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Publishers are paying writers a pittance, say bestselling authors

27 June 2018

From The Guardian:

Philip Pullman, Antony Beevor and Sally Gardner are calling on publishers to increase payments to authors, after a survey of more than 5,500 professional writers revealed a dramatic fall in the number able to make a living from their work.

The latest report by the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS), due to be published on Thursday, shows median earnings for professional writers have plummeted by 42% since 2005 to under £10,500 a year, well below the minimum annual income of £17,900 recommended by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Women fare worse, according to the survey, earning 75% of what their male counterparts do, a 3% drop since 2013 when the last ALCS survey was conducted.

Based on a standard 35-hour week, the average full-time writer earns only £5.73 per hour, £2 less than the UK minimum wage for those over 25. As a result, the number of professional writers whose income comes solely from writing has plummeted to just 13%, down from 40% in 2005.

The median income of the writers surveyed – including part-time and occasional authors – has declined in real terms to £3,000 a year, down 33% since the last survey in 2013, and 49% since the first ALCS report in 2005. Professional writers are defined as those who dedicate more than half their working hours to writing.

. . . .

“The word exploitation comes to mind,” said Pullman, bestselling author of the His Dark Materials series and president of the Society of Authors. “Many of us are being treated badly because some of those who bring our books to the public are acting without conscience and with no thought for the future of the ecology of the trade as a whole … This matters because the intellectual, emotional and artistic health of the nation matters, and those who write contribute to the task of sustaining it.”

. . . .

He added that the decline in earnings threatened the diversity among writers and would favour economic advantage over talent. “We need professional writers, because otherwise only those with other sources of income will be able to write.”

Nicola Solomon, chief executive of the Society of Authors, criticises publishers and Amazon for not sharing a greater percentage of their booming profits with the people who supply their raw material. “What concerns us is that during the same period that we see authors’ earnings plummet, the large publishers are seeing their sales rocket,” she said.

Solomon estimates that payment of authors accounted for a mere 3% of publishers’ turnover in 2016.

. . . .

“When I started you could still make an okay living from writing. You can’t do that now,” said Sally Gardner, whose bestselling novel Maggot Moon won the Carnegie medal and Costa children’s book award, but came 20 years after her first book.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Big Publishing, Non-US

27 Comments to “Publishers are paying writers a pittance, say bestselling authors”

  1. Supply and demand kids …

    Like those in KU complaining that Amazon isn’t doing enough about the scammers, the fact that writers/readers aren’t leaving proves that the problem isn’t that bad.

    As long as there’s a slush pile from writers begging to be ‘published’ and them signing crappy contracts trad-pub has no reason to raise rates.

  2. It’s fascinating that this article is about publishers not paying writers enough, but someone still feels obliged to blame Amazon. Amazon is perfectly willing to share 70 percent of the cover price with writers.

    • If you’re referring to the post above yours, I’m ‘not’ blaming Amazon for anything. I was simply pointing out in both cases things continue because they’re ‘good enough’ to keep writers coming back for more.

      If you’re referring to the OP, agreed, Amazon pays up to 70% if you price your ebooks in the sweet spot. Of course Amazon takes a cut selling a trad-pub e/a/pbook, but then so does B&N, so they were being a bit one-sided in only naming Amazon.

      And of course like all the other whines about who was making how much more back in the day, they fail to average in all those rejection slips – and the writers that got paid nothing for their work.

      Fixing this is easy, everybody self publish and those that do well trad-pub will come to them. Sadly for trad-pub, a good selling writer will have a better idea of what their story is really worth. (Yes, I know there will always be those that just have to try the trad-pub route and keep those slush piles going. 😉 )

      • Sorry for the lack of clarity. When I said “article” I meant the OP.

      • The reference to Amazon was about squeezing the margin from publishers by continually lowering wholesale costs, which in turn has led to publishers offering lower royalty rates.

        And they didn’t mention B&N because this is a UK article. They did mention the big UK B&Ms in the same context.

        Not that Amazon should be BLAMED for that–thats how it works when you corner a dying market.

        • You do realize that Amazon pays trad-pub the full rate for the books they then discount – right? So the writer ‘should’ be getting their full share no matter the Amazon discount – just like sales from any B&M store …

          The only time the writer doesn’t get their fair share is when they signed a contract with the publisher that allows said publisher to ‘deep discount’ the books and pay the writer little or nothing. Which needs to be fixed at the publisher/contract side – not the reseller.

          • Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Waterstones, etc all negotiate separate deals with wholesalers. They don’t all pay the same price. In general, the major publishers will actually make more money per unit with Amazon, in spite of the fact that they pay less per copy, because Amazon rarely sends them returns. But overall, the average cost of a wholesale copy has gone down significantly over the past 20 years because of Amazon’s negotiations. This means there is less margin. This means publishers have less overhead to split, and are therefore less likely to give the extra 2-3% during negotiations that authors used to be able to get. Which was my only point, and the only point of that part of the article.

            I’m certainly not blaming Amazon for that state of affairs, and I don’t see where you’re getting that from in my statement. That’s how a free market works. If you have more buying power, you can negotiate a better price. Theoretically, that means you’ll be able to sell more copies, and pass that profit on to the distributer. And, in general, that is true for publishers. They make more money with Amazon than without. But in practice, what this means is Amazon sells more of the top 2-5% of books, not more of everything else. So, that profit increase doesn’t–and shouldn’t–trickle down to midlist and first time authors. The problem is that those authors are now not able to get as good of a royalty rate as they got two decades ago. Its just economics.

            • You also have to factor in the sheer waste of money at some of the top-tier publishers. Many of the larger US publishers (from what I’ve heard) base their offices in Manhattan, some of the most expensive real estate in the country. If they moved their offices to a less expensive locale, their overhead would be lower and they could pay authors more.

              But the simple truth is that, yes, as someone already pointed out, as long as publishers have a slush pile sent by starry-eyed, naive authors, they will continue to pay a pittance.

              The remedy for all of this is self-publishing.

    • Amazon publishes books under a number of different imprints where they produce print editions and are acting like traditional publishers, including their royalty rates: 15% for hardcover, 10% for paperback.

      http://rogerpacker.com/5k-new-poets-prize-reveals-amazon-publishing-imprint-revenue-deal/

      • Felix J. Torres

        Amazon has traditionally charged market rates for their products. The Kindle launched at Sony eReader prices, FireTV at AppleTV pricing, etc.

        The same for APub products.
        And if they charge tradpub prices for print, there is no reason to pay more for print.

        Digital, on the other hand…

        It’s called market pricing.
        You let the market tell you what price it will bear.

        And that is what tradpub does.

        As long as there is no shortage of supply, there will be no change in contract terms. Which is why Pullman and associates want the politicians to step in and override the market. Because they are unwilling to stop submitting.

        They want the benefits of better terms but without having to work/negotiate for them.

        Not. Going. To happen.

        If nothing else, the publishers can afford to buy the politicians and still make money by the boatload.

        The only way to win that game is not to play.
        “Oh, woe is me”, ain’t going to cut it.

  3. He added that the decline in earnings threatened the diversity among writers and would favour economic advantage over talent. “We need professional writers, because otherwise only those with other sources of income will be able to write.”

    You mean they’d have to get a job? *gasp*
    Oh wait, I have a job. I find time to write. Is it as much time as I’d like? Never. Am I contributing to “sustaining the intellectual, emotional and artistic health of the nation?” Well, that’s subjective, as is all art.

    The funny thing is that these trad published people SIGNED their contracts knowing full well what the split was. To my knowledge, this isn’t a function of Hollywood accounting (although it inherently could be).

    Do traditional publishers require an industry-standard contract (which sounds like a cartel) with terrible terms? Yes. Are there ways of pressuring publishers to improve future contracts and this cartel-standard contract? Of course. But implying that the publishers (and Amazon for some weird reason) should be giving more than their contractual obligation reeks of similar neo-Marxist voices lamenting that “artists” (no matter how terrible) are trapped in a brutal Capitalist society where they can’t focus on their art (which no one wants).

  4. “Philip Pullman, Antony Beevor and Sally Gardner are calling on publishers to increase payments to authors, after a survey of more than 5,500 professional writers revealed a dramatic fall in the number able to make a living from their work.”

    Yeah, like that’s gonna happen. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at these poor, deluded writers who hitched their careers to trad pub… and are now finding it hard to make ends meet. 🙂 🙁

    The obvious solution (to TPVers, at least) is to self-pub. Doh!

  5. “The obvious solution (to TPVers, at least) is to self-pub.”

    No, it isn’t, for very obvious reasons. For Philip Pullman, a well-known author or for some equally well known authors who have a large and loyal fanbase, it could work. For nearly everybody else, it’s the road to oblivion.

    • (The annoying anonymous from the top two 😉 )

      If you’re expecting trad-pub to make any but a very few writers ‘well-known’ then I want whatever you’re smoking. Most of trad-pub writers are one book wonders that aren’t heard from again. A downside to having signed a trad-pub contract is they get first rejection to your next book; so all they need to is keep sending it back for ‘corrections’ to tie the writer down. (and I’ve been told some of those contracts claim rights to the ‘characters’ in the book, meaning that if the writer does want to break away they have to start over without them …)

      And if you think trad-pub is the ‘only’ way to become well known, I’ll refer you to that guy that wrote that ‘left behind on Mars’ book.

  6. As a book author myself, I find the single biggest weakness of these survey figures is that they don’t come from just book authors but journalists, script writers, illustrators, magazine columnists, teachers, translators.

    The surveys were largely filled in by the Society of Authors, Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, National Union of Journalists and the ALCS itself (Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Service). In other words, the trade unions for British traditional publishing and journalism. But there is absolutely no evidence that this is representative of anything other than a sample of their union members. Certainly, the idea that this gives a meaningful figure for average author earnings is simply ridiculous.

    This year it was open to non-union members, so I entered the survey myself. It was obvious that they were constructed by someone who didn’t understand modern publishing because my figures didn’t really map onto the questions.

    And if these people wanted me to sign up to their cause, the first thing I would expect is honesty. It’s not only the Guardian that deliberately conflates terms such as turnover and profit to mislead their readers. The ALCS (who commission these reports in order to lobby the UK government) also always misleads in its reports (the latest is here: https://wp.alcs.co.uk/app/uploads/2018/06/ALCS_Authors_Earnings_Report_2018.pdf ). After telling us how their survey respondents are having financial difficulties (which I don’t doubt is true for that group and nothing to laugh about) they then contrast with the upbeat financial figure for UK Creative Industries, which are currently ‘worth £92bn’ and ‘growing at twice the rate of the UK economy’. This is true, but if you dig into these UK government statistics (Google them – they’re all online), you find that the ‘Creative industries’ includes Ed Sheeran’s album streams, museum and art gallery entrance fees, and the work of architects, advertisers, SQL Server DBAs, and sales of the latest of Halo for Xbox One. The publishing sector, according to these same stats, is currently around £11bn and if you look at book publishing, then that’s about a quarter of that figure. And its growth is much slower than ALCS falsely claims. It’s all there in the stats.

    Are average author incomes going up or down? I don’t know. But it’s clear that neither do the Guardian nor the ALCS.

  7. Please add to this list. Thanks…

    – The Road to Nowhere

    – The Road to Oblivion

  8. This brings up a question I have. I have stumbled across two authors that are Indy publishing on a regular basis, and have done 50+ books the past ten years. Looking at the books they are each about 100k words.

    Please list any other Indy authors you have come across that regularly put out 100k books and have crossed the 50+ books line.

    I know about Dean Wesley Smith, but his books are usually about 50k. I’m looking for 100k books at least.

    If there is a site that tracks or discusses Indy writers like these, let me know.

    Thanks…

    – Daniel Arenson 50+

    – Bella Forrest 100+

    • I’m getting there (I think I’m up over 30 books now?), and mine average about 100K. I do 3-4 a year.

      • I’m sure that there are more Indy writers out there with 50+, 100k, books, but can’t find them easily. I’ve stumbled across the two above. Most may be literally in plain sight but I can’t find a valid answer when I search. HA!

        • Book length does depend in part on genre, I would say.

          You’d expect “epic fanasy” to be a tad longer than say, “Urban fantasy”. Or YA books.

          Of course, writing time is a factor, and since Amazon’s visibility algorithms favor fast releases (~ once every three months), there is an inbuilt bias towards shorter novels and novellas.

  9. This eerily ties in with what Kris Rusch said about agents a couple of weeks ago.

    What if some of the money disappears on the way from publisher > agent > author? It certainly did for some… but they didn’t know until they actually asked. (I’m not saying it does for Pullman. But did he check?)

    • I thought the exact same thing, and wondered how much of that money they’re not getting is missing royalties. The bigger your sales, the easier it is for your agent/agency to tap your barrel without being noticed. (Which may be why Lee Child apparently has 2 full-time accountants working for him). And the more an agencies’ revenues decline, the more pressure there is to do so.
      I’m sure Pullman hasn’t audited his agency, and but if he did I’d sure like to be a fly on the wall 🙂

  10. I imagine these same publishing executives ‘underpaying’ their authors also fight for Increased Minimum Wages (for everyone else that is).

  11. When people call for higher payments, it means they have no market power. People with market power don’t call for anything. They negotiate higher payments because they have a strong economic position.

    Writers dealing with publishers have a weak economic position because writers all compete with each other, lowering their offer price.

    Books are just like widgets. If there is a large supply relative to demand, prices fall because widget makers are competing with each other to sell their widgets.

    Books are also like gizmos. If there is a small supply relative to demand demand, prices rise because buyers are competing with each other to get the gizmos.

    And nobody cares if widget and gizmo makers think “the intellectual, emotional and artistic health of the nation matters, and those who” make widgets and gizmos “contribute to the task of sustaining it.”

  12. Related off-topic: Harlan “Pay the Writer” Ellison has died.

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