of books (here’s an example! Or this old post I wrote, which has a few examples from authors!) before they could support themselves on their writing.

I won’t pretend to have my own take on the Authors Guild results, because the folks I linked above are all far more experienced on the topic. But all in all, the topic of money in writing is complex and often sobering. For most of us, the best advice remains the one you hear the most often: don’t quit your day job. Write because you’re passionate about it. And, no matter what else you do, keep writing.

4 thoughts on “How Much Do Authors Make? On the Authors Guild Survey and the Complex Topic of Income

    1. Thank you! And yes. It’s surprising how often I come back around to “If you write, it should really be because you love it deeply and would do it whether or not you make money off it.” :)

    1. Thank you for reading it! :) And absolutely! I think this stuff is great–there are so many misconceptions about income out there. Even if you don’t totally agree with the Authors Guild survey and its conclusions, it’s great to hear so many authors out there sharing actual information about the realities of writing.

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