Income Potential for Writers (or Why Wallace Stevens Kept His Day Job)

Jan 19, 2014

A friend recently attended a lecture given by a well-known Canadian novelist who stated that it’s virtually impossible to earn a living writing books. It was not a surprising statement to make, but coming from this particular author – an award-winning novelist with a significant profile in Canada and abroad – it was jarring to many in the audience. For our friend, it prompted the question, why can’t such an apparently successful writer earn enough from her writing to quit her job to write full-time? And a second (equally depressing) question: if she can’t, who can? 

As publishing industry professionals whose jobs depend on book sales, we’ve always grappled with these questions. Now that sales tracking tools like BookNet’s SalesData and Nielsen’s Bookscan give us real sales information for books, we can see how books actually sell. The results are often dismaying. Books that are critically acclaimed and win awards, and authors who are profiled by every major media outlet, are not always the bestsellers we imagine they are (or feel they should be). And even if they do achieve bestseller status, it’s still hard to know what that means in real terms. The average author advance doesn’t amount to a yearly salary for an entry-level publishing position in the US or Canada. Which means that authors either need to keep their day jobs or find other means of subsisting while they write.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In his Slate article on this subject, Mason Currey points out that some writers appreciate the balance and structure a day job provides, as well as the paycheque. He quotes the poet Wallace Stevens, who earned his living as an insurance lawyer, and who once said: “I find that having a job is one of the best things in the world that could happen to me. It introduces discipline and regularity into one’s life.” But now many people are tethered to the office in the off-hours by laptops and smartphones, so day jobs bleed into nights and weekends, and the time required for writing becomes scarce.

These thoughts led us to wonder if self-publishing is changing the game for writers’ income potential. It’s true that some self-publishers are selling staggering numbers of books; Hugh Howey and Amanda Hocking are two examples. But like their counterparts in the traditional publishing world, these bestselling authors are exceptions to the rule. As Jeremy Greenfield reports in this Forbes article, “the median income range for self-published authors is under $5,000 and nearly 20% of self-published authors report deriving no income from their writing.” He compares this with traditionally published authors who have a median income range of $5,000 to $9,999. For those of us on either side of the business, the numbers are sobering.

When we founded Page Two, we had no illusions about get-rich-quick schemes or deluded notions that we could help turn our authors into instant millionaires. But we never lose sight of two things:

  • First, the changing publishing landscape is affording writers new opportunities they didn’t have before. Some of our clients publish in specialized areas that traditional publishers don’t reach; through self-publishing and direct sales to their clients and communities of interest, they are achieving bestseller status in their own categories, off the traditional publishing charts. Authors who can take advantage of direct online sales opportunities are realizing sales potential they only could’ve dreamed of in a bricks-and-mortar universe.
  • Second, writers publish books for all kinds of reasons other than financial gain. At Page Two, we help writers achieve their financial goals based on reasonable assessments of market potential, but we find that they often have many more goals in mind. Our author-clients get more speaking engagements once they’ve published books. They connect with all kinds of people they wouldn’t otherwise have reached. They contribute to important debates and confirm their status as thought leaders in their fields.

Truth be told, no matter how rational and measured we are, we’re dreamers too. Breakout bestsellers are the exception to the rule, but as long as there are exceptions, we’ll keep that hope alive.