Why Do Authors Feel Hard Done By?

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.

. . . .

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.

. . . .

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.

. . . .

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.

. . . .

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


37 thoughts on “Why Do Authors Feel Hard Done By?”

  1. “The first duty of any publisher to their authors is to remain solvent.”

    Then the first duty of each author should be to bypass the publisher to better remain solvent themselves.

    Te author bakes a pie. The publisher takes all the rights of the pie and gives thew author a tiny slice of the money their pie has made.

    Or the author can sell their pie themselves or through a third party that doesn’t claim to own all the rights to the pie – collecting a larger ‘slice’ – and telling those ‘publishers of old’ to pound sand. 😉

    • Love this analogy.

      Sometimes, even, the publisher *poisons* the pie with a bad cover or terrible marketing. My experience with traditional publishing vs self publishing has been night and day. (And I’m enjoying baking the pie quite a bit more ^_^)

      • Maybe *spoils* would be a better word choice than *poisons*. *Poison* implies that they did it on purpose. While I’m sure that might happen in some very rare cases, most of the time its through negligence or ignorance, rather than malevolence.

        • “*Poison* implies that they did it on purpose.”

          No, poisoning can easily be done by the clueless. Case in point, my (now ex) sister-in-law made us a nice apple pie, one with a bit too much sugar in it (enough too much that a small slice sent me to pray to the porcelain god we keep in the bathroom.)

  2. Huh, according to the author’s bio, he has worked in a senior position at Reed Elsevier…the biggest vampiric leech of the academic publishing world…who insists on authors signing over all their rights for no money, and refuses to pay peer reviewers for their work, and charges libraries and academics extortionate rates for the work they got the rights to for free…but clearly the royalty system is fair and publishers aren’t greedy sharks.

    ‘Scuse me while I bang my head against my desk for a while.

    • No, go bang his head on a desk for a bit – it might knock some sense into him!

      Or did you mean to imply that trad-pub was like banging you head on your desk – both feel so much better once you stop? 😉

  3. Why do authors feel hard done by?

    – “Industry standard” contracts.
    – Deep discount clauses
    – Rights grabs

    Just for starters.

  4. They can somehow afford to pay themselves, their secretaries and the guy who cleans the carpets a living wage, but let’s just fall back on the authors don’t write books for the money standby which imo equals, they’re desperate so we can get away with not paying them.
    Sadly, I’ve heard writers echo this sentiment. I write for many reasons. Lots of people work at their job for many reasons. They all somehow still expect to be paid for their labor.

  5. Both traditionally published and independent authors are subject to the same very basic economic pressures. The supply of books is so large it puts downward pressure on what people will pay for their goods.

    Authors compete with each other for scarce publishing slots. They compete with each other for KDP sales. And they compete with each other using KU.

    We might ask why authors care what publishers do when they have the option to click the Amazon KDP upload button. But we see many do, and they continue to compete for those publishing slots. Do we just consider that irrational behavior, or is there something they value from the publisher that is not available from Amazon?

    • “Do we just consider that irrational behavior, or is there something they value from the publisher that is not available from Amazon?”

      Some think they’re getting ‘properly published’ bragging rights – but to those that are making better money without trad-pub we can’t figure out why being shafted by trad-pub is a reason to brag about it …

    • The way some of us, myself included, comment on traditional publishers leaves the impression that they offer an author nothing but validation. The truth is that the situation is a little more complicated. They offer access to a sizeable but I think a shrinking market. They offer other services, some of which are not readily available elsewhere, including the very big push and recognition that a Big 5 publisher can give a new book. But for almost all authors the cost is not only too high but prohibitive, and they are no longer interested in pushing anything but proven best sellers and celebrity memoirs. The ridiculous contracts leave it open to them to do as little as they choose to promote a book.

      What is being sold is the dream. The dream that the Publisher is as invested in the success of their book as they are, and will make it a New York Times best-seller with fame and fortune to follow. This was a myth before ebooks and self-published books took off, and even more unlikely now. Then again, why do people buy lottery tickets? After all, someone will beat the odds.

      • And that is why authors don’t like what they are being paid. So many value the potential benefits from a traditional contract that they compete with each other for the limited slots.

        Just like widgets or any other good, that forces down what publishers pay authors.

        Publishers don’t pay any more than they have to. Nobody pays more than they have to for anything. It’s not reasonable to expect publishers to act any differently than any of the rest of us do in the market for goods and services.

        God Bless the free market, for price discovery is one of its more important benefits.

        • Not paying any more than they absolutely had to is how certain automakers sent out cars with exploding gas tanks and some contractors build bridges that collapse and kill people.

          The rationalization that misinformed authors will settle for whatever scraps the big publishers deign to leave out sounds a lot like the grifter rationalization that “you can’t cheat an honest man”. That is pretty threadbare ethics.

          Sound business management don’t require predatory practices. There is room for ethics in capitalism.

          • Not paying any more than they absolutely had to is how certain automakers sent out cars with exploding gas tanks and some contractors build bridges that collapse and kill people.

            No. They didn’t buy what was necessary.

            It doesn’t matter if authors are informed or not. The fact that they hit the low bid is the result of competition. We might not like that those authors do indeed sell at a low price. No supplier likes the fact that his competitors sell for less than he wants them to.

            There is nothing at all unethical in buying goods and services at prices resulting from market supply and demand. Low prices typically result in lots of suppliers doing something else. That forces prices up.

            Markets make no exceptions for authors. Prices are held down because authors are not leaving the market. So prices stay down.

            Why do authors feel hard done by? It’s because of other authors.

            • CORRECTION: Authors are not hitting the low bid. They are hitting the high bid. It just happens to be relatively low compared to what they would prefer.

          • Not paying any more than they absolutely had to is how certain automakers sent out cars with exploding gas tanks and some contractors build bridges that collapse and kill people.

            In those cases they did not pay AS MUCH as they had to, rather than more, and in all those cases that was easily proven in a court of law.

  6. The thing the OP and the “market forces” apologists wave off is that not all traditional publishers rely on predatory contracts to “survive”. There do exist publishers who pay out reasonable royalties, agree to term-limited contracts, don’t demand rights they are incapable of exploiting. Some even provide marketing for the books they publish!

    Ethical publishers exist who don’t go out of their way to squeeze authors and staff just because they can. And they not only survive but prosper.

    Preying on dreamers who expect “the universe to take care of them” is optional, just as building deathtraps is optional. Claiming their survival is at stake is disingenuous at best and intentional lies at worst.

    • I don’t see the plight of tradpub authors as being the result of increased competition amongst them. The demand for publishing slots has always been well in excess of supply. So much so that I doubt the existence of more authors and books now is making a material difference. Even the ever-widening rights-grabs I see as resulting from Publishers recognising the value of intellectual property in an age where nothing need go “out of print” rather than increased competition amongst authors.

      And, as you wrote, exploiting dreamers is not compulsory. In fact, is not skill in exploiting people’s hopes and dreams (and fears) the mark of a good confidence trickster?

      • Indeed. In their view the world is divided into suckers and slickers with no room for anything else.

        In fact, all the carping over the evils Amazon *might* do to abuse their market power in the future reflects the predatory mindset of the Manhattan Mafia. They just can’t conceive of running a sustainable business where all parties make a decent return, so they figure Amazon will sooner or later do unto them as they do to their staff and suppliers.

      • The demand for publishing slots has always been well in excess of supply.

        Sure, But, now we have to factor in the new, and very strong, competition from independent authors. That’s real pressure on the traditional publishers that didn’t exist before.

        The independents have been brutal in their price attacks on the traditional publishers. Again, why are authors unhappy with what traditional publishers pay? It’s because of other authors. Those independents on KDP don’t seem to care they are competing against traditional authors who want more money.

        God Bless capitalism, for independent authors are the poster boys.

        • “Those independents on KDP don’t seem to care they are competing against traditional authors who want more money.”

          Which was why the qig5 would stagger their ‘new best seller’s to give each other turns to rake in the dough.

          It’s not indie’s fault that trad-pub shafts all but the 1%ers, if the midlisters don’t like their crumbs then maybe it’s past time they changed teams.

          ‘You and me against their world …’ 😉

          • It’s nobody’s fault. The result is normal, and just what we see in any other market.

            The error is in thinking the fiction market is special, and not subject to the same forces that operate in all markets. Authors are vendors, and subject to the same pressures as vendors in any market.

            There are no protected classes of vendors in free markets. Some vendors survive, and some don’t. Some thrive, and others don’t. Unless a vendor is one of a very small group that produces a very specialized good, nobody cares what happens to him.

            Nurturing is fiction. The fact that an author wants it imposes no obligation on anyone to provide it.

        • I would suggest that 99% of traditionally published authors have always been unhappy with what they were paid. But they had no alternative, and were ruthlessly exploited, in my view beyond the bounds of ethical business behaviour. It wasn’t universal. The top authors and some few books in high demand were exceptions. But certainly somewhere in the 90’s.

          All that has changed is that tradpub is no longer the only game in town. Rather than being brutal on price, what you call the independents are receiving a competitive price for their books. Which tradpub refuses to compete with except in a few exceptional cases. The retail prices of Indie books to the public are now set by proper competition in a properly competitive retail market.

          • Offering books at $.99 when prevailing prices were $10 and above is truly brutal price competition.

            What is proper competition? What is a properly competitive market?

            • What you call the prevailing price of $10 was not set by competition but by the players in an oligopoly. You are seeking to compare this with a single Indie price point rather than this nebulous concept of a prevailing Indie price point which would of course be higher. There can’t really be brutal price competition when one party refuses to compete.

              Proper competition takes place in a free market, not a monopoly or oligopoly or similar.

              • Sure prevailing price was set by competition. The economy is full of competing goods that have a similar price. We see it all over. It’s the basis of comparison shopping. And it is exactly what we expect to see in competitive markets. Producers gravitate to the price where they maximize profits.

                The notion that similar prices from competing producers indicates price setting doesn’t have evidence. It’s not there. We also might note that nothing Random House ever did dictated the prices of all those smaller publishers.

                A $.99 price is brutal competition regardless of where anyone else prices. So is a $1.99 and $2.99. These sellers undercut the competing publishers, and that put pressure on the earnings of authors who published through them.

                The traditional fiction publishers are indeed competing, but doing so in the only way they can. They can’t compete on price because they would lose money. So, they try to tell authors that no real author is a self-publisher, and they tell consumers their product is of superior quality.

                Traditional fiction publishing is doomed. The objective now is managed decline, which can be quite profitable on the way out.

                But those independent authors? They don’t give a rip about the plight of their fellow traditionally published brethren. They are putting them out of business, while the pointing a sanctimonious finger at evil publishers. Anyone remember all the lectures a few years back about the race to the bottom. Who were the runners?

                I applaud the independent authors and what they have done. It is pure capitalism and they have mastered it. Not only did they attack publishers, they also attacked all those other authors. And they are winning. Good for them.

                And I still would like to know what proper competition is. Do we have it in out economy? What is the standard of proper competition? Is a $.99 book proper? How about a free book? Proper?

                • We certainly agree about managed decline and the future of tradpub. It appears that we have no common ground on proper competition. It seems that your view is the prices set by publishers in the tradpub market controlled by the oligopolists is the result of competition. It seems to me that those prices result from a market where conditions are manipulated to exclude competition. I for one shall agree to disagree with you on this point.

                • Of course my view is that publishers set their prices in a competitive market, just like widget-makers and zillions of other producers in other markets.

                  There were hundreds of publishers who could hardly be considered oligopolists. Nor were they excluded from the market. Bookstores ordered their books. Distributors moved their books. Bookstores stocked their books. Consumers bought their books. They were active players. And their prices were in line with prevailing prices.

                  Independent authors rushed through the open gate Amazon offered and went after the market with hammer and tongs. They cut prices far below what any publisher could match.

                  The independents were acting in their own self-interest. However, their actions were contrary to the self-interest of both publishers and published authors. Publishers are never going to give more money to authors because they can’t do it and still make an orderly and profitable exit from fiction.

                  Remember that value authors saw in fiction publishers? That world is ending. I don’t think independents were a sufficient condition, but I do think they were a necessary condition.

                  Authors feel hard done by? Yes. It was fast, brutal, and unrelenting. And they were done by other authors.

    • Dreamers? Authors are now special because they dream? They aren’t special, and just like everyone else in the economy, nobody cares why they bring their goods to market. It could be dreams, greed, hubris, or just a way to make a buck.

      Anyone go through the grocery store and worry about the dreams of the folks involved in producing the food they eat? How about oil workers? Do they dream? Plumbers? Ready to pay more because someone dreams?

      And when the universe doesn’t step up to take care of authors who dream, someone else has that obligation? So they can keep on dreaming?

  7. sure the folks at elsevier [sp] only get paid twice a year and at that are paid 8% on wholesale sales minus returns. The author of this piece reminds me of slave buyers who said they were doing the imprisoned human beings a favor by underfeeding and overworking them

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