If you want to be a writer, don’t quit your day job
Writing has never been a lucrative career choice, but a recent study by Us-based The Authors Guild, a professional organisation for book writers, shows that it may not even be a liveable one anymore. According to the survey results, the median pay for full-time writers was $20,300 in 2017, and that number decreased to $6,080 when part-time writers were considered. The latter figure reflects a 42 per cent drop since 2009, when the median was $10,500. These findings are the result of an expansive 2018 study of more than 5,000 published book authors, across genres and including both traditional and self-published writers.
“In the 20th century, a good literary writer could earn a middle-class living just writing,” said Mary Rasenberger, executive director of the Guild, citing William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and John Cheever. Now, most writers need to supplement their income with speaking engagements or teaching. Strictly book-related income — which is to say royalties and advances — is also down, almost 30 per cent for full-time writers since 2009.
Writing for magazines and newspapers was once a solid source of additional income for professional writers, but the decline in freelance journalism and pay has meant less opportunity for authors to write for pay. Many print publications, which offered the highest rate, have been closed.
In some ways, these changes are in line with a general shift toward a gig economy or “hustling,” in which people juggle an assortment of jobs to make up for the lack of a stable income. But the writing industry as a whole has always eluded standardisation in pay. In a conversation with Manjula Martin in the book
Cheryl Strayed said, “There’s no other job in the world where you get your master’s degree in that field and you’re like, ‘Well, I might make zero or I might make $5 million!’”
“Everyone thinks they can write, because everybody writes,” said Rasenberger, referring to the proliferation of casual texting, e-mailing and tweeting. But she distinguishes these from professional writers “who have been working on their craft and art of writing for years.”
“What a professional writer can convey in written word is far superior to what the rest of us can do,” Rasenberger said. “As a society we need that, because it’s a way to crystallise ideas, make us see things in a new way and create understanding of who we are as a people, where we are today and where we’re going.”