February 24, 2014

Your mother was right: poll confirms most writers don’t make any money


Over 9,000 authors reported their writing income in the 2014 Digital Book World Author Survey, and—spoiler!—it wasn’t very much. Specifically, 54% of traditionally published authors (and 77% of self-published), made less than $1,000 last year.

For those who are less mathematically-minded, that means pushing a pencil for the equivalent of one medium McDonald’s milkshake a day (or a Starbucks tall chai tea latte if you need to refuel). For those who are thinking of becoming an author full time, that means possibly rethinking what you want to do with your life.


Like a friend who delivers bad news then tries to make you feel better, the study’s author, Dana Weinberg, took to the Guardian to console: “I would argue that for most writers publishing is not only about money; it’s about a lot of other things including touching readers and sharing stories.” She also motivates aspiring writers with the self-evident statistic that almost all of “aspiring” writers (90 percent, in fact, in this survey) make no money whatsoever. Meaning, you’d be even worse off if you wrote nothing at all. So get on it!

If you’re still set on making real dough, Weinberg’s coauthor Jeremy Greenfield helpfully reminds, “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.” That could very well be you, if you’re lucky (though you probably have an equally likely chance of overthrowing the whole publishing industry. Occupy Barnes & Noble, we are the 98%!).

Seriously, what is an aspiring author supposed to do when confronted with this data? He could finally listen to the advice of his mom, dad, friends, and fellow writers (“Don’t be a writer, it’s a terrible way to live your life,” says Paul Auster), and give up on the dream.

Or, alternatively, he could strike out on his own. This data seems to suggest that traditional publishing is more profitable than publishing on your own, but successful self-published author Hugh Howey disagrees:

This survey does not capture the fact that self-publishing is going through a renaissance. It expects a group of authors with two or three years of experience and market maturity to line up against the top 1% of authors who have had several generations’ head start…The simple fact is this: getting paid for your writing is not easy. But self-publishing is making it easier. How much easier? We don’t have sufficient data to know. But a conservative estimate would be that five to 10 times as many people are paying bills with their craft today as there was just a few years ago.

If Howey is right, self-publishing could someday be the answer to what seems to be an impossible situation for 98% of authors today. Or, at least half of the answer. Looking at the results of the survey, it’s not traditional publishing or self-publishing that predicts the greatest likelihood of success; it’s the hybrid of the two.