In the UK, Traditional Publishing’s Pay for Authors “Not Fair”

In News by Dennis Abrams

In the UK, the Society of Authors’ chief executive claims that traditional publishers’ terms “are no longer fair or sustainable” for author’s to make a living.

By Dennis Abrams

Last week we reported on a survey by the UK’s Author’s Licensing & Collecting Society which showed that the median annual incomes of professional authors had dropped to an alarming £11,000. Days later, The Society of Authors’ chief executive claims that traditional publishers’ terms “are no longer fair or sustainable.”

Nicola Solomon

Nicola Solomon

Nicola Solomon, the head of the 9,000 member Society of Authors was quoted in the Guardian as saying that while publishers, retailers and agents are all now taking a bigger piece of the profit when a book is sold, “authors’ earnings are going down generally, those of publishers are increasing.”

“Authors need fair remuneration if they are to keep writing and producing quality work,” she said. “Publisher profits are holding up and, broadly, so are total book sales if you include eBooks but authors are receiving less per book and less overall due mainly to the fact that they are only paid a small percentage of publishers’ net receipts on eBooks and because large advances have gone except for a handful of celebrity authors.”

On top of that, she said, “publishers are doing less for what they get. There are still important things they do – a traditional publisher can edit, copy edit, design, market, promote, make your book better, deal with foreign sales. With eBooks, though, publishers’ costs are less, so authors should get a better share. They do not have to produce, distribute or warehouse physical copies. Even on traditional books, publishers’ production costs have gone down but authors have not benefited from these costs savings. And, increasingly authors are being asked to do a lot of marketing and promotion themselves.”

And while the Society of Authors does include self-published writers (if they have sold 300 copies of a single title in print form, or 500 copies in eBook form within a 12 year period), Solomon believes most writers “still prefer a traditional publishing deal but the terms publishers are demanding are no longer fair or sustainable.”

“What a writer needs to do is to consider very clearly, at the very beginning, what they are getting into,” she told the Guardian. “It’s a Dragon’s Den. You could go out and do it yourself, or you could go with a traditional publisher. There is still an imprimatur of quality from going with a traditional publisher, and you may well sell more copies, particularly in physical, but you are giving a vast amount away for that: probably well over 90% of the list price of the physical or eBook. More importantly almost all publishers ask for those rights for the whole lifetime of copyright with very limited possibilities of getting your rights back, even if the sales are woeful. Authors need to look very carefully at the terms publishers offer, take proper advice and consider: is it worth it, or are you better off doing it yourself?”

In an interview with TeleRead, Solomon elaborated on the issue of authors’ contracts:

The ALCS survey found that 57 percent of respondents had signed contracts that included the important “rights reversion” clause and of these, 38 percent had used or relied on this clause, with 70 percent going on to earn more money from the work in question. The Society of Authors is concerned at the very unfair contract terms that are routinely offered to authors, who often have little negotiating power. Earlier this year, the European Commission published a study on contractual arrangements for creators. It highlights how the UK lags far behind the other European countries covered in the study in protecting the rights of creators, and pinpoints areas which it deems of particular concern. Changes the report advocates include:

  • any grant of rights to be limited both by time and as to the specific uses proposed (so, instead of a contract granting rights “in all forms and media” for “the duration of copyright” we would like to contracts to take for instance just print and/or eBook rights for a period of seven years);

  • the right of an author to reclaim any rights which are not being exploited (e.g. an author being able to get back the print rights in a book if the publishers are making it available only as an eBook);

  • transparency on what is intended (so, for example, if the work will be produced only as print-on-demand rather than in a traditional print run, that is clear from the outset);

  • if the author has been paid a one-off fee (which happens a lot, e.g. with illustrated children’s non-fiction, and with educational works), a mechanism for ensuring that, where appropriate, further payments will be due in the light of the actual revenue generated by the exploitation of that material;

  • making moral rights and some rights to payment (e.g. from rental) unwaivable.

  • The study urges “a dialogue among stakeholders towards more flexible contracts and exchange of best practices. We warmly welcome the report, and have long advocated all the provisions it recommends. We urge publishers to start speaking to us on appropriate terminology for the digital age. Do it yourself.

As many authors have experienced, self-publishing is becoming an increasingly successful venture for writers. The ALCS study shows that while only 25 percent of writers currently self-publish their work, those that do get a typical return on investment of 40 percent. Unsurprisingly, 86 percent of those who had self-published said they would do so again. Most authors would still prefer a traditional publishing deal, but the terms many publishers are demanding are no longer fair or sustainable.

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.