I read a report on Publishing Perspectives regarding a report from the Author’s Guild, that the average income authors derived exclusively from writing has fallen by 42% since 2009. That’s a huge number, actually, and really terrifying—at least on the face of it. But as I continued reading the report on the report, that number came more and more under suspicion. From Publishing Perspectives:

There is what appears to be a brighter spot. Authors identifying themselves as full-time, when reporting “all writing-related activities,” showed a median income that was up 3 percent over 2013, coming in at $20,300. The guild points out, however, that this is still substantially lower than the $25,000 median income that class of writer reported in 2009.

This, to me at least, begs the question: Who is an “author,” anyway, and how has that definition changed since 2009? Surely there are more indie and self-published authors now than there were then—and only a precious few of them are managing a full time living from writing. I still know, personally, very few authors (of fiction, at least) who do it full time, or derive the majority of their income from their writing—and I know a lot of authors, believe me.

And let’s be honest, if the average full time author is making $20,300 a year…? Well, that’s not going to cover my $32,000 in mortgage payments every year, so I’m not sure where these people are living, but it ain’t anywhere near Seattle, let me tell you.

So then if the minority of professional full time authors have gotten a 3% raise since the end of the worst of the post-Bush Depression, an easy explanation for the overall drop of 42% is that there are a lot more people making very little money each.

And though of course I would love it if everyone out there with a story to tell and the will and passion and education to do it well, and the professionalism, drive, and ambition to do it for a living are at least able to make a decent living from it, the reality is that most likely none of us are going to get rich (whatever that means), or even achieve that coveted status of “full time author” anytime soon.

Is that some sign of an impending Bookpocalypse?

I’ve been warned of that before.

Or is this, in fact, the lot of the midlist, first time, struggling, and aspiring author (I’d bet that accounts for more than 90% of authors in any case) since time immemorial?

In her LitHub article “William Faulkner Was Really Bad at Being a Postman,” Emily Temple wrote:

Faulkner would open and close the office whenever he felt like it, he would read other people’s magazines, he would throw out any mail he thought unimportant, he would play cards with his friends or write in the back while patrons waited out front.

Faulkner, asked to defend his actions, replied, by letter:

[October, 1924]

As long as I live under the capitalistic system, I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp.

This, sir, is my resignation.

You go, William.

The history of the written word is full of stories like this, authors frustrated by terrible day jobs, suffering under the yoke of the Man while desperately trying to pursue their literary careers. But now that we know how hard it is, how uncommon it is, and how long it takes to make a living from writing, what are we left with? Are we all stuck serving “at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp”? Or is there some reasonable alternative?

In the book Tribe of Mentors by Timothy Ferris, author Soman Chainani wrote:

Too often. aspiring artists put pressure on themselves to make their creative work their only source of income. In my experience, it’s a road to misery. If art is your sole source of income, then there’s unrelenting pressure on that art, and mercenary pressure is the enemy of the creative elves inside you trying to get the work done. Having another stream of income drains the pressure on your creative engine. If nothing comes of your art, you still have an ironclad plan to support yourself. As a result, your creative soul feels lighter and free to do its best work.

I love this—and not just as some kind of excuse for not living my best life, but as some confirmation that I actually am living my best life. The trick isn’t trying desperately to claw your way out of a horrible day job on the strength of your writing—or art in general—but to claw your way out of a horrible day job and into a better day job, while still pursuing your writing.

That’s what I’ve done all my adult life. I’ve had jobs I loved—at least when I was in my twenties—like record store manager, until I found the one job that perfectly blended with my writing ambitions: editor.

And guess what, “editor” is still my “day job.” And though my own writing took a bit of a back seat while I established Athans & Associates Creative Consulting in the couple years since leaving Wizards of the Coast, I’ve found my way to exactly what Soman Chainani was describing. I don’t write for money, under strict deadline, anymore. No more Baldur’s Gate’s for me. I love writing again, because I love my day job.

Can’t quit your day job, and that makes you miserable? Instead of desperately clawing after impossibilities like surfing trends in YA publishing, or trying to hack the Amazon Kindle algorithms… spend a few months getting a better day job while, of course, writing!


—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

Link up with me on LinkedIn

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Or contact me for editing, coaching, ghostwriting, and more at Athans & Associates Creative Consulting.

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. nakbaldron says:

    Good insight and great advice on making your day job blend with your creative passion. However, I don’t agree with the idea of settling for not making your living from art. (Even if that means you fail, and it’s only once your dead that your kids make a living off your art.)

  2. JM Williams says:

    I think you’re right in thinking that an increase in the numbers of authors writing has driven the median numbers down, rather than incomes actually dropping. In 2012, The Guardian noted that more than half self-published authors earned less than $500 a year. This is, of course, what happens when markets get flooded. There’s too much competition and a limited number of readers. Book sales, particularly print, were up last year. Which goes to suggest that the same number of books are being sold, there are simply more writers trying to get a cut of a limited pool of income. I fully agree with you that finding a “real job” you like should take precedence over writing. We all need to eat, right?

  3. Adam says:

    I definitely agree that try to make writing and publishing stories one’s primary/only source of income is a tall order, and more likely to lead to a very factory style “crank ’em out” rather than the “craft each one” style that most prefer, but I also think there are ways in which some careers, like editor, also carry a certain aura of “professional author”.
    At the moment my day job is a form of IT, and I certainly would prefer to work more with stories and fiction during my work hours, and I think that while publication may not be a realistic full time job, a successful, well written publication can be a form of credential that allows the author to become a professional creative writing teacher, public speaker/workshop runner, and/or editor.

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