We, as authors, are lashed upon the whale we hope to tame; we are lashed by our publishers against the rail, who fail to tame us; we are lashed by our detractors upon the sun, and, they too, cannot tame our darkness — and yet! — we still try to thrive in the memorialization of what we hope to know, and what we know must be shared. In the light of that pitiful delight, the Authors Guild have released a new report concerning the overall mean income for authors, and the results are astounding, resounding, and, unfortunately for too many of us, sublimely familiar.

Here are the lowlights from the Authors Guild report:

  • Authors’ total writing-related incomes (from all sources related to being a writer, not just books) have fallen to new lows–a median of $6,080 in 2017, down 42% from 2009.
  • In only five years, authors’ incomes from just their books fell 21%, down from a median of $3,900 in 2013 to $3,100 in 2017.
  • At the same time, overall earnings have leveled off since 2013, suggesting that authors who are still in the business are getting better at finding supplemental income. For those authors who were published before 2014, median incomes from all writing-related sources are actually slightly up from $6,250 in 2013 to $8,170.
  • The low incomes suggest a growing crisis for American authors, particularly for literary writers, whose median incomes were down 27% since 2013.
  • Self-published writers have seen incomes rise the most, but they still earn somewhat less than traditionally published authors.

When I first started writing books for profit, and not just for my own ego, you could easily get a $40,000.00 advance for a computer book from a reasonable midline publisher. Back in the mid-90s, there were many excellent midpoint publishers, and they paid well, and they sold a lot of books. Even if you were just contributing a chapter to someone else’s book, you could still get a quick thousand dollars for a day’s worth of writing.

Then, everything began to compress, and the boutique publishers were eaten alive, and swallowed by, the megaton publishers, and all the Art, sophistication, and caring you came to expect from your publisher pretty much disappeared overnight. You were expected to sign boilerplate contracts with no negotiation, advances were cut, and standardized book templates took over across the board; and it didn’t matter if you wrote well, and hit your deadlines — the only thing that mattered to those few Megalon publishers was how cheap they could work you, and if they could get away with paying you nothing as an advance, and, if so, well then, that was even better, for them.

When a publisher decides not to pay you up front for the work you do, and tries to make you work-for-hire upon completion of the original work you produce, there is really little incentive to stay in the system. Sure, the big dawg publishers have distribution, but why sell out your soul for placement on a bookshelf in bookstore that is disappearing?

Many authors, myself included, decided the better path forward was through self publishing. I took the next next step and became a whole-service publisher, and we sell in electronic bookstores like Google and Amazon. Even that plan has dangers to the mind, and spirit, as your book quickly disappears into the bog of overwhelming consequences made of sunken treasure advertising schemes, and shootouts with adverse competition blanks.

However, we still persevere, because there is no other choice but to continue on, pressing forward. The boulder must continue up the hill — with or without you.

Then, we learn — again from the Authors Guild — that our hard-printed books are being stolen out from under us by the ill-mannered, bad intentions, of the “Controlled Digital Lending” Event Horizon:

  • Access to books should not come at the expense of those who create them.
  • “Controlled Digital Lending”or “CDL” is a recently invented legal theory that purports to justify libraries scanning (or obtaining scans) of print books and e-lending those digital copies to users without obtaining authorization from the copyright owners.
  • It takes money out of authors’ pockets and should be stopped.

Now our old paper books are being loaned out for free, and we still don’t get paid! Our digital books are getting lost in the free sales shuffle for attention — and nobody’s making money anywhere in the scheme, except those who own the pathways for exeunt delivery. There’s still a little bit of money left in the last copper mile, and in the percolation of the zeroed digital byte — and we, the authors, are lashed without reason, or opportunity — left to grab at the dust of what was once us.