The precipitous slide of authors income

And the promise of new things When I was starting out, I wrote poetry and short stories. I never expected to earn money from writing—I bought the myth of the starving artist, empty hook, line, and sinker. I developed a sideline as a teacher, married a contractor so that I could have a house (even if it was a ruin in the ghetto), and settled in for the long haul. But as I gradually shifted to journalism—and got to know many professional writers in all genres—my expectations changed. I thought of writing not just as my calling, but as my career. I even got a masters in journalism and started climbing the ladder by taking a job at a tiny California newspaper, then a bigger newspaper, then a tiny magazine that grew into a big one (Wired). I weathered two recessions, wrote two books, and believed that my writing could not just sustain me, but support me. Then the Great Recession hit, the publishing world imploded, and the rungs of the ladder seemed to sheer off, leaving me dangling. The “ladder” has become more of a “treadmill.” And it feels as though either it is moving faster and faster, or I am running slower and slower. When it comes to income, I am seriously falling behind. I’m not alone. The Authors Guild recently revealed alarming results from a 2015 survey on author income. Compared to the group’s last survey on author income (in 2009), Authors Guild members experienced a sharp decline in income from writing. Of the nearly 1,400 writers surveyed, full-time authors have seen a 30 percent decline, while part-time authors have seen a 38 percent drop from six years ago. More than half of the respondents reported earnings below the 2014 federal poverty line. I’m not alone in sensing the cataclysm. In an interview with NPR, Roxana Robinson, the president of the Authors Guild, remembered a time when “You wrote essays and you published them in journals. You wrote magazine pieces and you got paid very well for those. And you wrote books and you got good advances.” Robinson and the Authors Guild cite a number of factors in this change: plummeting profitability with rise of Amazon and decline of traditional bookstores, the popularity of e-books and the accompanying threat of online piracy, as well as consolidation within the publishing industry. Publishers’ marketing budgets have also dissolved, requiring authors to devote more time to promotion—time which could otherwise be spent writing. Then there is the picture for magazine and newspaper writers. Freelance budgets have been cut, and many publications have died altogether. Upstarts work on an entirely new model, paying little or nothing for word work. Despite this bleak news, an emerging brand of authorship could offer a way for writers to survive in this shifting landscape. As novelist Barry Eisler pointed out on NPR, Authors Guild membership “skews older and it is mostly interested in maintaining the status quo of traditional publishing.” Eisler has become an evangelist for self-publishing, which has worked for him, but is a mixed bag for many aspiring authors. Others of us see the future not so much in an identity as a “self-published author” as a the term “hybrid author.” A hybrid approach encourages us to look beyond traditional publishing, to new publishing avenues, whether e-books, e-singles, or ventures in which the author shares financial risks with the publisher. Studies show that hybrid authors actually make more income than those who are just self-published or just traditionally published. One thing is for sure: such ventures provide new levels of freedom and control and give writers a role in redefining publishing. My own “hybrid venture” is a very poetic children’s book that wasn’t quite right for traditional publishers. It is set in Hawaii, and benefits from an editor with an eye for that very particular landscape and sense of a different way of living with nature. So I’m publishing it as a regional book, taking responsibility for national sales, and working closely with the publisher in choosing the illustrator and actually designing the book. Will it make money? Not a lot. Will it make me happy to see it in print? Many times over. Interestingly, the theme of the story is the way that nature is both ferocious and generous, taking beloved things from us, and giving us new things we never imagined could be. {Iwalani’s Tree will be published in 2016 by BeachHouse Publishing.}

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3 Responses to The precipitous slide of authors income

  1. Guilie Castillo October 19, 2015 at 6:44 pm #

    Timely post, Constance, and very, very true. More and more, the successful authors I meet fall within that “hybrid” category; non-traditionally published in one way or another. Self-publishing is perhaps too big an enterprise to take on, at least for us novices, but indie presses seem to provide the best of both worlds: as you mentioned, we get to work much closer with the publisher/editor, and not just in editing the actual manuscript, but—as in your case—for illustrations, layout, marketing plans, marketing aids, networking… You name it, really. And it’s a wonderful thing.

    You’re right; nature taketh, but nature also giveth in plentiful ways. (And congratulations on Iwalani’s Tale! Much, much success with it.)

  2. Connie Hale October 19, 2015 at 8:25 pm #

    Thank you, Giulie!

  3. John Miller May 28, 2016 at 1:07 pm #

    I couldn’t find a “contact” link, so leaving a comment is better than nothing. I’m an aspiring writer who just (finally) got his hands on a copy of Sin and Syntax. I’ve never been so enthralled with reading a book on grammar. Thanks for making the craft come alive again!

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