That could be the title of this article at GalleyCat, which really says: Most Authors Make Less Than $1000 dollars a Year.
As far as I’m concerned, less than $1000 is basically equivalent to zero. I would almost certainly quit writing if that was my writing income on a consistent annual basis. I mean, do you KNOW how many more books I could read if I quit writing?
According to the post, more than 80% of self-published authors make no money to speak of, which doesn’t surprise me a bit; but also more than half of all traditionally published authors do no better, which does surprise me. Hybrid authors — who do both self- and traditional-publication — do rather better as a group. Of course I plan to join that group this year, unless something dreadful goes wrong. I would like to have a minimum of one novel traditionally published and also one self-published every year for the next seven years or so (and then I may take a break!) (this plan is subject to revision!).
It is not actually fair to compare self-published authors to traditionally-published authors, because the former include their own entire slush pile, whereas the latter group have had the bottom of the slush pile removed. You have read the famous article “Slushkiller” by Teresa Nelson Heyden, right? That gives you an idea of the books that do not get published traditionally but do get self-published.
So it is all the more shocking that the traditionally published authors do not do better than this. I don’t know the methodology here; it would be interesting to divide out traditionally-published-by-big-six-publishers from all other traditionally published authors. Mind you, that would give you different kinds of hybrid authors and create a more complicated data set.
Something hidden by these figures, or at least not emphasized, is that your income as a writer will probably be extremely variable. Getting advances broken into chunks helps smooth that out, but also substantially reduces your income in the particular year you sign a contract.
I have never personally fallen into the less-than-$1000 group, but last year my writing income did not even cover my breeding expenses for my two attempted (disastrous) litters. Which expenses, granted, were pretty high. The investment in every litter is three to five thousand dollars, if you’re curious — which is why it hits you so hard if you get zero puppies to sell. So in some years, breeding expenses represent an absolutely insane proportion of my income.
This year is set to be much (much) better for me. Not to mention getting live puppies would help!
In fact, back to the GalleyCat graphs, I think I have personally hit four different income categories from the more detailed graph. Fairly widely separated categories. In only five years.
I know how hard it was to find data on writers’ income when I first got interested in that question, so if you’re interested, you should click through and look over these data.