Do Writers Deserve to Eat?

The job title “writer” covers a lot of ground. Writers can be, among other things, journalists, web content writers, technical writers, script writers, legal writers, fiction writers, or song writers. They can be staff writers or freelancers.  Their work can appear in print, electronically, on stage or screen.  Some lucky writers earn a great deal from their work. And then there’s the rest of us.

According to a 2017 survey conducted by freelancewriting.com,  65% of freelancers in the U.S. earn less than $10,000 per year from their writing, while for over half of freelancers, writing is their only job. The “top tier” freelance writers work full time and earn $40,000 or more per year, not enough to get rich but enough to pay the rent and eat.

The writers involved in this survey do a broad range of work. Most of them aren’t writing books, but web content, technical material, advertising copy, articles, and so forth.  They’ve sought out work, sold themselves, and negotiated a rate (or accepted what they were offered). Somebody is paying them to do a specific job. Those of us who write books to share knowledge or tell a story have to find a publisher, or failing that, self-publish. We make our money off of sales of our work to the reading public. You are our clients. And you pay us not according to a contractual rate, but by buying copies of our work.

So the big question is, how much are you willing to pay? That’s been a burning question for independent book authors for quite a few years now. Scan the ranks of books by indie authors, and you’ll see ebooks selling for anywhere from nothing to a few dollars. Our print books typically cost more, but generally less than $15.00 and frequently less than $10.00. That’s great for the reader, but horrible for the writer. Why? Because at $0.00 per copy, the author makes nothing no matter how popular her work may become, and even at $2.99, the profits don’t exactly mount up.

Consider what goes into making a book. While we all write at our own speed, it’s not uncommon to spend six months to a year writing a book. Let’s go with the lower end of that range. Now, after that book is written and revised to the author’s satisfaction, it goes out to an editor. If a writer is very lucky–as I am–an “in house” editor like my wife Kathleen may be available for free. But most often, the writer has to pay for editorial services. That can run anywhere from several hundred dollars to over a thousand, depending on the skill of the editor and the length and complexity of the work.

So let’s say after six months hard work and maybe $500 editing expense, you have a book. You’re not done yet. You likely purchase an ISBN for each book format you intend to publish (about $25 if you buy them individually, although considerably less if you can buy them in bulk), possibly a bar code for the print book (another $25), and of course cover art. You might do the cover work yourself, but if not you’ll spend a few hundred to a thousand or more for that. And let’s not forget the copyright registration fee, another $35 to $55, depending several factors. So the writer has invested six months labor and probably anywhere between $100 and $1,000 in expenses to produce one book.

Now it’s time to make back that investment. The book goes on sale.

Many indie authors are lucky to sell 100 or so copies of a book. Even at the “high” price of $2.99,  that can fall well short of what they’ve spent in bringing you the book.  If they keep costs low, they might actually make a small profit, but let’s face it, how many other laborers would settle for a payout of $300, or even $1000, for six months’ work?

At the $2.99 price point, an indie author would, assuming a lot of do-it-yourself, need to sell well over 13,000 copies of their book in one year to hit that “top tier” income level of $40,000. That doesn’t happen too often.  Achieving “bestseller” status can require selling about 1,000 copies within a few days of release. That’s five to ten times what many indie books sell over a year or two. To make serious money as an indie author requires writing bestseller after bestseller.

If you’re a writer, this may seem discouraging, but don’t be disheartened. Consider this a call to keep writing good books while learning the art of promotion. A series of good books well-promoted can, given time and effort, earn you enough to enable you to eat.

If you’re a reader, consider this is a call for understanding and help. Please don’t expect to get something for nothing. We work hard to bring you stories and intellectual excursions you will enjoy. Be willing to pay at least as much for a good book as you pay for a good cup of coffee. You only get to drink the cup of coffee once. The book will stay with you through re-readings and conversations and happy memories. It’s also lower in caffeine. And if you do enjoy our product, please let others know about it by leaving reviews and telling friends and family. Praise from satisfied customers goes father than almost anything we can do ourselves.