On the money
By James McConnachie
From its foundation in 1890, The Author avowed that it would be different from most literary journals. How so? Because, in line with the founding principles of the Society of Authors, it would unashamedly discuss money. This was a radical proposition. Literature has often been imagined as unworldly – as if it was still the province of the leisured gentry, perhaps. But the cloak of belletrism has always covered worker’s overalls – and it has always been the task of the SoA to grapple with the economic aspects of authorship. Writers, illustrators and literary translators need money just as much as inspiration. The more pertinent audience question at a festival, arguably, is not ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ but ‘Where do you get your money?’
Which takes me to this Spring issue. Our lead article is one I have wanted to commission for a long time. Robert H. Frank is a distinguished scholar, a New York Times columnist, and the author of landmark books on economics and ethics. He also co-coined the phrase ‘winner-take-all’ – and with that in mind, along with the inexorable rise of celebrity authors and the decline of the ‘mid-list’, I emailed him to ask if he’d write for us. The publishing industry is crying out for a behavioural economist to take a Martian’s-eye view of it, I suggested to him, with all its many irrationalities and myths (not least the myth of being an industry that rewards merit), its increasing tendency towards a winner-takes-all structure, its deepening inequality and perhaps above all its belief that it can balance its own competitive tendencies with guardianship of the common good.
Frank’s response is considered and authoritative. He insisted that he was not an expert on publishing, however, and could not write about the specific monetary forces that drive editorial and marketing decisions. So I put some of his propositions to Stephen Page, the Chief Executive of Faber & Faber, to find out what a successful publisher – and one with an unrivalled literary heritage – would say about that balance between commercial success and the common good.
This Spring issue features another distinguished publisher, Richard Charkin. He tackles a cow sacred to many authors: he wants to do away with author royalties that are based on the book’s recommended retail price, and move to a system based on net receipts, meaning the money the publisher actually gets paid by the bookseller. He believes this is better for authors. The SoA (broadly) disagrees – and our response is published alongside Charkin’s article.
The economics of authorship are important, but working authors might be forgiven for simply wanting to know how to make some money. Accordingly, Candy Gourlay and Shoo Rayner advise on ‘side-hustles’. Anna Caig, meanwhile, gives practical tips on running an online book-launch, for those authors who want to sell some actual books.
Financial issues are so important. But they can be dry, weighty or even anxiety-provoking, and I’m conscious that we have all been struggling of late. So if you need to be uplifted, I recommend you start with Benjamin Myers' article, which finds warmth in the darkness. If you need comfort, and tools for living with lockdown or long-term illness, then turn to Alec Finlay. If you need your horizons enlarged, read Adipat Virdi on using immersive storytelling to drive positive social change. If you want to laugh, and think afresh, go for Okechukwu Nzelu on sex and comedy. (And if you need money, urgently, consider applying to the SoA’s Contingency Fund; it is now open to repeat applications.)
Nzelu enjoins writers of comedy ‘to dwell whole-heartedly and unselfconsciously in that moment of vulnerability’. This is good advice for writing – and, it strikes me, good advice for living. We have all felt so vulnerable of late. Acknowledging that, surely, is the first step to recovering our confidence and sense of hope.=
mcconnachie.tumblr.com | @j_mcconnachie
Cover artwork by Vanessa Lovegrove
Vanessa Lovegrove is a freelance illustrator based in Bristol, whose conceptual approach combines a love of character, narrative and textures. Predominantly working in editorial, she is open to new and exciting projects.
vanessalovegrove.co.uk | Instagram: @vloveg | Twitter: @vclovegrove
In this issue
Winner takes all – Economics in the book world, by Robert H. Frank
Regicide – Richard Charkin argues against RRP royalties
Q&A: Stephen Page – Chief Executive of Faber & Faber
Online side-hustle or hassle? – Shoo Rayner and Candy Gourlay on making money
Q&A: Vanessa Lovegrove – Get to know our cover artist
Let’s write about sex, baby – Okechukwu Nzelu on sex and comedy
Mountains to climb – Mick Conefrey interrogates imposter syndrome
Being heard being seen – Amina Jama calls for safe creative spaces
Immersive storyworlds – Driving social change, by Adipat Virdi
All or nothing – Lawrence Schimel on rights and reprints for translators
Q&A: Monica Ali – Award-winning novelist
Haunted by a hero – Benjamin Myers follows the footsteps of Gordon Burn
Logged on – How to run an online book launch, with Anna Caig
Window poets – A creative toolkit from Alec Finlay
Grub Street – Andrew Taylor’s quarterly digest
FROM THE SOA
The power of translated words – The winners of the 2020 Translation Prizes
News – World of Books Award, #justice4Belarus & more
Spotlight: SoA groups and networks – Latest activities and updates
Letters to the Editor
Welcome, new members
Services for authors