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Professional writers set to become ‘an endangered species’

8 January 2016

From The Guardian:

His Dark Materials author Philip Pullman is heading a new charge from writers demanding to be rewarded fairly for their work, as the Society of Authors warns that unless “serious” changes are made by publishers, the professional author “will become an endangered species”.

In an open letter to Britain’s publishers, the Society of Authors points to a recent survey that found that the median income of a professional author is now just £11,000, with only 11.5% of UK writers making a living solely from writing. Pointing out that “authors remain the only essential part of the creation of a book and it is in everyone’s interests to ensure they can make a living”, it tells publishers that “unfair contract terms, including reduced royalty rates, are a major part of the problem”.

. . . .

“From our positions as individual creators, whether of fiction or non-fiction, we authors see a landscape occupied by several large interests, some of them gathering profits in the billions, some of them displaying a questionable attitude to paying tax, some of them colonising the internet with projects whose reach is limitless and whose attitude to creators’ rights is roughly that of the steamroller to the ant,” said Pullman.

“It’s a daunting landscape, far more savage and hostile to the author than any we’ve seen before. But one thing hasn’t changed, which is the ignored, unacknowledged, but complete dependence of those great interests on us and on our talents and on the work we do in the quiet of our solitude. They have enormous financial and political power, but no creative power whatsoever. Whether we’re poets, historians, writers of cookery books, novelists, travel writers, that comes from us alone. We originate the material they exploit.”

. . . .

Daniel Hahn, author, translator and chair of the society’s management committee, agreed. “I think we all understand that the book business isn’t easy for anybody right now – well, nearly anybody – and that plenty of good publishers are struggling, too. But we’ve reached a point today where the professional author is under serious threat, and that’s not a state of affairs that is good for any of us – not for publishers, not for writers, and certainly not for readers and the wider culture,” he said. “We mustn’t allow ourselves to drift into a situation where only the already-wealthy can afford to be writers, and so it’s time to rebalance the scales a little.”

. . . .

Richard Mollet, chief executive of the Publishers Association, said this morning that while “publishers share the frustration of the author community that it is increasingly difficult for authors to make a decent living from their writing”, they “locate the principal source of this problem not in the contractual relations between publisher and author but in deeper market factors”.

“With margins being squeezed across the whole supply chain, books are facing increasingly stiff competition from other media and entertainment sectors for consumers’ time, and there simply being more writers … the reasons for the decline in average author income are wide and varied,” said Mollet. “We look forward to continuing our discussions on these policy issues with the SoA and other author representative groups.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian and thanks to James for the tip.

Big Publishing, Contracts, Non-US

26 Comments to “Professional writers set to become ‘an endangered species’”

  1. “Professional writers set to become ‘an endangered species’”

    Could someone please define ‘professional writer’ for me?

    If they mean one of the big publishers’ ‘darlings’ that are actually well paid by the publisher — in comparison to all the other writers in that publisher’s pen, oh well.

    If they mean making good money writing and getting to/selling to the readers, all of that is no longer under the publishers’ thumb, so they may not realize or want to notice that writers are managing that from ‘outside’ those publishing pens.

    (and since they don’t have the ‘publisher overhead’, those indie/self publishers can charge less per e/book and still see more of the money from each sale than those writers in the publishing pens.)

    • Yes, I would pay more attention if the writers in question were getting 70% royalties and priced their books competitively.

      • Smart Debut Author

        I would pay more attention if the writers in question were getting 70% royalties and priced their books competitively.

        That right there is the definition of a professional writer — someone who is in charge of their writing career and treats it like a business.

        What this moronic article deems a “professional” writer — a disempowered and submissive dreamer wholly dependent on opportunistic middlemen and random luck to ever earn a few tiny scraps for their labor… that’s what most industries define as an amateur.

    • “Professional” used to have a particular meaning, and often included either accreditation of some sort or participation in an organization of peers to which application was required. Law and medicine are good examples of the former — requiring study, and the successful completion of an exam. One could argue journalists were an example of the former, in that there were a few organizations, some of which advanced codes of ethics and such.

      I think it also used to entail that besides formalized training, one made a living by what one was doing.

      Nowadays I think it’s mostly become what we call people who get paid to do what they do.

      Honestly, I think that given digital and especially Kindle, more and more writers are going to become professional writers, at least where “professional” means “made money from it.” That said, I think the “making a living by writing” will remain as much a challenge as ever. I also don’t think that the “making a living” benchmark is required to be professional, any moreso than formalized education does.

      • I think of it nowadays as acting in a professional manner. Meaning treating what you’re doing as a business, paying your writing related bills, meeting obligations and deadlines, having high standards, and working to the best of your ability.

        Also why I don’t consider myself to be a professional writer. 😉

  2. I think this is wonderful. It wasn’t so long ago that I was complaining about some prominent authors signing their names to blustering propaganda in an attempt to further the agendas of their publishers. I’m happy to see someone with influence devoting energy to furthering the prospects of writers instead.

    • “I’m happy to see someone with influence devoting energy to furthering the prospects of writers instead.”

      Do they actually have any pull/control — or is this just like the AG wish list for better contracts/royalties that the publishers just ignore?

      • A good question. I don’t know whether it will go anywhere. But I’m glad to see contract terms getting so much attention these days. I hope something good will come of it for the trad folks.

        • That’s why I asked. We hear AG/AU/ABA ‘say’ all sorts of things, but nothing comes of them.

          The one good thing is that it might cause a writer to pause and think before signing away their work for a few breadcrumbs …

  3. ““will become an endangered species”.”


    Well, blow me down! Whoever knew that writing was a secure profession?

    I rather thought that, like acting, you only do it out of compulsion and that you cannot do anything else?


  4. The SoA DO have a lot of clout here, and are never averse to members indie publishing or to indie publishers becoming members. In fact they hand out good advice. I’ve done a couple of sessions for them myself. Many writers over here work with a mixture of independent and traditional publishing. I do this and I wouldn’t call myself a ‘disempowered and submissive dreamer’. At my age and stage in a long switchback of a career, you don’t dream. You just get your head down and work. And you handle your own business in whatever way works best for you and whatever genre (or genres) you write in – and on the whole the SoA is very supportive. Chatting to my video game designer son, over Christmas, I realised just how far ahead of most writers they are, in their realisation that their best hope for solvency is to work with a portfolio of projects that may not always require the same approach or the same ‘deal’. If you write in a particular genre, with the huge market that you are lucky enough to have in the US – and it’s one where indie publishing works well – then good for you. Go for it and stick with it. No reason not to. But if you work in a series of niche markets, like I tend to, you may need a rethink and many SoA members are probably in the same boat: translators, academic writers, children’s writers and illustrators as well as fiction writers – and poets and playwrights too. I’ve been doing this for long enough, and made enough mistakes to know what I want and how I want to do it!

    • Smart Debut Author

      I wouldn’t call myself a ‘disempowered and submissive dreamer’.

      And clearly, you aren’t one. You’ve taken charge of your career. You’re not one of the “endangered species” this article whines about… if traditional publishing fails to deliver to your expectations, you aren’t afraid to indie publish instead — in fact, it sounds like you’re doing both.

      My dig was rather aimed at those writers who hide behind traditional publishing’s skirts, clinging to outdated appellations like “professional writer” and “published writer” as ego-salve and loudly declaiming that their own waning fortunes mean that “quality writing” is disappearing, replaced by self-published dross.

      • Or, as Sue Grafton so eloquently put it, “trust the universe” to take care of them.

        That kind of passivity is what is endangered today and tomorrow; blindly trusting in the honesty and honor of agents and publishers and their contract drafters.

  5. No one can stop folks from writing if they want to write. My college professors in the English department’s creative writing program were all published, award-winning authors, and guess what? Full-time jobs teaching.

    A writer can work at a profession and still write. It will take longer to get that novel out, but they can do it. Most of the writers I know have either a day job (or two) or very supportive spouses.

    If what they mean by professional is full-time authors with no other profession or source of income, then yeah, that will likely get harder and harder, not easier. Too much free content, cheap content, and other diversions (streaming Amazon, Netflix, On Demand content, social media).

    But no one said a writer couldn’t work another job to fund their own writing. That’s the old school way of doing it. In fact, I see plenty of writers finding ways to make income (some of them really spammy and annoying) doing webinars, being affiliates, selling courses, doing editing, creating book covers (the ones with PHotoshop/Gimp skills), doing copywriting (not novels, but it pays), blogging for income.

    The “professional” writer of the 21st century at least has other ways to market their skills with the internet. Ones with once-or-current bestseller status can monetize that online in various ways. I have an artist friend who does those paint-wine events and does photography and essential oils for cash. I have a writer friend who opens her home for a week for a “writer’s retreat” and charges. Another half-dozen novelist-pals edit on the side. Two have their own small presses. Four I know do book covers on the cheap. I’ve made some cash editing and writing blurbs for the blurb-challenged, and I made a free cover for one. I plan to learn Photoshop and do budget-simple covers for indies.

    So, yeah, what do they mean by professional? Just writing and nothing else 40+ hours a week?

  6. What would happen if all these authors just self-issued their next books? After all, nobody buys a Philip Pullman book because the publisher’s name is on the spine.

    • Besides a whole lot of lawsuits against the authors, filed by their publishers and agents?

    • I think as long as the contract didn’t prohibit it–first look clauses or a prohibition on writing those series characters/settings for anyone else–I suppose they could. It all depends on what they signed away. I remember reading some romance author bemoaning not being able to self-publish stories in her “world,” as the publisher had rights to it. And I know in the past the right to use particular pen names were even in question.

  7. If the professional author becomes an endangered species or dies out, the rest of the authors will step up and supply the market.

    People mistake their valuable contribution for a necessary contribution. Markets adjust when people leave.

    • Heinlein called that kind of thinking “Functionalism” way back in THE ROADS MUST ROLL.
      Out in the real world, most working stiffs learn early on that nobody is irreplaceable.

  8. Writers who have only made a living from their writing have always been a bit of a rare beast, from what I understand. Most have turned their hand to other work, or had patrons.

    What these people are bemoaning is a myth, and the presumed death of a way of life that has never existed for most people.

    I think the future for writers is extremely bright. I think those who have the courage and the skill can make a fine living from their work, but they’re going to have to control that future. No signing with a company that will nurture and manage their lives. They’ll have to take the lead, learn how to do things on their own (so they know how to find good service providers), take a risk, work harder (no more one book every ten years or so).

    It’s a glorious, bright future, and I for one look forward to it.

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