Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Author Surveys and Other Fantasies

Surveys of authors are all the rage. Some purport to answer who makes more money, Traditionally published authors or those who Indie publish. Or are Hybrid authors the top money-earners? Are incomes going up or down? Where do authors make their money? How much directly from writing? How much from other author-related endeavors? And so on and so forth. Other surveys suggest they’ve uncovered the best and most over-hyped marketing approach.

While these surveys have entertainment value, relying on them for actionable information may ask too much.

Let’s do a thought experiment on income. Which person would you rather be, A or B?

Author A is a full-time author who works approximately 1800 hours a year. She independently publishes five books a year, advertises heavily, and spends considerable time and energy on marketing. She hires editors, proofreaders, and cover artists. Author A pays for quality audio books, including the narrator, studio mix, etc. She has a backlist of forty books. Her income is $275,000, which is an increase of $50,000 from the previous year.

Author B’s profile is quite different. She works approximately 600 hours per year on her author business. She has an agent who has secured publishing contracts for two series, each of which requires one new book a year. Her critique group helps guide her story decisions to the point she can turn it over to her agent, who acts as a developmental editor before the publisher takes over publication duties. She limits her marketing efforts to social media and a marketing co-op with friends who write similar stories. Her income is $10,000, a 20% decrease from the previous year’s $12,000.

Go ahead, make your choice before you continue reading. I won’t ask you to tell anyone, not even me.

The problem with choosing is you don’t have all the information you should have. I neglected to tell you that Author A’s expenses before taxes this year are $250,000. That’s up $50,000 from the previous year because Author A spent a lot more money on advertising this year. Her net income before taxes remained the same: $25,000. That means she made $13.88/hour pre-tax for her work each year—slightly less than local McDonald’s workers. Since she can’t live on $25K a year, she works several part-time jobs to cover living expenses. She’s considering giving up writing and going back to work full time.

Author B’s expenses ran to $7,000. Her net income before taxes was only $3000 or $5/hour. But, $5,000 of her expenses related to attending two national writing conventions, which she had done as a fan before she became a published author and would attend regardless of whether she was an author. It’s her vacation. Plus, Author B’s full-time job provides her with health and retirement benefits, paid time off, etc. Her income dropped because she stopped writing a third series. It was more than she wanted to do.

Author A is the proclaimed success story: She’s a six-figure author. Her income increased 25% year over year. Author B is having a blast. She enjoys her writing and loves interacting with fans and hobnobbing with the rich (maybe rich?) and famous (at least in some circles!) authors at conventions.

As did my initial thought experiment, many surveys rely on gross income for their analysis. That is basically meaningless. Someone who plays the slot machines eight hours a day will have a huge gross income. And after a year, the casino will own his house, car, first child . . .

Surveys about marketing practices are similarly flawed. They ask for anecdotal evidence. What do you find works best? What’s over-hyped? What are you doing more of and what have you stopped doing? The results aren’t without value: they show trends—at least for people who answer surveys. Perhaps successful folks don’t bother. How could we know without access to more information?

Please, do not misunderstand my intent. There is absolutely nothing wrong with writing as a hobby (even if for tax purposes you call it a business). Hobbies bring all kinds of psychological and social benefits, even if we have to pay for them. And if that’s you, well, this blog is much like those surveys: it may be interesting on some level but is not of great use.

If you want to make a profitable business—full-time or part-time—from your writing, then I encourage you to take surveys with a large salt-shaker worth of skepticism. Focus on your profit, not your top-line income. And consider the time you take to generate that profit. You don’t get any more hours in the day just because you are a writer. Make the most of the ones you have.

Anything about author surveys that you wonder about?

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James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree series. Full of mystery and suspense, these thrillers explore financial crimes, family relationships, and what happens when they mix. To learn more information about Jim and his books, check out his website, https://jamesmjackson.com. You can sign up for his newsletter (and get to read a free Seamus McCree short story).


  1. You really do have to read the fine print on all kinds of things like this, as your example showed. I'd say the most important thing is that author B is having fun. That, more than anything, makes the effort worth it.

  2. Author B sounds an awful lot like me, except I have a supportive husband rather than a full time job. My net profit may be a pittance, but I had a heckuva good time at Bouchercon in San Diego this year! Thanks, Jim, for a thoughtful breakdown of the business of writing. These are things no one tells you when you're first starting out.

  3. Yeah!

    So often we hear that we "should be paid for our work."

    Well, it would be nice. But I view my writing as a hobby. I no more expect to live on the proceeds than the fellow down the hall who plays French horn in a neighborhood orchestra expects to be paid for performances. In fact, he often contributes for expences. Ditto the friend who displays art at a local show, the soccer players who use the pitch at the public park, the gardeners who lovingly tend the community gardens, etc.

    I write because I love it. And at this stage of my life, I can afford to take the time and cover the costs.

    In your example, working 1800 hours a year would be considered part time in most circles.

  4. So true, Jim. Points well made. May I add that no matter what your income – net or gross – if you are going to do it full-time, you need to love the writing life.

  5. As usual, Jim, you've done a wonderful job putting this all in perspective for those of us who don't spend a lot of time with spreadsheets (or have the savvy to understand them). I've noticed the surveys rarely ask about marketing or other costs, which definitely should be part of the equation. Shari