I hate to disabuse anyone, but it simply isn't true.
Almost no one can earn a sustainable living off debunking ancient astronaut theorists. Most skeptics have one or more day jobs to pay the bills so they can devote their (limited) free time to writing about ancient history because they feel a genuine passion for history and feel deeply offended when self-proclaimed "theorists" do violence to the past through their unethical and untrue theories. A good number of skeptics are professors because they have the job security and the time off needed to write books and do research. Others, like me, are freelancers who have whole other lives that have nothing to do with archaeology or the occult or anything alien.
And we're not getting rich off it.
Prometheus Books, the publisher of my Cult of Alien Gods, pays royalties on a sliding scale based on format and wholesale price. I average $0.24 per copy sold. Trust me, twenty-four cents isn't really doing wonders for my bank account. (Other publishers pay more; my other publisher, McFarland, pays 10% of the cover price, for example. My horror genre books outpace my profits from Cult 10-to-1.) Unless one sells tens of thousands of books, or owns one's own publishing house, writing books is no gravy train. Similarly, skeptical journals like Skeptic magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer do not pay for articles. I'm often asked why I don't publish more in those journals, and that's the answer: We all have to eat; I need to make money, and there are only so many hours in the day. Finally, TV and radio shows do not typically pay for interviews, so that is another prestigious but financially empty honor. Every interview a skeptic gives is a day away from the work where they actually make money.
But do you know who does make money off ancient astronaut theories? Let me tell you:
- Ancient astronaut theorists. Erich von Daniken sold 4 million copies of Chariots of the Gods in its first five years. That translated into at least $1 million in royalties for just one of his two dozen books. By contrast, even the best-selling skeptical books on the subject (or even mainstream archaeology books) can be expected to sell only a few thousand copies. Similarly, David Hatcher Childress owns Adventures Unlimited Press, the publisher of his "scholarship," meaning that he likely takes in at least two-thirds of the proceeds from his books as profit rather than the standard 10%. Such theorists can take advantage of a well-developed network of "alternative" media, including cable television, talk radio, and the internet to market their work in a way largely closed to skeptics, who do not have entire cable programs or national radio shows dedicated to weekly promotion of their latest books.
- Book publishers. By appealing to the public's sense of awe and mystery, as well as the general ignorance of science and distrust of authority, publishers push fake history and the occult onto the public because, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, they believe only these types of books will sell. One publisher told skeptic Richard Wiseman that his book would not be published in the United States unless he admitted ghosts and psychics were real. The result is a publishing industry that takes in healthy profits from books that are demonstrably false. That most history today is now written by professors for academic audiences only exacerbates the problem by leaving "alternative" history one of the only accessible sources for the non-specialist reader.
- Cable channels. Archaeology programs tend to be dull. Some are nearly unwatchable. So, cable channels like the History Channel (and now its sister station H2) see a real market for "exciting" programs like Ancient Aliens that can draw mass audiences. Ancient Aliens, Brad Meltzer's Decoded and other similar shows have audiences in the 1-2 million viewer range. This means that each episode can command a million dollars or more in advertising revenue, on top of the carriage fees cable companies pay History and other channels for the privilege of pumping these theories into subscribers' living rooms. History's revenues are more than $610 million dollars a year, with millions of that coming from Ancient Astronauts, a show that costs perhaps $100,000 per episode.* (Heaven knows they didn't pay me to use my work on their show.) Of this, the people interviewed receive nothing (except for ancient astronaut theorists like Giorgio Tsoukalos who receive payment as "consulting producers" or have other production credits). It is, quite literally, a license to print money.
* This is why History is moving Ancient Aliens to H2. It's so cheap to produce that if it draws only a fraction of its 1.5 million weekly viewers on the smaller channel, it will produce massive profits for the struggling H2 channel.