Author Incomes Suck but it's Not All Amazon's Fault

What are you reading these days?

I'm asking now because of the dreadful survey on author incomes which revealed the average author income was a few bucks over $6,000, a 42 percent drop from author incomes in 2009.

The easiest takeaway is that writing doesn't pay, but no one I know who is a writer went into the art to make money.

The next easiest takeaway is to blame Amazon, because of course it's Amazon's fault since they eat into the publishers' margins, which leads to smaller advances for authors, fewer books getting published, etc. And also, they made self-publishing mainstream and sure, while some self-pubbed authors are earning a good living and write quality books, there's a lot of crap out there.

While we can blame Amazon—and Electric Literature makes a good case for why—we also have to acknowledge our role as readers.

Are we reading? How much are we reading? How much are we reading in contrast to the amount of (free) podcasts we're streaming or (free) YouTube videos we're watching or (subscription-model) Netflix shows we're bingeing or (subscription-model) cable shows we're surfing?

How much do we value reading and authorship—those of us who self identify as writers, readers, or both?

I used to feel like I read a lot.

I had a book on my nightstand, I was in a book club, I got (and struggled to keep up with) The New Yorker. But I also watched at least an hour of television a night. I didn't even like television, but it was what my wife wanted to do after a long day and I was alone all day, working from home, and wanted to spend time with my wife.

Then I went on residency, where I didn't have enough internet to stream things, where I didn't have cell coverage, where I lived in a cabin by myself, in community with other writers. I fell into reading the way I used to, for hours at a time. It started as much for artistic necessity as for entertainment: My brain was wiped from writing all day long, but I wasn't tired.

I read books I brought with me, books I'd downloaded on my Kindle, books left behind by other residents, books bought at the local bookstore. I read for hours, instead of for 15 minutes before bed.

Reading became my primary source of entertainment and, in doing so, I remembered how there's really no substitute for a good book. The kind you're thinking about when you're not reading, the kind you can't wait to come home to read, the kind that stays with you, that changes you.

I never feel that way about television, or social media—these things I was giving more and more of my time to. These things that, when I was honest with myself, I realized I didn't actually value highly, because they didn't add to my life.

Immersing deeply into reading reset the balance for me. I say no to television more often—and when I am watching, it's usually with an eye toward picking apart the plot structure, so I can at least learn something. I've carved out more time for reading in my daily life—and with it, I'm spending more money spent on books and having more conversations about good books, all of which supports writing communities.

I wasn't doing my part to support other authors, because I was hardly reading—even though, sure, I read for a few minutes a day. It's all too easy to cast blame on others. To say it's Amazon's fault, or the publishing industry, or to claim people don't value books.

And while those things may be true, we need to account for the time and money we give to books, and to writers. We need to take stock of our priorities. We need to take action with our full hearts, rather than do mindlessly what we have done because it’s easy. And after a long day, television is easy.

So. Read more, read widely, and protect that space. And if you can’t do that, understand the trade-off and don’t complain about it.