Making Money as a Writer

A few days ago the New York Times published a sobering article, “Does It Pay to Be a Writer“? (Writer here is defined more in the literary sense as author.) Answer: not unless you have another gig or happen to make bank on your book. According to a recent report from the Authors Guild, the median pay for full-time writers has fallen a whopping 42 percent since 2009.

Both the Author’s Guild and the New York Times cite the usual culprits for this downward trend: Amazon’s leeching of revenue from major publishers, the ease of self-publishing, the shuttering of traditional print magazines (and thus the increasing difficulty of getting high-paying freelance jobs), the complexities around royalties, the lack of funding for libraries.

A part me wants to argue that all writers struggling to make ends meet should consider a career in technical writing, which is quite lucrative. But, for one thing, technical writing is not for everyone (it’s hard to be a technical writer and a creative writer at the same time). For another, this suggestion doesn’t really address the root issue, which is that literary writers would still have far less time and money to focus on, well, literary writing.

Another part of me is slightly skeptical. Are these trends really so dramatic? Will they have such far-reaching negative effects on our society, as the Author’s Guild states? What should we do about it? The Author’s Guild report seems to have some good recommendations, although I’m not sure they are holistic enough or aimed in all the right directions. For example, in addition to certain policy-level solutions, it seems to me that we need to think more deeply about how the surveys are run and how we consume books in the first place (and that includes where to buy them—I’m guessing most of us still use Amazon as our default book vendor rather than our local bookstore).

Update: Another excellent perspective to read here is Jane Friedman’s Author Surveys Are Misleading and Flawed. It was published in July of last year, but she raises some very good points about the reliability of author surveys, and offers useful tips for how to analyze reports that come out on the subject.

At any rate I resonated with the closing lines of the Times article, which offer a good reminder of why professional writers matter.

“Everyone thinks they can write, because everybody writes,” Ms. Rasenberger said, referring to the proliferation of casual texting, emailing and tweeting. But she distinguishes these from professional writers “who have been working on their craft and art of writing for years.”

“What a professional writer can convey in written word is far superior to what the rest of us can do,” Ms. Rasenberger said. “As a society we need that, because it’s a way to crystallize ideas, make us see things in a new way and create understanding of who we are as a people, where we are today and where we’re going.”


One thought on “Making Money as a Writer

  1. We write because we must. It’s a rare sort that can make a living at this. Even the greats had to have supplemental incomes to get by. Eliot worked in the Bank of England, and Wallace Stevens was a life insurance attorney. Pound and Hemingway married women with money.

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