Much has been made of this survey, particularly that the average writing income reported by members in 2015 was 30% lower than that on the 2009 survey.
I have worded that very carefully, because none of the articles I've read about this survey did. This survey is touted as proof that writing income is down, that writers are living below the poverty level, and that authors just can't make a career out of writing any more, not like the Good Old Days.
But as far as I can tell, this survey has virtually none of the information one needs to demonstrate any of those things.
The survey data is divided between "full-time" and "part-time" writers. But the summary doesn't say how it defined those things. How many hours per week does a part time writer average on writing-related work? How about full time? Do these labels even have a basis in time worked, or is it self-reported by whatever standard the member considered?
That's the data I'd most like to know: how much are writers making per hour worked (and "work" here includes marketing, contract negotiation, book formatting, and all the other business tasks that go along with making money by writing.) The summary says that marketing time is "up 59%" but doesn't say how much time that is. (I wish I could find the actual survey data, but it doesn't look like AG has made that publicly available.)
Another thing I'd like to know: what are AG's membership trends? This is a membership survey, not a writer survey. Is AG's membership up since 2009? Have its services become more attractive to low-income members than high-income? I note that its membership criteria require new active members to either have a published book through a publisher on their list, or to prove income of at least $5000 in the last eighteen months. (Incidentally, I don't qualify yet, but it's likely that I will, probably by the end of this year.)
Which brings me to my next point: membership qualifications set an income floor. To participate in this survey, one has to not merely being trying to make money at writing, but to have actually succeeded to some degree.
I started writing with a goal of publication when I was, oh, 15 or so. I finished writing my first book when I was in college. I quit writing with the goal of publication for about a decade after college, but took it up again in 2003. I have finished three novels and a few dozen short stories since then, and started three unfinished novels.
From 1985 to 2014, my total writing income was $0.00.
Surveys like this one will tell you that my income this year -- the first year I ever made money from writing -- counts. But they don't count the $0.00 I made last year, when I edited A Rational Arrangement, or the $0.00 I made in 2013, when I wrote it. I'm not working any harder now than I have been for the last 12 years, on average. The only difference is that in 2015, I actually got paid for it.
In 2015, I took a weird polyarmorous fantasy romance, featuring a neuroatypical female protagonist and a word count that put it at almost twice the maximum length a traditional press would look at for a new author, and put it up for readers to buy. This is not a book I could sell to a large press. In 2009, before ebooks had taken off, it wouldn't've counted. Now it does.
So I look at this summary that claims author incomes are down, and I want to know: Are they really? Or is it just that now you have to count a whole bunch of people who used to make nothing at all?
Even now, I can't readily count the number of people I know personally who've written books -- plural -- and never been paid for their writing. Are writers making less now than ever? Or is it that instead of 1% of them averaging $25,000, now 2% are averaging $17,000?
That the income decline was largest for authors with the most experience (15+ years) does mean the decline isn't due just to new people entering the field. But then again, there've always been a lot of authors who vanish after an unsuccessful book. How many have been able to make a comeback now? If your career started in 1996, died in 1998, and you revived it in 2014, how many years of experience does the Authors Guild count you as having?
I don't know the answers to any of these questions, and even full details of the Authors Guild's survey would only have the answers to a few. And this isn't even all the questions I have. Suffice to say that I am not sold on the narrative they are trying to push from their results.