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Keeping authors off the endangered species list.

It’s harder than ever to make a living from writing books. That’s bad news for people who care about culture. We need authors.

The good news is that technology has made self-publishing remarkably easy. More good news is that Americans alone spend $26 billion on books each year.

Lots of bad news for authors

However, there's a lot of bad news.

From the Authors Guild new paper, “The Profession of Author in the 21st Century” (Larson, 2020):

The profession of author is changing. Technology, industry consolidation and other economic forces have transformed the way books are produced, distributed, sold and read. A shrinking number of retailers and major publishers are shifting the market into a “monopsony”— an imbalanced market with only one (or a few) buyer(s). Advances are lower and contracts terms are less favorable to authors. The introduction of e-books and other forces have disrupted the market and driven down book prices. To cut through the clutter, authors must spend more and more of their already-scarce writing time on marketing, promotion and social media.

As a result, the career of full-time professional author has become endangered.

The paper cites grim facts:

  • In 2017, more than half (54%) of full-time authors surveyed earned less than the federal poverty threshold of $12,488 from their writing.
  • An alarming 23% of full-time authors reported earning zero income from books in 2017.
  • Literary authors saw a 46% drop in their book-related income in just four years, from 2013 to 2017.
  • Book-related income dropped precariously after the rise of e-books, with the biggest drop—a massive 45% decline in median book-related income—occurring between 2009 and 2014, immediately after the introduction of e-books. The more recent 2018 survey shows that number has continued to fall, dropping 24% between 2013 and 2017.
  • Publishers... dropped e-book royalty rates to authors, from an initial 35–50%, down to 25% of net receipts.

A new perspective for the profession

The truth is: it's not going to get better for authors unless they have a mindset change.

The paper makes various suggestions for improving the profession. I’m going to suggest something too.

To make a living, most authors will have to recast themselves as the product, instead of the book. The book will be an introduction to, or the summary of skills, expertise, personality, and ability to enrich others.

Writing a valued book isn't enough; you have to be a valued person. People won't pay you enough for the book.

But authors: you are so much more than your book. You are the expert on your book.

This tech revolution that will save authors

What will save authors, what will support their contributions to the culture, is technology platforms that create a global direct-to-consumer marketplace for their presently undervalued expertise, and special and unique talents.

Technologies need to help author-turned-expert to be entrepreneurial: to invent, test, refine, and sell valuable services around the book.

These future services will be determined by the interests, ability, and creativity of each person.

I believe we are on the cusp of an intellectual flourishing—that more, and better, ideas get more of an audience and have a greater impact.

With the right platform and tools, entrepreneurial authors will have opportunities to make a good living because they will have far greater reach and influence.

In other words, they will be able to create more value than ever before.

An example: what we’re doing

Here’s a real-life example. We’re focusing on a niche now: children’s book creators. We’re connecting them with kids and their families for video calls.

Children’s book creators already visit classrooms, in person and by video calls. They have a brilliant impact on kids. A study shows that the visits:

  • Motivate students to read more (91%)
  • Inspire creativity and expression (75%)
  • Encourage children to write more (70%)

Teachers report seeing thee benefits:

  • Inspiration
  • Empowerment
  • Creating long-lasting memories
  • Feeling of celebrity; special feelings
  • Connection with students who are different (reluctant readers, children with special needs, ethnic and language minorities)
  • Students learn about the need for persistence in developing their own writing

Librarians see an increased circulation of books, especially by the author who visits. Reluctant readers read more, and students read more challenging books. Similarly, teachers see more writing in the classroom: students see themselves as authors; they learn that even published authors have to revise and struggle with writing, and they understand the process of writing.

Once we get the children’s book market segment established, we will expand to other genres too.

Things will get better

Even if I’m being overconfident in thinking technology platforms can be a catalyst for an intellectual flourishing of entrepreneurial authors, at the very least, these platforms will be the means for supplemental income, increased marketing reach, and a better shot at making a living as an author. That is enough, I think, for authors to be hopeful and excited for the near future.


Chip Joyce is Co-Founder and CEO of Talkabook.

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