The year that's been and the year ahead

21 December 2016 The

David Donachie, chair of The Society of Authors, looks at key priorities for the Management Committee and for our members.

It’s been a good year for the SoA’s Management Committee, not least because we had 14 candidates standing for election, a highly democratic process, which showed that there are many people out there willing to serve.

My commiserations to the ten who weren’t elected and congratulations to those who were: Joanne Harris, Charles Palliser, Carol Lee and Celia Rees. They effectively became directors immediately after the AGM and will attend their first meeting as voting members in January.


Last year we had what’s called a Strategy Awayday in which the MC and senior staff indulged in some “blue sky” thinking. We considered whether we should have a category for students and seek to induct those studying creative writing on properly constituted courses. We also talked about networking – the need for it has never been more necessary and it is often best done in local groups – but how can that be facilitated?

Many ideas were aired and discussed, which led to the formation of various subcommittees dedicated to pushing forward our membership drive: one dedicated to helping to form local groups and another formulating our campaigns strategy.

Subcommittees require time and effort, which is willingly provided, but there is no doubt it does place an increased time burden on MC members and it’s not just meetings. We also communicate by email to save time and not a day goes by that I don’t have something in my inbox. If that can be wearing, it does however allow for pressing matters to be swiftly processed without the need for face to face meetings.

I sometimes get the feeling that to the membership, the Management Committee is somewhat remote. In the past those standing produced election statements and disappeared for three years. They worked hard but in obscurity. This regular Management Committee blog is designed to change that and, over the coming months, you will be hearing from all of your elected representatives. This will give an enhanced profile to each and every one.

In some senses I envy the Group Chairs, given their brief is specific to smaller numbers of members, which makes what they do more intimate and personal. We are lucky in those presently in place, people who work as hard if not harder than anyone in the SoA. We have Linda Strachan for the Society of Authors in Scotland, Anne Rooney for the Educational Writers Group, Nicky Harman and Antonia Lloyd Jones for the Translators Association, Nicola Morgan the Children's Writers and Illustrators Group, and Elizabeth Anne Wheal chairing the Broadcasting Committee.

Growing our membership

We have almost 10,000 members at present after a steady growth of 3.5% over the past year. At time of writing it looks as though 2016 will have seen the biggest year on year increase in membership since current records began 30 years ago. However, I am confident we can do even better by engaging ourselves in recruitment. It is in all our interests to persuade those who should join to do so. The bigger we are the more muscle we muster.

I never miss a chance to act on recruitment personally and I have a mantra: you would not fail to insure your house or your car, is it wise to fail to insure your profession, especially as it’s tax deductible? In addition there’s free membership of ALCS plus the insurance scheme which for £12 will protect any member against the costs of an investigation by HMRC.

Never let it be said it’s not worth the subscription, something of which I have personal experience. A very senior publisher tried to stiff me for a substantial sum of money, the reasons being a story on its own. My then agent couldn’t help – an all too common problem nowadays – but the mere mention of my being a member of the SoA and that they would back me changed the whole picture; profuse apologies followed along with a cheque.

Campaigns & issues

Going forward we have our new website and discussion forums where members can exchange news and views. Make use of it please, for it will ease that feeling of isolation to which we are all subject. If we engage with each other it makes it much easier for those who represent you in the places where decisions are made, Parliament and Brussels, of necessity slow but still vital.

We have many ongoing campaigns – around authors’ financial and contractual terms, pushing for proper credits for illustrators and translators, and the CREATOR campaign is now cross industry. We’ve had good press coverage, met publishers and have had some success in improving terms. We’ve been lobbying the Government and EU alongside sister organisations on the Digital Directive – work which led to the granting of rights including mandatory transparency, accounting, bestseller clauses, and a possible 5-year automatic contract re-negotiation.

We’re capitalising on our relationships both in the UK and EU to ensure authors are protected post-Brexit. We’ve campaigned on payment of authors for festivals, with the issue being brought to public attention by Philip Pullman, our president, and Joanne Harris. Many festivals are now committing to pay, and just the other week we were pleased to add Oxford to the list.

We’ve encouraged cross industry support to extend PLR to remote ebook loans, something which the Government is now committed to implement. We’ve been fighting plans for all self-employed people to submit quarterly tax returns – we’ll continue to lobby on that in 2017, along with recent announcements from the Chancellor on VAT and National Insurance.

And of course we continue to promote a reading culture, speaking out against library and school library closures.

Advice, new groups and events

We have vetted 840 contracts so far this year and continue to receive very positive feedback - including from one grateful member who donated the £500 we helped her get back from a publisher to our PD James Memorial Trust (formerly the Pension Fund).

Our specialist groups are very active - run by dedicated committees who provide a huge range of events. This year saw the launch of two new groups: the Writers as Carers group and the Poetry and Spoken Word Group.

We’ve run over 70 events over the past year to inform and entertain members, including a summer social party, which proved hugely popular. We plan to increase the range of events outside London, and to film or live broadcast them where possible. And in March we will be running a stand at the London Book Fair.

£500k in prizes and grants

We have awarded prizes totalling £110,000 throughout the year – that’s more than twice as much as the Booker! And we’ve made grants worth over £300,000. We have taken over the administration of the Sunday Times/PFD Young Writer of the Year and Sunday Times Short story award, as well as the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, starting from the 2017 Award.

And for some heart-warming news: we have received substantial bequests from Brian Abbs, JJ Connington, the 7 Pillars of Wisdom Trust and many smaller gifts and bequests. We will put these to use as we review our investment and distribution strategy and continue to release as much money as possible to authors for grants, awards and prizes.

84 Drayton Gardens

Under the Chairmanship of Andrew Lycett our Property Subcommittee has been looking at the organisation’s property needs. We own two buildings: 84 Drayton Gardens, our administrative offices and No 82 Drayton Gardens, which is rented as flats, except for the ground floor boardroom. 84 is in poor condition and no longer fit for the job in the 21st century. The Property Subcommittee commissioned a number of reports, including one from HB Surveyors and Valuers which advised that we should relocate elsewhere – a view accepted by the Property Subcommittee and Management Committee.

The brief to our advisors is to seek a new property in a more central location to which we can relocate while retaining an income stream, either by continuing to rent out the flats at 82 or by subletting part of the new property. We have commenced a search for suitable premises but the market is difficult, with property values affected by both Brexit and the US elections,

I undertake to update members as the project develops, but anyone who has bought or sold a house will know such transactions are never simple, so I have to enter a caveat. We can keep you informed, but it may be necessary to move swiftly and in that you have to trust your elected representatives. The task is to improve the working conditions of our staff, as well as protect those assets held by the Society on your behalf so there will be times when detail will be scanty.  

I have a year still to serve. In that time, I hope with my colleagues to take the Society forward in new and exciting ways that will result in increased communication, a higher public profile and a greater degree of inclusivity for the members. Oh, and I have the odd book to write as well.