Book launches, speaking engagements, social media posts, reviews, cover reveals—it all can seem so glamorous and exciting. But, as a recent Author’s Guild survey shows, the outlook for working writers in the 2010s and beyond appears pretty bleak. More than 5,000 authors (both traditional and self-published) from groups including Sisters in Crime and International Thriller Writers participated in the Guild’s survey, the largest ever of published U.S. authors. The results were clear and dramatic: Authors’ incomes fell “to historic lows to a median of $6,080 in 2017, down 42 percent from 2009.… Earnings from book income alone fell even more, declining to $3,100 in 2017… from 2009’s median book earnings of $6,250.”
Other takeaways include a particularly steep decline in income for literary authors, an increase in income for self-published writers (who still earn less than traditionally published writers), and the scary possibility that “full-time and mid-list authors are on the verge of extinction,” due to an inability to earn a living solely from writing books or even a combination of books plus writing-related activities such as teaching, editing, or ghostwriting. This includes authors who have “written books for decades and have survived on their writing in the past.”
The Guild attributed the steep decline to a variety of causes: Amazon, its robust resale market, and the pressure it puts on publishers to keep reducing costs; online subscription programs, which result in readers buying fewer books; “publishers’ blockbuster mentality,” with large advances for a few highly sought-after authors and less for everyone else; and increased competition. To me, it seems like writing is going the way of so many other “soft” professions. It’s simply becoming harder and harder to make a living from endeavors that don’t directly have some kind of quantifiable value.
And yet, we persist. Most crime writers publish a book a year while holding down day jobs (since it’s no longer possible for most to make a living by writing alone). We spend an increasing share of our time promoting our books and taking part in the active and welcoming mystery community. (More on that in my next column.) I’m always amazed by how my colleagues do what it takes to keep our writing careers afloat—we all have different techniques, strategies, and time constraints—and that spurred the idea of an occasional “Writer’s Life” series, spotlighting a different author in each instance.
Alex Segura is one of the hardest working writers I know. When he’s not at his day job at Archie Comics, or writing his Miami-based P.I. Pete Fernandez novels, he spends time with his wife and family (he has two children, a 3-year-old and a 5-month-old). He also runs the Noir at the Barreading series with mystery writer Scott Adlerberg at the Kew & Willow bookshop in Queens; co-writes the Lethal Lit podcast; and writes short stories, essays, and comic books. Segura is the author of five Fernandez novels published over six years. In answer to my emailed interview questions, he wrote that he had been working on the first two for a while before the first, Silent City, was published by Polis Books. The fifth novel, Miami Midnight, released in August, is the final installment in the Anthony Award-nominated series.
I asked Segura how he manages it all. He said that he’s a strong believer in the idea of found time.
“Often, it’s an hour here, 20 minutes there, five minutes here,” he wrote, “and I have to be mentally prepared to shift gears and get in the writing mindset.… I think the challenge becomes not only being able to pivot and write at the drop of a hat, like some kind of literary firefighter, but also creating that buffer of work/life balance, and writing/life balance. If you want to write, you have to sacrifice things, basically. I don’t really go to the movies, play video games, or hang out into the wee hours with friends.” And the extra activities he engages in, such as attending or hosting a reading event, help “either as research or as motivation to keep working.”
The idea of writer’s block is one that Segura doesn’t allow himself: “If I do get jammed up, I try to take a walk or read something I love, to get my brain working on that frequency again. I just can’t afford to lose months or more not writing. It’s not an option.”
In an environment in which authors are increasingly responsible for promoting their own books, the hardest thing about being a writer these days, Segura says, is “managing your time and making sure you know your value.”
He finds that it’s easy to “fall into the trap of feeling like you need to do everything—every interview, every essay, every panel, every reading.” As a result, he tries to be strategic with travel and events, and treats the promotional aspect of being a published author as a business. Time spent on promotion is time spent away from family and writing. And it’s not just time, it’s money, too: “You reach a point as an author where you have to really crunch the numbers—is it worth $1,000-$2,000 to go to a conference? Sometimes it is! Sometimes it isn’t.”
What Segura most enjoys about being a published author is meeting and connecting with readers. He also loves to assist other writers, whether it’s by helping them to promote their own work or by giving advice on the phone.
In the end, while “we’d all like to [be paid] more,” Segura writes because he loves to write. He writes for himself, and he writes the books he “wants to read, because they don’t exist yet. Everything else is a big, wonderful bonus.”
Mystery correspondent Radha Vatsal is the author of A Front Page Affair and Murder Between the Lines.