Publishers - we need to talk about authors

17 November 2016 Publishers

Lucinda Hawksley – author, art historian and member of the Society of Authors Management Committee – argues that fair treatment of authors by publishers has been a long time coming.

I have lost count of how many times people have said to me that writers must be rich. “Just look at J.K. Rowling” is the usual comment.

In reality, however, very few authors are privileged to be able to earn a living from their writing alone. Any move to help make life fairer for authors is not only welcome but utterly necessary, which is why the EC’s report on authors’ earnings last month offered some welcome context, along with its common sense recommendations.

I know from personal experience how difficult it is to be creative when panicking about the state of one’s finances and worrying about the rent, whilst also trying to meet a publisher’s demands.

My books have been well-received and plentiful, which might be assumed to bring in a healthy income, but it is impossible to support myself by writing alone. Advances and royalties are notoriously low. There seems no sense in editors being paid more to copy edit a book than the author was paid to write it – yet that happens! I supplement my writing income by lecturing and broadcasting, and I’m lucky that I love doing so, but it is incredibly frustrating how the need to earn a regular income prevents me from having enough writing time.

It is doubly frustrating how many people, including publishing professionals, are of the belief that writing is some kind of hobby. Why is it that our society has long revered its authors, yet at the same time valued them so poorly? Only recently, for instance, I was asked to speak at, and write a guest blog post for, a well-known national organisation which one might expect to value the written word more than others. When I mentioned payment, the response was one of astonishment. This is not an isolated case.

In 1842, on his first trip to America, my great great great grandfather Charles Dickens met Edgar Allan Poe and promised to help him find a British publisher.

A few months later he wrote to Poe expressing regret and bemoaning the state of the publishing world: “I have mentioned it to publishers with whom I have influence, but they have, one and all, declined the venture. And the only consolation I can give you is that I do not believe any collection of detached pieces by an unknown writer ... would be at all likely to find a publisher in this metropolis just now.”

Dickens discovered in 1842 that it was far more difficult for a professional writer to get a publishing deal than for a celebrity in any other field. This anomaly is even more prevalent in 2016 and not only limits the opportunities for other authors but also skews how people perceive us.

This disparity between what the public believes authors earn and the reality of what most authors are struggling to survive on needs to be acknowledged. We need a detailed study to highlight the unfairness of how authors are treated within their own industry.

In a world where publishing is huge business, readers should be made aware of the financially struggling elephant in the room. Publishers need to be part of that conversation. A change in industry attitudes to authors is well overdue – it’s time to recognise that the author of a book is at the heart of book production.