The Authors Guild Survey’s Self-Selected Sample: More Fuel On The Fire?

iStockphoto / ChaosCollage
iStockphoto / ChaosCollage

First, The Bad News

While some parts of the Authors Guild’s survey of writers’ income had been released earlier, the writer-advocacy organization has now produced its full report. The news, while not shocking to anyone near the publishing business, is nevertheless troubling.

Among book authors responding to the Authors Guild survey, 49 and 48 percent of part-time and full-time authors cited a decline in their writing income in the past five years. From the Authors Study Median Income Report. Image: Provided by the Authors Guild
Among book authors responding to the Authors Guild survey, 49 and 48 percent of part-time and full-time authors cited a decline in their writing income in the past five years. From the Authors Study Median Income Report. Image: Provided by the Authors Guild

Some initial results, and then a bit of discussion follows.

  • Writing-related income of full-time book authors responding to the Authors Guild survey dropped 30 percent from that reported in the 2009 survey, from $25,000 to $17,500.
  • Part-time authors saw things go south even more precipitously, their writing-related income dropping 38 percent on average, from $7,250 to $4,500.
  • Full-time authors with 15 or more years of experience reported the greatest declines. Those with 15 to 25 years of experience said their writing-related income had decreased 47 percent; those with 25 to 40 years of experience cited a 67 percent drop.
  • Only 39 percent of authors responding to the survey said that they supported themselves through writing-related work, although this correlated with the same percentage in the 2009 survey.
  • In terms of an overall median from a writing income, the Guild’s survey comes up with a figure of $8,000, down from $10,500 in the previous 2009 survey. Some 56 percent of respondents told the Guild that they make less from writing than the $11,670 that the federal government says is the minimum income needed by a one-person household in the States.
  • Of interest to many writers who feel that self-marketing has become a major part of their work, respondents told the new survey that the amount of time they spent on marketing had jumped by 59 percent since 2009.

Perhaps ironically to some in the independent authors’ camp who see the Guild as being hostile to indie approaches, the Guild cites a rise in “hybrid” authorship — that’s working both in traditional publishing and self-publishing — as a “silver lining.”

A summary of the survey’s results reads: “Authors now can have more freedom in choosing a method of publication  and promotion that suits the needs of the specific book they’re trying to market.”

And Now…Okay, More Bad News

From the Authors Study Median Income Report. Image: Provided by the Authors Guild
Almost 90 percent of Authors Guild members participating in the 2015 were 50 or older; almost 80 percent are 55 or older. From the Authors Study Median Income Report. Image: Provided by the Authors Guild

The overall 2015 Authors Guild survey of 1,674 respondents included a total 1,406 authors, full- and part-time. It was conducted in coordination with Peter Hildick-Smith’s Codex Group.

And it’s important to note that the survey uses a voluntary or “self-selected” sample. A $25 bookseller gift certificate was offered to 100 participants chosen at random.

This classifies the Authors Guild as not scientific since a controlled sample wasn’t constructed. That’s nothing against the Codex Group’s undisputed professionalism and respect in the business, but it does reflect the fact that the study was dependent on those who elected to participate.

And this has produced the type situation that makes a scientifically selected sample makes sense. From the survey’s PowerPoint presentation, made available to me by the Authors Guild:

Eighty-nine percent Authors Guild member authors participating in the survey are 50 years old and above. Seventy-nine are 55 years old and above.

Clearly, this presents quick problems for how the results of the survey are regarded. When one age-range predominates so heavily in the kinds of observations the Guild needs to draw from this study, it’s hard to credit this extensive effort as much more than a niche exercise, however well-intended and earnestly it’s been prepared.

And, of course, the Guild’s detractors are waiting for just such openings.

Barry Eisler
Barry Eisler

For example, the age factor has not been lost on the author Barry Eisler, a frequent critic of Authors Guild policy. Eisler in a blog post on his site Monday writes, in part:

It’s fascinating that the Authors Guild could rely on respondents only from its own membership—89% of whom are over 50, 64% of whom have never even experimented with self-publishing, and only 4% of whom have eschewed legacy publishing entirely—and then use these responses to draw conclusions about what’s going on for all authors.

And obviously, Eisler won’t be alone in such feelings.

The survey may look to many to be badly skewed by the luck of its respondent group. Already pressured in many quarters, this is the kind of thing that doesn’t help the Guild move forward. It’s hard to argue that this voluntary group of respondents, through no fault of their own, can be seen as representative of a broad sampling.

More from Eisler:

Given that the most innovative and entrepreneurial writers in publishing today look at the Authors Guild as at best a punch line, the error is a showstopper. If the report demonstrates anything at all, it’s that a declining poverty-line subsistence correlates with membership in the Authors Guild.

Here, then, is the problem: a ready, smoldering mistrust of the Authors Guild by an articulate and energetic part of the author corps can easily call into doubt the results of a Guild effort that doesn’t appear to be — with its self-selecting sample — built on the kind of industry-grade standards needed to draw serious conclusions.

More debate about this issue will follow, certainly, and it will be worth watching closely to understand the dynamics as they play out among already confrontational factions in the industry’s’ creative population. TC mark

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