Why Authors are Poor

It was possible to make a decent living in newspapers and magazines before the internet. Then publishers made the fatal mistake of giving away their content online, hoping that they could sell enough advertising against the free content to keep themselves afloat. They couldn’t. Now it is difficult to make a decent living in newspapers and magazines. The book industry congratulated itself on being different.

Books were plenty disrupted, particularly by Amazon’s online store. But despite Amazon’s efforts to commodify their wares, book publishers did not fall into the same trap as magazines and newspapers. They did not give away their content online. They held their prices even as e-books became popular. Congratulations, publishers. Yet somehow authors are poor and getting poorer.

Last January, the US Authors Guild declared a “crisis of epic proportions.” The median income for its authors, including full-time, part-time, traditionally published, and self-published, was $6,080, down from $10,500 in 2009. If you just count what the authors made on book sales (as opposed to appearances etc.) their median income was $3,100 (full-time, traditionally published authors were $12,400). The data was just as depressing in Canada where the average writer made $9,380 last year in Canadian dollars.

(Author’s note: I am updating this post regularly as people send me new info and new angles.)

There are several explanations for these declines. First, while book publishers navigated the digital world with some success, they were still disrupted. The number of books produced in the US tripled between 2009 and 2017, largely because Amazon allowed people to bypass traditional publishers and post books on platforms like the Kindle. The means of production were democratized. Even if a lot of self-published books are crap, that’s a huge increase in competition for reader attention.

The recent surge in the number of books published is not what made authors poor, however. It only made them somewhat poorer. Author income stats were terrible before the Kindle. The major reason appears to be because authors and publishers aregiving their content away. They make it available for free in public libraries. Like this gorgeous new one in Calgary:

We love public libraries. We like that they lend books and we view them as crucial community institutions where people gain important information and skills. A recent Brookings Institution article recognized that librarians have become “ad hoc social workers and navigators” who “help local people figure out the complexities of life.” They are becoming especially important in immigrant settlement. If you want to read more about the importance of the public library to community development we recommend Perfect City by Joe Berridge, published by Sutherland House last spring. We are not here to take away your libraries. But we will present some data that suggests libraries are a raw deal for writers.

According to Publisher’s Weekly, 695 million printed books sold in the US last year. Publishing industry revenues were $14.5 billion.

We’re not sure exactly how many books were borrowed in the U.S. last year. This very credible report puts total U.S. public library circulation at 2.2 billion in 2016, but that’s books and movies and music and whatever else a library circulates.

According to Public Libraries Online, Americans borrowed 5.3 books per capita in 2017, or about 1.7 billion printed books, so let’s use that number.

What are 1.7 billion books worth?  Fortunately, libraries are proud of the way they save borrowers money (i.e., how they deny sales to authors). The American Library Association has a handy library value calculator where you plug in whatever you borrow from a library–books, audiobooks, magazines, movies, music–and learn how much you saved:

Presuming that about 63% of the 1.7 billion books borrowed were for adults (the rest for children and young adults), Americans saved $32 billion last year by using their public libraries according to the ALA’s calculator. They spent $14.5 billion at bookstores and saved more than twice that at the library. Two out of every three books picked up by an American was free.

There were 54 million books sold in Canada in 2018. Ontario and BC libraries, serving half of Canada’s population, circulated 166 million items (books and other stuff) in 2018. If the rest of Canada borrowed at the same rate as Ontario and B.C., and if three-quarters of the circulated items were books (which appears to be the American experience), we’re looking at 241 million books borrowed by Canadians last year, nearly five times as many as sold. Canadians love their libraries.

Libraries like to tell their patrons how much they save by borrowing books because it keeps people using their facilities and builds the institution’s case for more public money. Some libraries have started putting total savings on borrowers’ receipts:

Not every book borrowed at a library represents a lost sale, whatever the calculators say. Just because someone takes a book out of the library does not mean he or she would have purchased it if the library copy was unavailable. Let’s say one in four books is a lost sale. That’s $8 billion in revenue lost to the U.S. publishing world. Given that authors get about a 10% royalty on each book sold, that’s $800 million in lost author revenue. There appear to be about 45,000 authors in the U.S. That means each author loses $18,000 per year. Author incomes, remember, are $6,080 a year.

Librarians will argue the importance of lifelong learning and improving literacy and other salutary effects of book borrowing. That is true in a minority of cases. According to a recent survey, the top reason people use public libraries is to borrow books, and the top reasons borrowers give for signing out books are relaxation, enjoyment, and entertainment. Edification is well down the list. And the borrowers tend to be middle-aged university graduates–people who can afford to buy their own books. Libraries are subsidizing, at the expense of writers, entertainment consumed by people who can afford to buy their own. (The above study is Canadian but it doesn’t appear that American habits are much different).

Before we get to what we should do about all this, here is the reading room at the New York Public Library, one of our favorite places on earth…

…and here are a few qualifications. The numbers in this newsletter are what we found from publicly available sources while doing our day jobs. They are rough and subject to revision. We can’t find a study of what libraries cost writers. We don’t think one exists. Libraries don’t want to know. They comfort themselves with studies that show that people who borrow books also tend to buy books. They would have us believe that stopping the flow of free books will cause people to stop reading and buying books. So literature will die if writers live. We’re not convinced.

For their part, writers are loath to point fingers at libraries because libraries are about books and writers, and writers use and love libraries, and libraries do buy books (although not in volumes sufficient to keep writers from penury – an author gets only 10% of the retail price of a single book sold to a library, so two or three bucks, even if it circulates a hundred times).

Writers are seldom alert to their own financial interests. If they were, they would not be writers. Author associations tend to blame declining author incomes on the blockbuster mentality of publishers, who supposedly put all their effort into bestsellers and neglect the rest of their books. In Canada, they complain about the country’s copyright laws that let educators photocopy books without compensating authors. Compared to libraries, these are marginal factors.

The obvious solution would be to make someone pay writers a royalty for all these books being borrowed. Maybe a lower percentage than the royalty that comes from a sale, but a decent royalty. But who pays? Libraries can’t afford it. The demands on them are extreme. As for library users, they’ll scream if someone tries to take away their free books. They should probably be made to pay anyway – no one has a right to free entertainment at public expense, and curtailing their borrowing privileges would be good for booksellers, book publishers, and the entire book ecosystem – but no politician will try.

That leaves the taxpayer. The numbers would appear to be less than $1 billion in the U.S. and $100 million in Canada. It would be better spent than most public money. Canada has already started down this road with its Public Lending Right program. It amounts to about $700 per creator and does not come close to properly compensating writers for their work (edit). A step in the right direction, but nowhere near sufficient.

(Update: hearing from a lot of Canadians about the Public Lending Right. Fair enough. Should have been emphasized in first draft. But the notion that it is sufficient compensation for writers—as many writers seem to believe—is nuts. PLR is a protection racket for the library industry. It throws crumbs at grateful authors, seriously shortchanging those authors, so that rampant lending can continue unimpeded. The whole book industry, and especially authors, continue to suffer.)