On 30th November, 2015, The Bookseller magazine hosted the first day of its FutureBook conference in London. Author Day drew publishers, agents, authors, authors’ associations, service providers, journalists and associated creatives, such as illustrators, reviewers, translators and screenwriters.
The aim was to look at the state of the author across all forms of publishing, learn from various speakers’ expertise and discuss what can be done. I attended with a single focus and the theme of our current issue—Money.
Nicola Solomon of The Society of Authors, opened proceedings with some sobering facts. (NB: SoA is a UK-based organisation.)
Traditional publishing in general may still be profitable, but writing is not. The average author income is around £11,000 per annum. Only 11.5% of authors make their living solely from writing. Solomon spoke of “once well-known authors” applying for the SoA’s hardship fund, as their incomes have dropped. Typically, authors receive around 10% of the cover price of a paperback, 25% of the selling price of an ebook. Writers are not getting their fair share, despite publishers’ assertions that ‘authors are at the heart of what we do’.
The rights issue is an example. Her point was that the publishing landscape is uncertain, so publishers grab as many rights as possible ‘with a view to exploiting later opportunities’. But without a regular revision of the contract, time-limitation on exclusivity and reversion clauses, the author is left with a tiny share of whatever profits are made.
She called for fairer contracts across the board, clear and transparent accounting, prizes and awards to be made accessible, appearances to be paid and described VAT on ebooks as ‘mad’. The SoA currently has a set of principles (CREATOR) she exhorted the industry to adopt. She ended by referring to authors, or content creators, as we’re so often described.
“We must not kill the goose that lays the golden egg”
Next up, Orna Ross of The Alliance of Independent Authors, who suggested everyone should self-publish once. She dismissed the divide between indie/traditional publishing as a distraction and emphasised the need to look at issues such as rights as a united community. She took on unscrupulous companies, saying “Selling services to authors is wrong, helping authors sell books to readers is right”. Her definition of the indie community is collaboration, not competition, and flagged its sense of unity.
Kamila Shamsie delivered a gentle yet forceful speech on her early career, touching on how her agent and editor worked on her long term aims, not dropping her because her first, second and third books only achieved modest sales. In publishing today, that kind of author development is incredibly rare. She emphasised the joy of variety from Henry James to EL James to Marlon James and rejected the assertion that readers want ‘the same, but different’. However, one glance at the demographics of any publishing house, she noted, will demonstrate the homogenous nature of this business. She finished by saying:
“It’s time to think deeply about what the word ‘value’ means when it comes to books.”
In a different twist on the numbers game, Harry Bingham presented the results of a survey he and Jane Friedman conducted with traditionally published authors—the subject was the degree of contentment with their publishers. You can see the full results here. Many of the graphs are surprising, such as the dissatisfaction with marketing, but the one most relevant to my interest is Conclusion #6: authors feel poorly paid and poorly treated. A mere 7.5% of trad-published authors feel well-paid by their publishers.
Two panel discussions followed. The first, chaired by Porter Anderson, featured agents, publishers and writers. Andrew Lownie (who credits his inspiration for self-publishing his authors’ back catalogue to appearing at The Woolf’s TiPE event in Zürich) reiterated his prediction that in the future, 80% of books will be self-published, 10% trade and 10% assisted. Piers Blofeld, agent, emphasised that the authors who successfully self-publish and make a good living get a lot of attention, but are not reflective of the average indie author’s level of income.
Caroline Sanderson hosted the second panel which called for changes across all forms of publishing. Amongst the speakers was Sarah McIntyre, an illustrator, who made the key point of the day for me.
“The majority of creators can only afford to be creative if supported by an understanding partner or a day job.”
I came away from Author Day with an awareness that writing is unlikely to make us rich, that publishing contracts need to change in favour of the creator and regardless of publication routes, we all need to make shrewd decisions in a fast-changing environment if we are to earn what we deserve from our creative content.