Decline and fall

‘World to end on Monday. Women and minorities most affected.’

Anyone ever worked this one out: besides that it is the reliable Grauniad headline… this time too? It only works, of course, if the men aren’t there. And, oddly, that is the case in this ‘writer income ‘ Graun piece too. But let me explain.

It may well be that writers’ incomes are down. These figures do not actually show this. It is likely that if they’re down for anyone… they’re down for ‘women and minorities’. And yes, it is because of discrimination… unfortunately, not the way the Graun’s writers love to believe.

Let’s start at the beginning. The first rule of statistical analysis is GIGO. Garbage in, garbage out. If your input data is rubbish, then your output will be. Here is the original study. (it is far less bad than the Graun article). The sample is based on membership of the ALCS. We have no idea if or how representative membership of ALCS is of writers (they make various claims but I found no real data to back it up). Of the 58 000 odd members of this about 2700 odd of them responded. There was a cash draw bait offered. So: we have a situation where 1) we don’t know if or how representative the base pool is of ‘writers’ 2) The response was voluntary – thereby adding a layer of selection bias. 3)There was a financial incentive – meaning there was further selection bias. If you’re earning very little, a cash prize you don’t need to fork up more than your time to win is attractive. If you’re as busy as as a dog with two tails, earning money hand over fist, you have less incentive. So: in summary, the data is selected from a base group that we have no idea how (or in what way) is representative of ‘writers’ as a pool. Secondly, the data comes from a self-selected group — which we don’t even know if is representative of writers who belong to this organization. Thirdly, the group has been selected for wanting a fairly small financial pot. The one good thing we can say is that it is similar prior ‘studies’ and can compare to them. What it says about writers (who do not necessarily belong to the ALCS or volunteer their data) is possibly the quite different… or not. This sampling does not allow us to know if that is accurate for writers in general. It tells us that ACLS members, who volunteer to participate in the survey for a financial reward are earning less. That’s all.

Then we come their ‘gender’ section. Now, this where what I said above may be brought sharply into focus. For ALCS figures to be applied as if they were ‘all writers’ – or a fair representative sample, you should be able to take their figure and apply it to your genre. It may not give you a perfect fit, but it should at least be in the ball-park. Fiction authors earn something like 80% or more of their money shortly after release. While fiction books do increasingly have long tails, it’s still the first 6 months of most books that counts. This may be very different in non-fiction (which I increasingly suspect the ALCS (Authors Licencing and collection society) members may skew towards (supported by the number who are academics as a primary occupation, and the 67% who list their primary output as something that isn’t fiction.). According to the CREATe researchers, writers skew MALE (51%). So go and look in new publications in your favorite genre trad pub. I’ll wait. For the record I have done this for sf and fantasy (published here some years ago). It skews heavily female, especially in the largest genres. I’d take a bet that of all traditional publishing of fiction skews… 75 plus % female, rising to 90% if only debut authors are considered. The PW survey of who works in publishing paints a very similar proportion. So: all these women are buying male authors? I don’t think so, Joe.

Trotting on through the document, without bothering to dissect every bit – digital makes up… 6% of what they do. Hello? Digital indy sales overtook trad sales a few years back. I don’t know exactly who this sample of the ALCS is representative of, but their sample is certainly not representative of me… or most of the writers I know. According to them as ALCS collects secondary income almost all professional authors belong to it. Whut? Most of the fiction authors I know don’t pay a lot of attention to secondary income. Maybe we should. But I don’t think a lot of the hard-pushing writers I know have any real interest in belonging to societies. They’re introverts who write.

The financial section of the study is interesting (given that it is representative of a specific group) and to give the authors credit where it is due, they don’t (as the Graun does) talk about averages, but about median earning. What they don’t mention is variance or distribution. Look, here is reality (at least in fiction) that average income means nothing because a few outliers earn shedloads of money. In a small sample size a Rowlings or even Sanderson and Average looks pretty good. Median does bring it down. But median also has flaws in that it doesn’t really explore the granularity of it all. We’re not comparing people who sold had 17 books this by year with those who had sold 17 the year before (or 1, or 5) let alone factors like rate of production, and genre. That would be very useful. They do however do some good work on trying to address the 20 and 80% but once again – the sample is so problematic as to make you wonder if they are sampling Indy at all, let alone genre fiction. I am prepared to accept that trad published author incomes have certainly gone down, that entry author incomes are dreadful, and that you could make more per hour at a minimum wage job. This is news?

Women and minorities worst affected. I believe it – certainly in fiction. That’s because there just are more of them – out of line with their demographic proportions. Discrimination in their favor has filled the lists… with books aimed at their demographic and excluding others. When you have 50 authors competing for an audience of 5000… there are going to be more losers than 5 authors competing for 5000. When you have 500 competing for 5000… versus 5 competing for 50 000… you have modern publishing.

17 thoughts on “Decline and fall

  1. I increasingly think that any journalist who writes about numbers should state their qualifications. Finance, science, this sort of business. That would at least make it easy to skip over the 90% where the journo has no clue what the sums mean and whether the sources etc. are plausible

    1. “Well, I took Algebra 2 in high school, and I got a B. Okay, technically it should have been a C+, but I had perfect attendance, so the teacher bumped me up a couple of grades.”

  2. I had never heard of the ALCS before today, and I have had nearly 50 books published, most by a British publisher (Bloomsbury, most typically Osprey). Makes me wonder if I am the outlier or whether they are. It may be a self-selecting audience of wannabes. In which case dismal results are to be expected.

    1. When I looked up the organization last time, their basic justification for existing is to go after folks who are using your writing– such as a school teacher photocopying a poem for her class.

      I’d guess you are not in the target recruitment demographic.

      1. That’s hilarious. Lots of my stuff gets used in classrooms because I write history. A few of my books are supplementary reading. Every once in a while a testing service (the ones that provide standardized tests for schools) gets in touch to get permission to use something I have written in a test. (They pay well, too.) So I am in their target recruitment demographic and have never heard of them. That’s too funny.

    2. I suspect their sample is more based on their user base than representative of ‘writers’. Ergo, it is elderly white male academics.

  3. I suppose another factor is that overall women more often have the option of not being required to earn a living because their significant other is paying the majority of the bills. This is a reality, as sexist as it sounds. I can understand this, I would like to be romantically involved with a writer. In addition, writing is a much more flexible option for women caring for young children, which is much more common than men caring for young children. These are realities as sexist as sex differences tend to be.

    1. :points at the academics:

      Try framing it as “writing is a job you can do in the cracks of another job” and you’ll get a sample less likely to get folks snarling, and might be able to get them to look at some of the questionable market pressures.

      As it is, a lot of stay-at-home parent authors– as well as homesteading authors– are going to bristle at the idea that the teamwork involved in keeping a household running only counts if you draw a paycheck. (Poor Sarah got that a *lot*.)

      You can even do stuff like “point at Larry Correia and explain he was an accountant, so there was dead time when he still had to be there waiting and writing filled the gap.” (for the survey he wouldn’t be considered back then, of course, because he made a living otherwise…as do most authors…which is another weakness.)

      1. What Fox said. Yes, there is “Publish or perish,” but most academic jobs are 50% teaching, 40 % research, 10% service (admin stuff and committee work.) Writing counts in that 40%. Some people are specifically hired for more research, and a few places (and Community Colleges) are 100% teaching. However you do it, for most academics, writing anything is secondary in terms of time allocated.

  4. Oooh, ooh, is this the same study—?
    :goes and looks at helpfully provided link:

    It is! The one that has comedians going from $182k to $12k in their sample!

    (I’m still impressed that author and author/illustrator stayed roughly even, since more folks got into writing recently.)

  5. Everyone should take a class in understanding statistics. It’s so easy to lie with them and it’s so easy to impress people who don’t understand them.

    The first question, always, always, always, is where did those numbers come from? How accurate are they? What’s the fudge factor?

    If the paper can’t answer those questions, everything in the article is smoke and mirrors.

    Bill is a member of 20booksto50k. Writers there — a very diverse group! — regularly show off their Amazon earning statements. Plenty of them (but by no means all) make a decent living but they are NEVER COUNTED.

    They’re indie eBook authors and only their banker knows for sure.

    1. Alternatively there are a number of good books on the subject. “How to Lie with Statistics” is a good place to start – I believe it’s still in print.

      1. I’ve read that one. It’s excellent and gives a very good overview to the novice.

  6. I took about four or five journalism classes in college (at the JC level, for full disclosure) and…I can’t watch or read most news articles because most of them would flunk basic ethics back in the day. Yes, I know that the purpose of the news is to sell advertising time and space and that “if it bleeds it leads”/sex and scandal has been the hallmark of news reporting from the days when Homer was telling stories about the Trojan War.

    But, damn…when you can flunk JC journalism ethics…

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