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Falling book prices could force authors to abandon their keyboards

9 February 2016

From The Age:

The internet and e-books were meant to signal the death of the physical book. That didn’t happen. The plight of authors is another matter. As they face a perfect storm of relentless commercial pressures and repeated attacks by the federal government, the outlook for authors and their readers, and for Australia’s literary culture, has never been bleaker.

Recent surveys in Britain, the United States and Australia have revealed a serious slump in the income that authors receive from their writing. In Australia, authors have seen their average income from writing decrease from about $22,000 in the early 2000s to less than $13,000 in 2015. For many authors, that means they can no longer earn a livelihood from their work. It’s particularly worrying for young writers, who may abandon their craft altogether. And that’s bad news for readers, who could miss out on the work of our future Tim Wintons and Richard Flanagans.

It’s come to this partly because of market pressures. The advent of Amazon provides part of the answer. It carved out an almost monopolistic space for itself by selling books at a loss. The company has rarely made a profit, with its shareholders seemingly content to finance the remorseless expansion of this retail behemoth. The assumption behind their patience is that Amazon will one day be able to use its market power to raise prices and reap the resulting profits. In the meantime, authors have been the victims of their strategy.

. . . .

It’s not only because of Amazon that there has been a drop of about 30 per cent in the average price of books in Australia. The collapse of Borders and Angus and Robertson saw their place taken by discount department stores, like Target, Big W and Kmart, which added to the downward pressure on prices. As prices fall, so too do the royalties paid to authors. And the effect has been exacerbated by publishers reducing their print runs and consequently reducing the advances they pay to authors. The arrival of digitisation and e-books might have been expected to benefit authors, but the benefits have mostly flowed to publishers and to the Amazons of the world.

. . . .

Now Malcolm Turnbull has declared that he wants to remove the restrictions on the parallel importation of books, which has prevented for decades the dumping of overseas editions onto the Australian market where a local edition is already in print.

Link to the rest at The Age and thanks to Valerie for the tip.

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22 Comments to “Falling book prices could force authors to abandon their keyboards”

  1. ADS down under it seems (and more lies than I care to count …)

    • Yeah. And none of the commenters there discuss the long list of lies or half-truths like ‘Amazon doesn’t make a profit’.

  2. A typical piece of garbage. The Australian government has announced its intention to at long last repeal our ridiculous parallel import provisions for books. This article is just part of the usual publishing response, which is basically that the sky is falling and Australian culture is doomed; Hopefully this time the campaign will fail.

    • @ Darryl

      Well, if the sky is falling Down Under, that doesn’t leave much hope for us in the Northern Hemisphere! We’ll get hit first. 🙁

    • It’s almost as if they don’t realize Australian authors can reach markets 20+ times the size of their country’s own with ebooks…

  3. I miss the days when journalists did research.

  4. David Day is a historian and biographer, and chairman of the Australian Society of Authors. I’m assuming the Australian Society of Authors only includes traditionally published authors, which explains the slant of this article.

    But what about all the indie authors who now have a chance to get some exposure and perhaps find a readership? This article implies that self-publishing not an option down under.

    • Because titling it:
      “Falling book prices could force traditionally published authors to abandon their keyboards”

      Would be too close to what he’s trying to hide.

    • As an Australian, I can confirm that the prevailing knowledge about the publishing industry is years behind the US and UK. At an author conference, most authors cheered when a speaker said ebook sales ere falling. That it is possible to reach US, UK, German etc markets for ebooks on their own is slowly getting through, but it is slow.

      If I was an author worried about falling income, then I’d look to the advances/royalty rates/clauses in my next contract for some redress.

      I’ll also note that many authors complain their government grants are drying up… instead of treating themselves as a small business, they treat themselves as a charity case.

      • “At an author conference, most authors cheered when a speaker said ebook sales ere falling. ”

        That is both frightening and sad. Don’t they realize that ebooks make it possible for them to reach customers all over the world?

      • “At an author conference, most authors cheered when a speaker said ebook sales ere falling. ”

        That is both frightening and sad. Don’t they realize that ebooks make it possible for them to reach customers all over the world?

  5. Worsening contract terms could force tradpub authors to abandon their keyboards.

    There. Fixed it.

  6. The assumption behind their patience is that Amazon will one day be able to use its market power to raise prices and reap the resulting profits. In the meantime, authors have been the victims of their strategy.

    Investors have no patience. They have made a fortune from Amazon stock appreciation.

    If Amazon had no financial profit, and no stock appreciation, they would have booted Bezos years ago.

    But authors as victims? Sounds good. Go for it. Now we need a safe place for those authors to go when faced with reality.

  7. The internet and e-books were meant to signal the death of the physical book. That didn’t happen.

    Nice strawman there! I personally suspect that neither the internet nor e-books have any particular interest in p-books, and are happy to play nicely as long as nobody is throwing a tantrum.

    I haven’t yet managed to read any further in the article, but the strong start doesn’t leave me hopeful.

    • Here’s another gem…

      It carved out an almost monopolistic space for itself by selling books at a loss.

      We’re not saying it’s a monopoly, but gosh doesn’t it look like one?

      Then a nice segue into shareholders funding expansion, with the unspoken suggestion that Amazon has been operating at a loss.

      David Day is a historian and biographer, and chairman of the Australian Society of Authors.

      Well, he’s managed to turn some very nice phrases in this piece; he should be proud of himself. Lucky it’s in the comment section of the paper rather than the news section, not that many people seem to realise the difference any more.

  8. A quick check of the Australian Bureau of Statistics average weekly earnings in Australia for 2015 shows approximately $1,500 per week ($78,000 per year by my calculations) and in 2005 was approximately $1050 per week ($54,600). Australian dollars 🙂

    I am not sure that the assertion that

    ” In Australia, authors have seen their average income from writing decrease from about $22,000 in the early 2000s to less than $13,000 in 2015. For many authors, that means they can no longer earn a livelihood from their work.”

    really holds water as even in 2005 $22,000 was obviously not enough to earn a livelihood from their work.

    Of course, some more useful statistical information about author’s earnings would be informative (quartiles, median, a histogram and the number of samples/authors for a start).

    • Even more interesting, IMO, would be some input from the tax office as to how many people are reporting income from Amazon. Unfortunately I can’t remember (or figure out) if you have to declare the source along with any supplemental income. Notwithstanding the impossibility of getting anything out of the ATO.

    • Their numbers were based on self selecting surveys, and I would imagine they didn’t include many self published authors. I am Australian, and whenever I see these surveys I don’t bother completing them. And I earned $150,000+ last year.

      • @ Matt

        “Their numbers were based on self selecting surveys”

        Doh! Any stats from self-selecting surveys are inherently inaccurate and methodologically flawed. Double Doh!

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