Economics of Authorship

Are authors losing economic ground? We hear a lot about the blockbuster earnings of self-published stars like EL James and the success of breakout books like Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. It also stands to reason that James Patterson, Nora Roberts, and other long time best selling authors are not hurting for income. But what about the average mid-list or  first-time author?

A recent NPR story highlighted the Authors Guild’s open letter to publishers regarding the need for changes to the standard contracts for authors. The Authors Guild has stated that publishers need to pay higher royalties to authors for digital books and that authors need to be allowed to retain more rights to their work – a sharp contrast to the current and historical contracts offered by publishers to new and mid-list authors.

This comes as the ability to make a living off of writing has declined fairly significantly, even as more and more authors have self-published books. The Guild has stated that survey results in 2015 show a 30% drop in income for full time writers between 2009 and 2015 and a 38% drop for part-time writers. This backs up a December Guardian article which says that publishers are spending less and less money on new, or even mid-list, authors and more and more on the best selling “brand” authors.

In fact, the Guardian article cites the UK’s Society of Authors as stating that 2015 had a record number of authors requesting emergency financial assistance and that “half of professional writers make less than £11,000” each year, so this is not just a US economic issue.

Lindsay McKenna, a bestselling romance author for decades, recently left her traditional publisher over the issue of higher royalties for digital books. She stated in an interview that, “I’m tired of not getting paid fairly for what I bring to the table. There has to be more gratitude, respect, and financial fairness from publishers towards their authors.”

I don’t think most authors write with the assumption that they will get super rich – although I’m sure most of them dream of that kind of breakout success – but historically a mid-list author could make a decent living off their work and that appears to be more difficult now than in the past.

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