Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Why all future earnings estimates are zero when you are a writer

The other day, my dear wife asked me what I thought that my current project was worth. I told her the honest truth. Zero--zip--nothing. Needless to say, she did not like my answer. But it was the truth.

I did take time out to attempt to explain the logic of my answer to her. And so here it is; just in case, your day as a writer was not depressing enough as it was.

For the purposes of this discussion, I am assuming that you are a non-technical writer. And probably self-publishing to a certain extent.

In 2004, the League of Utah Writers (LUW) surveyed their membership. Overall, the average income from writing among its 234 non-technical writer members was a mere $2,705 dollars per year. Yes, less than three thousand dollars a year.

Now, a good portion of the LUW actually reported no income from writing at all.

The average of just those writers who had actually received income from writing was $5,213.28. Still less than six thousand a year.

A third of the writers worked in newspapers and for magazines, and a third wrote novels and books; editing and consulting chewed up eleven percent, and short stories six percent. The other eighteen percent fell under the category of "other."

Sometime ago, I read that your average self-published writer only sold nine copies of any given book. Unfortunately, I do not remember the source of that information, much like I forget the source that claimed that your average traditionally published writer average a mere five hundred copies sold. Personally, I find both statistics to be scary as hell if they are even remotely true. (They are also proof that I need to invest in a better filing system.)

Let's presume that my current project sells the average nine copies...that is a whooping five dollars and forty cents if I place a 99 cent price tag on the piece. That is so close to nothing that it is safe to say that my current project is worth nothing.

Of course, there is a large number of self-published writers who make nothing. There must be. Or next to nothing. Don't believe me--consider the following information.

In 2011, Dave Cornford and Steven Lewis carried out a survey of 1,007 self-published writers. They learned that half of the writers that they surveyed made less than five hundred dollars. The average earnings was a mere ten thousand a year. The reason that the average is so high? Turns out that less than ten percent of the authors were raking in seventy-five percent of the pie (people like Amanda Hocking and E.L. James). Turns out that self-publishing is just like traditionally publishing with the majority of the earnings earned by the super-star one percent.

By the way, the 2011 survey is one of the reasons that I am proud of the fact that I have to pay self-employment tax as a writer. With the 2012 floor for self-employment tax being $434 (after one takes all the deductions that one can get away with), anyone who pays self-employment tax as a self-published writer is probably in the upper fifty percent of self-published writers actually making money. No, I am not going to tell you exactly how much I make in dirty money--just assume that I could make more flipping burgers for a most other writers.

(Yes, I am assuming that the figures have not budged any from 2011--in fact, I assume that the average has actually gone down due to the gold-rush of DIY writers.)

So overall, if you are a writer (untested and inexperienced--or working on a brand new genre and have no previous items of the same ilk) and not in the higher reaches of the profession (top quarter of the earners), your most honest answer to the question about the monetary value of what you are working on has to be ZERO.

[In a post on my economics blog, I joked that I make somewhere between zero and thirty-five dollars per hour of writing. More often than not, it is closer to zero than the thirty-five. And that is the harsh truth, as well as another depressing conversation for another day.]

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