Age, Surveys, And Income: The Authors Guild’s View

iStockphoto / Type17
iStockphoto / Type17

‘Only One Piece Of The Puzzle’

Subsequent to our report on the Authors Guild’s release of results from its 2015 Member Survey, I’ve invited the Guild to provide some interpretation of how it sees the release of its “The Wages of Writing” survey results.

In response, I have this explanation of the survey exercise, and I want to let you read it in full.

Mary Rasenberger
Mary Rasenberger

It comes to us from Mary Rasenberger, the Guild’s executive director, who writes:

Earlier this week, the Authors Guild released key findings from the 2015 Authors Guild Member Survey, which focused in part on authors’ earnings. The results, when compared those of our 2009 survey, show that writing-related income has dropped significantly in that time frame.

The survey has sparked lively conversation about the nature of authors’ livelihoods in the digital age. That’s one of the reasons we conducted it in the first place.

You may remember that about 14 months ago, we were working with another set of author-income survey reports, those from the UK’s Authors’ Licensing and Collection Society (ALCS), which reported these particulars, in part:

  • In the UK, the 2013 professional authors’ typical annual income from writing was reported by the ALCS to be £11,000 ($18,800)
  • That was down from £12,333 ($21,800) in 2005
  • This put the 2013 income at £5,850 ($10,000) below the Minimum Income Standard of £16,850 ($28,878) set by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation
  • Only 11.5 percent of professional writers surveyed for ALCS said they earned their income solely from writing in 2013
  • That was down sharply, from 40 percent of professional writers who said they earned their income solely from writing in 2005

You can read more about that set of survey results here, in my story at The FutureBook. There are rough parallels in what the Authors Guild study results are reflecting Stateside.

“We need a more complete set of data on author earnings in this country and better understanding of the causes.”
Mary Rasenberger, Authors Guild

The overall impression is that in the US, as in the UK, many if not most professional writers, including book authors, cannot expect to earn a living wage from their writing. In many cases their writing-related income may be far short of that. This is obviously important information for those who work in the writing and publishing professions.

In the traditional publishing scenario, for example, virtually everyone engaged in producing a book—from the editor and cover designer to the publisher and marketing personnel—may well work in a salaried position with benefits.

The author, however, usually has no such job security or stable income. And, at least by default so far, our societies-at-large seem relatively oblivious to this. (In fact, it’s thought in some quarters that one reason so many people have been attracted to self-publishing is that they aren’t aware of how financially untenable a career track it may represent. The original intent of the AuthorEarnings series of quarterly reports is, in part, an attempt by its creators to build a case for the independent author’s potential to earn revenue as a writer.)

It’s not surprising, then, that organizations that advocate for the well-being of authors are concerned and want to publicize any indications they have of it is for many writers to earn a living.

Let’s turn to Rasenberger’s message now.

Getting To The Truth About Self-Selection

“There have been a couple statements reported in the press that we’d like to clarify,” writes Rasenberger in response to my request for comment, and I’m glad to give her a chance to make these clarifications.

First, she writes, by email to me:

It’s important to note that the survey was also sent to a smaller sample of non-members, as well as members. Some have argued that the fact that the survey largely reflects the experiences of self-selected Authors Guild members invalidates its results. But, every study that exists on author income is based on self-selecting responses. A truly representative survey of American authors would be cost-prohibitive, if not altogether impossible. (The difficulty lies in determining what the overall author population looks like demographically; Codex reports that there is no data on this or manageable way to obtain it.)

That’s Peter Hildick-Smith’s Codex Group she refers to, a company that specializes in book-audience/readership research.  Codex worked with the Guild on this newly released study.

“The study results show that authors who have been writing the longest have the greatest writing related-income.”
Mary Rasenberger, Authors Guild

And Rasenberger’s point on the self-selected survey is important and helpful. I’ve been as noisy as anyone about how limited we are when publishing survey work uses volunteers rather than the kind of purposely modeled sampling of respondents that’s usually required in “scientific” surveys. When respondents to a survey are volunteers, it’s hard for us to feel sure that their answers are straightforward and not impacted in some way by various factors of opinion and purpose.

However, Rasenberger is pointing out that the types of samples that are integral to scientifically valid surveys are based on definable understandings of the groups being studied. A test population is modeled to reflect such an understanding. And there are no known, established understandings of the author corps as a whole.

For example:

  • We don’t know the breakdown of gender among authors working today
  • We don’t know what age groups predominate, nor in what proportion to others
  • We don’t know what trends are at play in terms of authors’ educational backgrounds or geographic distribution or family/dependents household status

How, then, could a scientifically verifiable survey sample be put together?

Rasenberger goes on:

In any event, if anything, the findings very likely represent a high side or best case scenario on author income today. Our membership includes some highly successful authors whose income may have skewed the results and older members tend to be more successful.  The study results show that authors who have been writing the longest have the greatest writing related -income.

‘Always Been On The Older Side’

Rasenberger says:

The respondents to the survey skewed older. It may be that the older members were more likely to respond as they have more time and are not juggling parenting and other duties with writing.

But it’s important to bear in mind that many authors do not publish their first books until their thirties or forties (or even later); as a group, book authors do tend to skew older and this survey was addressed specifically to book authors.

When it comes to peak productivity, authorship is the opposite of, say, competitive tennis. At the same age a champion retires, a writer is still considered “young.”

This is not surprising. In the Authors Guild’s 100-year history its membership has always been on the older side, representing authors, with a high percentage of authors who have found some success already.

The observations Rasenberger is making about age in writing are both fascinating and frustrating—not her fault—because it would be so helpful to understand where author age actually tends to fall when set parallel to other industries’ workers, and even alongside other creative endeavors’ people. Dancers, for example, are much closer to those tennis players in terms of active career-span, while painters can still be working away on canvases, just as writers can be tickling the keyboards, right to the end, in some cases.

“Many authors do not publish their first books until their thirties or forties (or even later). ”
Mary Rasenberger, Authors Guild

And what of “Wattpad nation”? While I’m seeing more and more “mature” writers experiment with the big platform, the general understanding of Allen Lau’s and Ashleigh Gardner’s phenomenal community is that it skews much, much younger than we can assume the Authors Guild membership does.

Is Wattpad the grandchild of the Authors Guild? And will the kind of native advertising model that Gardner and her team are experimenting with going to develop a new form of revenue potential for those grandchildren that the Guild’s members might not have dreamed about?

#WhatsAnAuthorWorth?

On Wednesday in New York, Nielsen’s Jonathan Nowell opened the second annual Children’s Book Summit by mentioning the UK author Mathew Lyons’ What’s A Book Worth? campaign—on which our FutureBook community at The Bookseller recently focused a #FutureChat session.

“Jonty” Nowell quoted Lyons:

A good book represents absurdly good value for money…If you buy someone a book as a present, you can spend nearly as much on the wrapping paper and a card as on the book itself.

And here, of course, is one of the reasons that the current debate about book pricing is so fraught. We’re not just talking about #WhatsABookWorth. We’re talking #WhatsAnAuthorWorth

The Authors Guild’s Rasenberger is to speak at the Novelists Inc. conference in October and exchange thoughts with authors some of whom have more than 100 titles to their names. What can she say to those long-time writers, some of them deep into backlist country? And what can she say to the Wattpad-ers as yet unpubished in any form?

There is no one right way, no unified vision, no clear road. Not yet.

Once again, we end up needing data that we don’t have.

Rasenberger:

At the end of the day, our 2015 member survey is only one piece of the puzzle and it is just a start in unraveling the state of authorship today. We need a more complete set of data on author earnings in this country and better understanding of the causes. TC mark

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