The State of the Author

Posted filed under Experience.

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Nicola Solomon, Chief Executive of the Society of Authors, has kindly allowed us to reproduce the talk she gave at the Futurebook Author Day conference in London on 30th November 2015.

I have been asked to talk to the state of the author in traditional publishing but I must say that I do not recognise the dichotomy. The SoA represents about 9,500 authors. They write in vastly different genres and vastly different media: from novelists to textbook writers, from poets to ghost writers, from broadcasters to academics, from illustrators to translators, from spoken word artists to journalists. Some are traditionally published, some are self published, some are hybrids and some don’t publish in any traditional sense. What they have in common is that they are professional authors. They may not be full time but they are writing in the hope of making a profit. Samuel Johnson famously said ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money’. I don’t agree. There are many reasons to write if not for money – from personal pleasure and creativity to making the author’s opinions heard – but those are not the people the SoA primarily represents.

So what is the landscape for professional writers today?

First: there’s precious little money about for professional authors these days, and what there is concentrated in the hands of fewer authors. The results of the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) survey, What are Words Worth Now?, tell a story that many authors know only too well: authors’ earnings are falling fast.

Only 11.5% of authors now earn their living solely from writing. In 2005, this figure was 40%.

The typical annual income of professional authors has fallen to £11,000, a figure far below the level identified by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation as necessary to achieve a socially acceptable standard of living (£16,850). And that is the median figure but for many it is far worse – and more of the money is becoming concentrated in fewer hands: the top 5% earn over 40% of all the money earned by authors.

The picture is even worse when we look at those for whom writing isn’t their main profession. In 2000, the typical annual income of ‘all writers’ was £8,810 in real terms, in 2013 this figure had fallen to £4,000.

These figures are replicated internationally: recent surveys from Canada, and America show a similar picture as do reports from France and Germany.

We are concerned but not surprised by the findings in this survey. Authors are not receiving a fair share of the profits from book publishing – particularly in relation to digital. While authors’ earnings are going down generally, those of publishers have remained stable – and intermediaries like Amazon and others are also pressing for an ever larger share of the pie.

Many authors would still see a traditional publishing deal as the gold standard. It has its advantages: there is no financial outlay, a good conventional publisher pays the author an advance, takes the commercial risk, works out all the costings, provides editing, design, printing and the expertise of its legal department; it chases payments, copes with bad debts, can carry loss-leaders, sorts out returns. It sets up and negotiates subsidiary rights deals and special offers. The approval of a highly-regarded publishing house gives public endorsement that someone significant, not related to the author, thinks the book good enough that they are prepared to back it. It reassures retailers, reviewers and readers that the work has merit.

There are still some fantastic publishers out there and some wonderful books are being published both traditionally and in ebook. People are still reading and book sales are holding up well, despite the competition from other media. We have seen a welcome rise in translated books.

However, all is not well in the traditionally published arena. Traditional publishers and agents are becoming increasingly picky about what new works they take on. They are also using independently published books as a slush pile: why should publishers take the risk of paying a good advance for an unknown work, when they can rely on the author to test the water first?

Moreover, the terms publishers are demanding are no longer fair or sustainable. Professional authors are asked to do far more than previously in the way of publicising their work and getting far less in return. Authors are often not paid a commercial rate for appearances. Advances have tumbled. A publisher will take all control and a vast chunk of the book’s earnings, typically 90% of the cover price of a printed book or 75% of the net receipts from an ebook. A detailed analysis of the contract often shows that they are not tied down to much at all – not even to actually publish the author’s book as any more than print on demand. The fact that publishing is now very cheap, particularly of ebooks with no need for warehousing or physical stock, has brought a slew of new publishers into the industry. They range from the good to the bad and the frankly ugly. And size is no indicator. Some smaller publishers are great – some of them are doing exciting and innovative things. Others are little more than vanity publishers.

So what is the answer?

The first is fairer contracts. And this applies not only to contracts with publishers but also with platforms like Amazon and with service providers for independent authors.

Publishers readily accept that publishing is changing and that they do not know what may be coming along next. Their response is to take as many rights as possible from authors in the hope that they may be able to exploit them and only to offer authors a small share until they are sure what the business model will be. Publishers tell authors that they need those rights to properly exploit authors’ work but unless authors hold on to them or build in reviews and escalators, publishers will not increase authors’ share when the outlook becomes clearer. They are running businesses, despite their protestations that the author is at the heart of everything they do. When I hear publishers talking about author care I tell them we are more interested in author share.

We tell authors to check carefully what promises publishers are making. Those representations should be reality checked and authors should ask them to be put in the contract or in an agreed marketing plan.

We also suggest that authors consider other options such as going independent or crowd funding. Some do, with varied success. Others are concerned at the cost, the need to bring in expert skills they do not have and the well publicised risks of discoverability. We strongly advise that authors get detailed and impartial advice before signing any publishing contract. The Society of Authors offers members (even on joining) an amazing free contract checking service and we advise authors to use it.

But authors are not in a strong negotiating position. Publishers are often large multinationals while authors typically work alone. Especially at the start of their careers they may have little or no advice and are thrilled to be offered publishing contracts. They frequently need to negotiate with monopolies or with dominant players in highly specialised markets, such as scientific publishers. Authors are therefore at an inherent disadvantage when negotiating the terms of their contracts. Many contracts are offered on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Advice from a lawyer is unaffordable for most authors. While agents, unions and professional associations, such as the SoA, seek to address this imbalance the situation remains unsatisfactory for the majority of creators.

Here’s what David Vandagriff, an experienced US media lawyer, has to say about publishing contracts:

‘After having reviewed many, many agreements and proposed agreements between traditional publishers and authors, I am prepared to say these contracts, as a group, stand apart from the general run of business agreements as conscience-shocking monstrosities. They’re simply designed to screw authors and to give publishers control over their work that is far beyond what is regarded as reasonable…’

The SoA vets over 1,000 members’ contracts a year and from some of the contracts I see this might even be an understatement. We see many contracts where authors hand over all their rights for no advance and with no guarantee of exploitation by the publisher.

To take just one example – reversion clauses. Last week I saw the requests for assistance from our Pension Fund, which offers a bursary of around £2,000 a year to authors who have fallen on hard times. I was struck by the number of once well-known writers who apply. And yet, some of them could perhaps be earning more if they could have access to their own work. The ALCS study showed that 70% of authors who relied on a reversion clause went on to earn more money from the work in question.

Catherine Gaskin was a novelist who left her estate to the SoA. When she died all her work was out of print. We reverted the works and are earning around £7,000 a year per title from republishing them. That’s far more than we are offering in pensions – yet many of our authors are unable to persuade publishers to revert the rights to even quite moribund titles. That means that works are out of commerce which could be earning money for authors and for the economy.

We are addressing this both through lobbying Government and talking to publishers, suppliers and platforms.We are urging Government to pass legislation to protect authors, and indeed all creators in the area of contracts. This is in line with the Consumer Rights Act and legislation which protects creators in many European countries.

What are we asking for? The Magnificent 7, for CREATOR contracts.

C: Clarity. Clearer Contracts, including written contracts which set out the exact scope of the rights granted.

R: fair Remuneration. Equitable and unwaivable remuneration for all forms of exploitation, to include bestseller clauses so if a work does far better than expected, the creator shares in its success even if copyright was assigned.

E: an obligation of Exploitation for each mode of exploitation. Also known as the ‘use it or lose it’ Clause. This is the French model.

A: fair, understandable and proper Accounting clauses.

T: Term. Reasonable and limited contract terms and regular reviews to take into account new forms of exploitation.

O: Ownership. Authors, including illustrators and translators, should be appropriately credited for all uses of their work and moral rights should be unwaivable.

R: All other clauses be subject to a general test of Reasonableness including a list of defined clauses which are automatically deemed to be void and a general safeguarding provision that any contract provision which, contrary to the requirement of good faith, causes a significant imbalance in the parties’ rights and obligations arising under the contract, to the detriment of the author shall be regarded as unfair. (This is in the Consumer Rights Act) One example would be Indemnity clauses which put all the risk on the author.

So that’s it. CREATOR. These laws are not radical. They already exist throughout many European countries.

Why is it the time for platforms and publishers to address it?

The European study urges a dialogue among stakeholders towards more flexible contracts and exchange of best practices. We call upon the Publishers Association (PA), the Independent Publishers Guild and individual publishers as well as Amazon and other service providers to talk to us and to sign up to the CREATOR principles. The PA already has an excellent Code of Practice and we ask that all publishers abide by the letter and spirit of that document and meet with us to negotiate terms to deal with the digital age.

Why should organisations be interested in signing up? There are three reasons:

1 .  Because it is fair – When Allen Lane created the paperback 80 years ago in 1935 he calculated the author share of royalties by working out the publisher’s expenses and then sharing the remaining profit 50/50. These days authors typically get far less than 50% of the profit on the sale of their work and they are increasingly bound by onerous terms that prevent them from taking their work elsewhere.

2 .  Because without it the industry may be killing the goose that lays the golden egg. The fact remains that authors are the only essential part of the creation of a book yet their revenues are falling drastically and, as we see from the ALCS study, they are leaving the industry in droves. If unchecked, this rapid decline in the number of full-time writers could have serious implications for the breadth and quality of content that drives the economic success of our creative industries in the UK.

3 .  But also because authors have a choice – they can go independent or have their books traditionally published. Authors are businesses – they can consider what is best for them by way of contract terms and likely revenues – and if publishers and others don’t offer fair terms then they will vote with their feet.

I have focussed on contracts and terms but there are many other things we should do together to support professional authors:

Skills and information sharing: The knowledge needed by a professional author and the professional marketing and publicity skills can be bewildering as can the plethora of agencies and services on offer. We should all work together to offer informed, impartial and low cost or free advice to authors.

Diversity, inclusiveness and equality:  Spread the Word’s recent report on Black and Minority ethnic representation in publishing showed how far we still have to go to provide a culturally diverse industry. We are also solidly middle class. We all need to work to ensure that we have the widest possible range of voices in our books and in our industry.

Grants and prizes: The SoA administers charities that give away about half a million pounds a year in grants and prizes. There are many other prize and grant givers and competitions available to authors. These are very important in buying time to write and increasing a writer’s reputation and discoverability. We are looking to ensure that our own awards are as widely advertised as possible and that there are no unnecessary barriers to applications and are working with the Writing Platform, the Arts Council and others to consider how we might better publicise awards and other opportunities for writers while sorting out those that are just rights grabs from the genuine awards.

Appearances: ensure that authors are paid properly for appearances – we have just carried out a survey of festivals and will shortly be publishing the results and writing to them with best practice guidelines.

Lobbying: We can lobby together as an industry both nationally and worldwide through organisations such as the International Authors/ Forum to ensure that publishing does not face unnecessary barriers. Important points include:

  • VAT on ebooks – it is entirely illogical for this to be at 20% when books are zero rated.
  • Protecting copyright. We need to lobby constantly for a strong copyright regime and protection for copyright licensing and argue against copyright exceptions. As our President, Philip Pullman, says: ‘The principle is simple, and unaltered by technology, science, or magic: if we want to enjoy the work that someone does, we should pay for it’

More widely, creating a reading environment. There is a heartening interest in reading, all the more encouraging when we consider the many other media competing for time and attention. It is very important for all of us to create a cultural environment that supports reading and writing. We need to ensure that readers are not an endangered species. In particular we should:

  • Read to our children.
  • Read to other people’s children.
  • Support libraries- the cuts to Local Council budgets in last week’s spending review bode badly for libraries and we need to speak out at every opportunity.
  • Fight for PLR- particularly PLR on ebooks.
  • Fight for school libraries: it is extraordinary that while prison libraries are compulsory by statute school libraries are not- and many schools do not have a library.
  • Support bookshops. Bookshops are an essential showcase for books. We need to work hard to keep bookshops on our high streets.
  • Support proper book pricing. Amazon says that it only seeks a lower price for its customers but, as we have seen with supermarkets and milk production, constantly driving down prices can mean that producers can no longer create their goods economically – and writers, unlike farmers, do not receive government subsidies.
  • Educational funding-ensure that Open Access doesn’t prevent authors from a continuing share in the success of their work.

And finally, we all need to shout for freedom of speech. Ashraf Fayadh is a poet who has been condemned to death in Saudi Arabia for apostasy for a collection of poems ‘Instructions Within’. We should work together with PEN and others to fight censorship and promote freedom of expression. You can sign the Amnesty petition here.

We all need to work together as the SoA has been doing since 1884, to ensure a fair and vibrant landscape where authors, independent or traditional, can continue to flourish and receive a fair share of reward for their talents and hard work.



Nicola has been the Chief Executive of the Society of Authors since March 2011. Her role includes protecting authors' interests in negotiations/disputes with publishers and agents, advising on tax, privacy etc and campaigning for authors’ rights, including copyright, e-book rights, Public Lending Right, defamation reforms and freedom of speech. Nicola is a solicitor who was previously in private practice, specialising in intellectual property and media law. Nicola has an in depth knowledge of the publishing industry and the many associated legal areas, from copyright and defamation, to privacy, data protection and contract. Nicola is also a Deputy District Judge. About the Society of Authors The Society of Authors exists to protect the rights and further the interests of authors. The SoA was founded in 1884 and today has over 9,500 members writing in all areas of the profession (from novelists to doctors, textbook writers to ghost writers, broadcasters to academics, illustrators to translators). Authors are eligible to join if they have been offered a contract from an independent publisher, broadcaster or agent, or have sold over 300 copies of a self-published book or 500 copies of an eBook. The SoA offers a free contract vetting service to all authors and therefore sees many hundreds of publishing contracts each year. Website | Twitter  

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