From Publishing Perspectives:
I was struck by a comment on my last column about measuring commercial success in publishing. It came from Ryan Jones who is, I imagine, an author. He wrote: “Publishers pull in billions of dollars yearly and yet few writers can even make a living. What’s wrong with that picture?”
I thought it might be worth examining this widely held sentiment.
Of course he has a point, and I’m sure the various organizations supporting and representing authors would agree. There was a recent spat between the UK’s Society of Authors, the Authors Licensing & Collecting Society, and the Publishers Association, about this very subject.
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Per Saugman was a distinguished medical publisher, the force behind Blackwell Scientific Publications, the sale of which to Wiley is the reason that the UK still has a high-quality academic and trade bookselling chain, Blackwell Retail, in spite of the many challenges. Saugman explained to an author why he would not increase his royalty rate: “I’m not paying you the royalty, the purchasers of the book are. The higher the royalty rate, the more we shall have to charge and the less enthusiastic they will be to reward you.”
The royalty system is a fair one. It links an author’s income not to any abstract notion of worth but to how much the reading market will pay for the author’s efforts. Successful authors are hugely well rewarded and I’m sure would prefer the current system to any other. JK Rowling, Danielle Steele, Stephen King, and many others have built fortunes from their books and frequently are able to deploy those fortunes generously and properly.
And then one should consider why writers write. It’s not always (or even usually) for money. There are many motivations.
For instance, a lawyer might want to write the ultimate book on her subject of expertise. It’s a way of establishing her credibility and hence the value of her professional practice. A few hundred or thousand dollars either way will be of little consequence but what she wants is a publisher whose brand carries weight, whose editorial support systems and marketing reach are first rate.
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The main complaints seem to come usually from so-called midlist authors whose income is almost certainly in decline. But that’s not from publishers taking more. It’s simply the case that general fiction (the bulk of this sector) is more widely split than ever between the bestsellers and the not-so-good sellers. Public library sales, which were the bedrock of midlist hardback sustainability, are in decline. Paperback sales have been eroded by lower-price ebooks. Fewer retailers are willing to dedicate space to any but the top 100 or so novelists. Self-publishing has created a tsunami of digital fiction, thus deflecting sales from the traditional market.
None of that is of any comfort to the professional writer seeing his or her income decline. Nor does it help that publishers seem willing to pay large advances to unknown new authors in the hope of finding the next big thing after a massive twelve-way auction. The trouble is that every now again the next big thing is the next big thing and it is the big things that keep general publishers in business.
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Yes, the publishing industry is big. A survey conducted by the World Intellectual Property Organization and the International Publishers Association estimated total global sales of US$41.9 billion in 2016.
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The industry also employs many millions of people worldwide. And pays taxes. And creates markets.
But as I said in my previous column, sales don’t represent profits.
Publishing is highly competitive. Margins in certain sectors at certain times can be high. An unexpected bestseller can transform a business. Finding a new niche or a new market can generate profit and cash, but in the normal course of events, a publisher is happy to make a 10-percent return on sales (trade authors typically receive 10 to 20 percent of the publisher’s sales) and to generate enough cash to stay in business.
Publishing is a good business and an important one for all sorts of reasons, but publishers are not the greedy sharks they’re sometimes portrayed to be, nor are their companies out to prosper at the expense of authors. If authors’ incomes are in decline, the solution is to find a larger cake, not to argue about the size of the slices.
And Stanley Unwin’s famous quotation still holds true: “The first duty of any publisher to their authors is to remain solvent.”
Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives