With author incomes on the decline, many writers are turning to self-publishing to help pay the rent and get their work into the world. But is this all it’s cracked up to be?
In 2019, the American Authors Guild declared a “crisis of epic proportions” in the US writing scene. The announcement came with the results of the Guild’s largest ever Author Income Survey – which were not promising.
Overall, the median income of authors fell 42% between 2009 and 2017, a historic low. Of the 5000+ writers surveyed, literary authors were especially hard-hit, with only 21% able to earn a full-time income from their books.
Despite writers having proportionally higher qualifications than the general population, the report calculated that most of freelance writing work (often undertaken to supplement dwindling book royalties) amounted to much less than minimum wage.
But there was one small saving grace: incomes of self-published authors, while still lower than their traditionally published counterparts, are on the rise.
While some larger multinationals remain profitable, independent publishers are on the brink. Amazon’s dominance in the book marketplace – which has not only siphoned business from independent booksellers but has also been accused of enabling piracy – is putting pressure on all facets of the industry.
Tweet from Rebecca Giblin breaking down the cashflow of Australian independent publishers.
It was inevitable that the squeeze would be passed on to authors. So it’s understandable that many are turning to self-publishing in an attempt to make writing a viable career.
The rise of the ‘authorpreneur’
Self-publishing can be tempting: there’s limitless editorial freedom, no need for international licensing and, if you happen to hit it big, the promise of significant royalty payments. For those who’ve had no luck placing their book with literary agents or traditional publishers, it can seem like a sure-fire way to get their work out into the world.
At face value, it’s also very easy. The rise of digital publishing platforms like Kobo and Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing has provided authors with a highly accessible means of selling and distributing their books.
For writers in some genres, self-publishing has proven itself as a lucrative endeavour. Many romance writers, for instance, have enjoyed immense popularity delivering their books into a large online community eagerly waiting to devour their next read.
Then there are the success stories: Andy Weir’s The Martian and Luke Jenning’s Codename Villanelle were both self-published online before being picked up by traditional publishers and scoring highly acclaimed film and television adaptations.
You can see why some see taking matters into their own hands as their ticket to becoming the next bestseller.
Yet, there’s also a catch. Because digital self-publishing means just about anyone can peddle their books online, it means publishing into an extremely saturated e-book market. At the mercy of platform algorithms, successful books garner more success, while others are buried.
In some ways, this mirrors the traditional publishing model; books that sell well or get good reviews inevitably become more popular. But although traditional publishing is frustrating for new authors to break into, a professional book deal also comes with significant – and complimentary – advantages: professional marketing, design and editorial resources, the publisher’s established cultural authority in the market and the confidence that someone has seen potential in your book.
Traditionally published books by no means guarantee success. But, as writer Ros Barber points out, if a self-published author wants their e-book to be read – and better still, become a reliable source of income – they are going to have to put significantly more of their own time and money into ensuring their book reaches an audience. Which means more outgoing expenses and less time for actually writing.
What about literary fiction?
Of course, many authors relish the chance to take full ownership of their work and the publishing process. And undoubtedly, digital platforms are helping to democratise publishing in the context of an industry that to this day has major problems with diversity and accessibility.
In 2018, French bricks-and-mortar booksellers caused uproar when a self-published e-book was longlisted for the Prix Renaudot, a prestigious French literary prize. Many major awards will only accept traditionally published work, while media outlets are reluctant to review e-book-only releases.
This makes life particularly hard for literary writers, who often rely on the cultural capital endowed by these bodies for their books to gain traction. With income from traditional publishing dwindling, this runs the risk of suppressing literary production and alienating emerging literary writers.
There have long been romanticised (yet problematic) narratives abound authors and other creators starving for their art. ‘It’s a labour of love’ and ‘you don’t do it for the money’ the instructors tell you in Creative Writing 101. Otherwise, writing is often framed as a compulsion or form of self-therapy.
Perhaps these narratives create assumptions that authors will never stop producing work and that they’ll settle for less just to see their name in print.
But legacy publishers may not always be able to rely on these. Who knows what self-publishing will have in store next?