Race to the Bottom

Before launching this website I wrote five “Postcapitalist Fiction” pamphlets, establishing a framing context for what I’d hoped would become a writers’ collaborative experiment in anarcho-collectivist publishing. In November 2017, as part of this website’s second-ever post, I quoted from the first pamphlet, called “Writing Precariously”:

I read somewhere that, on average, a published novelist earns about $11 thousand per book: not enough to make a living, as everyone agrees. Again, the average is skewed sharply toward the right end of the distribution by the one percent, the heavyweight celebrity authors who bring in six or seven figures for each new release. [The median is around $6K: half the writers make less than that per published novel, half make more.]

Those findings came from a survey of writers conducted in 2009 by The Authors Guild. A new survey just came out, updating the numbers. Over that ten-year span, authors’ annual median income from book revenues has dropped from $6K to $3K. The decline is especially steep for literary fiction. Self-published revenues have doubled over the past ten years; still, the median is under $2K per year. What about other writing-related sources of revenue — teaching, editing, speaking engagements, book reviews? That revenue stream too generates around $3K per year median income — also a decline from ten years ago

“Among the factors contributing to the pressure on authorship, the Guild cited the growing dominance of Amazon over the marketplace, lower royalties and advances for mid-list books (which publishers report comes from losses they are forced to pass on), including the extremely low royalties paid on the increasing number of deeply discounted sales and the 25 percent of net ebook royalty. The blockbuster mentality of publishers who grant celebrity writers massive advances and markets them wildly at the expense of the working writers is also certainly a factor.”

The Guild’s report notes dire consequences not just for writers but for society at large. Some specific proposals for turning things around are offered, though no doubt the Guild made recommendations ten years ago when the situation, already desperate, was twice as good as it is today.

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