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.


Julia Gasper 21/11/2016 21:04:48
" All very true. I went to a talk at the weekend given by Geraldine Roberts, author of The Angel and the Cad. It's now successful and selling well, but she pointed out that it had taken her ten years to write. While it was not her only job, nevertheless think of all the intensive work she put into it. Writers rarely get the credit for that sort of sustained effort."
John Shelley 21/11/2016 17:12:37
" Very, very well said! And of course it's equally the case for photographers, illustrators and any other publishing freelancer on royalties. 325332"
Jan Harvey 20/11/2016 17:30:43
" Really good article, thank you."
Diana Kimpton 19/11/2016 19:49:01
" It would also help if publishers dropped non-compete clauses completely or went back to their original form which just stopped an author selling virtually the same book again to someone else. Over recent years, this clause has widened out to cover virtually any other book the author might write for the same market - a situation that removes our ability to develop our careers in the way we want. I only want to sell them a book - not my soul. No wonder so many authors are switching to self-pubishing."
Elizabeth Moon 19/11/2016 15:16:50
" Publishers, bookstores, and e-pirates all have excuses for why authors can't earn enough from their writing to live on their work. Authors themselves are also guilty of attacking other writers (e.g. Fredericks: "Should the author of a brilliant book that took 10 years to write be paid the same as a hack who churns out formula bestsellers annually?" ) This doesn't help. A book's quality is not directly related to the time it took to write it (at workshops I've read some novice manuscripts, written laboriously over many years, that were far from brilliant, even far from minimally competent.) Neither is the amount of the advance.

We need to look not just at the entire range of writer income, but at the specific career indicators of writer success--not outliers, like Rowling, but all writers who make enough to live on. How long did it take them to get there, how stable is that income (e.g. alternating feast and famine, or predictable enough to build savings for later), what did they do to accomplish it, what are their average weekly working hours? (Including as working hours doing research, all stages of editing and working with publishers, of course, not just the increase of words in a manuscript.) Some writers work themselves into breakdown and illness for a pittance, certainly--but those considering making a stab at full-time writing need better information on how the successful (not rich, just eating regularly, sleeping under a sound roof, keeping the electricity on) have managed it.

It would help authors if publishers would quit dropping writers before the end of a contract, purely on the basis of "numbers" on a single book, because the book did not meet some sales standard the writer was never told about. If a publisher contracts for multiple volumes, the publisher should hold to that contract. The writer needs to be able to predict base income to the end of a contract...and publishers make money on a book before the book "earns out" contractually. Writers with a multi-book contract who are dropped before the completion and publication of all volumes have scant chance of being picked up by another publisher, and readers are permanently put off by the sudden end of a story they thought would continue.

It would help authors if publishers considered all the context of a book's release, success, and "failure." Lower-than-expected sales may be caused by something other than a book's quality or actual appeal to readers. (I know someone whose first novel was scheduled for release on September 11, 2001. No one in the United States was running off to bookstores that day to check out first novels. Sales in first week, minimal. Not the writer's fault.) Anything that disrupts normal business behavior (from natural disasters to man-made ones) will drop the sales of books during that critical first week to 10 days, especially books by less known authors. Bad covers are another cause of unexpectedly low sales, and most writers with a long-enough history know that the book's cover can kill sales. Publishers' art departments do not always know (or consider) the known readership for a particular author or type of book. If the author already has name recognition, that may soften a bad cover's blow to sales, but an early-career author will suffer a drop in numbers. (Women authors, whatever they're writing, too often get "feminine" covers assumed to be more attractive to women readers, and men get "serious" covers. Since even men who will read fiction by a woman [because the topic is "masculine" enough] will not carry around a book with a "romance" cover, this is a constant problem for women authors with a substantial male readership.) Outside reasons should not be laid to the book itself, or its potential had it not been released when it was, with the cover it had.

Publishers paying huge advances to celebrities and politicians (who do not actually write the books themselves because they are busy being celebrities and politicians--no small task) are another problem. The huge advances are eye-catching in the news, and help convince the public that all authors are getting that kind of money--or are just incompetent, lazy scribblers who don't deserve it. I doubt this will stop, but it's annoying when someone asks "Well, Famous Name made X on her/his book, so if you're not getting that much, you must not be any good as a writer."

Surviving as a writer--a fiction writer specifically--is a very tough, uphill struggle. It's scary; it's precarious much of the time. It is made harder by decisions that readers make, that bookstores make, that publishers make, that reviewers and critics make, that teachers and parents make. All these affect what books are read, what books are available in the market and libraries to be read, and through that what books have a chance at traditional publishing. But what writer would stop writing because of that difficulty?"
M.J.Trow 19/11/2016 13:57:26
" Well said, Lucinda. This elephant in the room is tired of the 'paying it backwards' method of remuneration. With many publishers not even paying advances these days, it has become even worse. I wonder what would happen if we tried to walk out of Tesco with a loaded trolley on 1 January and told them airily that they would be paid (minus various arcane deductions) sometime in October. I somehow think it wouldn't go down at all well!"
Gretta Curran Browne 19/11/2016 13:47:13
" So many authors say that "publishers" rip authors off. I disagree, and believe that the real rip-off merchants are the chain bookshops who demand a discount of 50% and supermarkets like Tesco that demand a discount of 75%. The "businesses" expect authors and publishers to fill their shelves with "stock" on "sale or return" basis - i.e., - for free! In no other business would this be allowed. Would a Fashion Designer allow a shop to stock all their designs for a season and yet be able to throw back those shelf-dusted garments they did not sell - at no cost to them? No way - not in any other business would that be reasonable.
To me, these are the real greedy elephants in the room that no one ever mentions - chain bookstores and supermarkets who insist on not only having the biggest bite of the cake - but being allowed to stock it for months for free at the expense of both author and publisher."
LR Fredericks 19/11/2016 13:46:36
" I wasn't for a moment suggesting that it SHOULD be about fixed ratios or a relation of effort to success! Just pointing out that the absence of the above contributes to the difficulty of authors' position."
James Mayhew 18/11/2016 16:23:44
" Thank you Lucinda. This dovetails beautifully with my own blog on this site about Fair Trade for Authors. More than ever, I think, society needs writers (and illustrators) to reflect on the changing world around us. I think people don't realise what would disappear from their lives if no-one wrote, or created art. I don't think it's about fixed ratios or effort to achievement. It is about discounts and fair contracts really. For me, that's the core of the problem. Of course, some books don't sell. We all take a gamble when we publish. But if we agreed contractual terms, that's just the way it is. But if heavy discounts mean we lose what we expect, then I feel that's plain unfair. No other industry would tolerate it."
Nicola Morgan 18/11/2016 12:21:45
" "It’s time to recognise that the author of a book is at the heart of book production" - YES!

I do, however, keep reminding myself to value the fact that, as a writer, there is always the tantalising chance of earning *more* than expected for a book, or for a book to live longer than most and continue to bring in some money each year. BUT, in practical terms - including the inescapable need to eat - it is wrong that the baseline of normal earnings from substantial work is so low.

As you say, though, people really do need to understand that for most authors it is not possible to earn a living through writing alone. And that when a book fails to earn out even a small advance, the author effectively worked unpaid."
Anne Rooney 18/11/2016 11:11:44
" I don't think there has been any suggestion that all authors should be paid the same, or even that payment should correlate with time spent, but it should at least correlate with publishers' earnings from a book. If the publisher makes a decent income from a book, or expects to, the writer should have a fair share of that. The real dispute is about being cheated, not wanting £300,000 by right for spending 10 years writing a book."
LR Fredericks 18/11/2016 08:08:45
" One of the reasons it is difficult to remunerate writers in the same way as other professionals is that there is not a fixed ratio of time/effort to achievement. I have 3 published (or about to be published) mainstream literary fiction books. The first took me 5 years to write, the second 18 months, the third about 3 years. Another reason is the lack of fixed ratio of success to quality. Dreadful books may sell in the millions, excellent ones not at all. Should the author of a brilliant book that took 10 years to write be paid the same as a hack who churns out formula bestsellers annually?"
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