Society of Authors and ALCS Present Talking Points to Publishers on Author Income

In News by Porter Anderson

Following a report that author income in the UK is declining, the UK’s author-advocacy organization and revenue collection agency wrote an open letter to the Publishers Association. It’s a new call “to give everyone a bigger share of the pie.”

Image – iStockphoto: M Kos83

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘Publishers Must Be Included’
Last month, Publishing Perspectives reported on falling author income in the UK, based on a report, Authors’ Earnings 2018: A Survey of UK Writers, released by the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS). We also pointed out that the UK Publishers Association chief Stephen Lotinga had responded in part that the association would “welcome engagement with the ALCS and the Society of Authors on the survey and the wider issues it raises, as it’s vital publishers are included in this important discussion.”

That seemed a good opportunity for dialogue, especially as many in the author and agenting communities have said for years that publishers were working to curtail financial support for authors through shrinking advances and other means.

The ALCS study reported that a “median annual income of a professional author is £10,500 (US$11,300), which is well below the minimum wage,” reminding readers that “the equivalent figure in 2013 was £11,000 (US$12,400) and in 2005 it was £12,500 (US$14,124).”

And as we wrote, Lotinga had said to Katherine Cowdrey at The Bookseller, “Publishers value authors enormously and their entire businesses are dependent on supporting them. These figures will be unrecognizable to the majority of publishers as they just do not reflect the investments they are making in creative talent. If we are to have a genuinely constructive conversation about this issue then we need a much sounder evidence base.”

There’s been a quick response to Lotinga’s statement from Nicola Solomon, who leads the Society of Authors—the UK counterpart to the States’ Authors Guild—and from Owen Atkinson, chief of the ALCS.

It indicates that there’s a lot the two organizations might discuss regarding author income.

“We agree that publishers must be included in this discussion,” Solomon and Atkinson write in a joint open letter, “and I hope we can work together constructively to ensure that profits are shared fairly along the value chain.”

She does, however, make a series of six points in response to Lotinga’s short statement that, while not all comfortable for either side to contemplate, give us a rare chance to see the author corps speaking through a prominent advocacy groups to the Publishers Association.

Six Points From Solomon and Atkinson

In the interest of full reporting, we’ll quote Solomon and Atkinson’s six points here in full:

  1. On what grounds are you questioning the evidence base for the survey? This was an independent survey of over 5,500 authors commissioned by ALCS from CREATe, the RCUK Centre for Copyright and New Business Models in the Creative Economy, based at the University of Glasgow. It follows similar surveys carried out in 2005 and 2013. The downward trend is clearly established and is, I would have thought, incontrovertible.
  2. You must be aware that very similar findings have emerged from surveys carried out in Canada, USA, and other places including a European Commission study from 2016. All show that the earnings of authors are woeful and are continuing to decline.
  3. The findings are also very much in line with research commissioned for the Publishers Association carried out by Frontier Economics. You will recall that your research estimated that in 2016 authors received £161 million in advances, royalties and secondary rights revenue, approximately 3% of the industry’s turnover. I raised this figure with you and you have not sought to correct or amend it.
  4. You will recall that the ALCS study shows that the median earnings of a professional author are £10,437. That is entirely compatible with figures from Nielsen BookScan, which showed that in 2017 authors with sales of less than £10,000 a year accounted for 44 percent, of total book sales. Given that authors’ earnings from sales are considerably lower than the amount generated from sales—typically around 5-7 percent (or under £1000 on £10,000 of sales)—it is hardly surprising that overall earnings are so low. Publishers cannot ignore those authors who net 44 percent of their sales, and authors cannot continue on the earnings they recoup from these sales.
  5. The EU study found that the average an author earned from lifetime sales of each book was £6,000: again, this is totally compatible with the ALCS findings.
  6. We absolutely agree with your comment in The Bookseller that we need sound evidence on which to base our discussions around author earnings. This is why ALCS has commissioned these studies every five years and why we have called upon publishers to state in their accounts how much they pay to authors, illustrators and translators in advances, royalties and secondary income. With the exception of Profile Books, publishers have been unwilling to do this and we have not received a collective response to our request from the industry. This request was made in The Bookseller earlier this year and has been repeated by editor Philip Jones. We are delighted that you now support our wish to gain accurate figures and we would welcome the opportunity to obtain these from publishers.
Pressured to Talk by a Changing Marketplace

Needless to say, this quickly develops as a difficult conversation.

From ALCS’ ‘Authors’ Earnings 2018: A Survey of UK Writers’

But the points Solomon and Atkinson make are serious and important, particularly in an industry that faces historically unprecedented levels and forms of competition from other storytelling media, particularly in the extraordinary rise of fine television and film vying for readers’ time and attention.

Western market leaders from Germany to the States and well beyond are talking more and more—and rightly—about the shifts occurring in the consumer base. Surely, there’s never been a time when publishers and authors have needed more to come together.

Solomon and Atkinson go on to say what may be especially hard for some publishers to hear: “Meanwhile the profit margins of the main corporate publishers are increasing, with average profits estimated to be around 13 percent [in the UK]. Based on the PA’s own 2016 figures, we estimated that the Big Five publishers’ shareholders received up to three times the amount paid to authors. This estimate has never been seriously challenged.”

At bottom, what Solomon and Atkinson are arguing is that publishing is driving away the talent it needs to create its content. And this isn’t idle fist-shaking.

You can see the Solomon-Atkinson letter trying to point out the common ground already shared by the Publishers Association and authors. “Our industry thrives on the interdependence of authors and publishers,” Solomon and Atkinson write, basically echoing Lotinga’s first line, “and we of course value the vital contribution of publishers to producing better books and the overall ecology of the industry, particularly during what has been a period of profound change for all of us.

“On issues such as copyright, PLR, the importance of reading, VAT on ebooks and the requirements of the industry following Brexit we are in almost complete alignment and have appreciated working together with you.”

And the way the society and ALCS chiefs describe what they want is as a joint exploration with the Publishers Association of “the causes of declining incomes for authors, and to ensure that profits are fairly shared along the value chain. We believe that this is in the long-term interest of both authors and the publishing industry. Paying fairly and encouraging underrepresented voices to consider writing might just widen our reader bases enough to give everyone a bigger share of the pie.”

The point at which things stand at the end of this letter, then, is that keen instant in which the two sides of a debate take the steps needed to go forward into the discussion needed–or to allow the heat of the moment to blow over, which almost inevitably leads to distraction and overtake by other news, other duties, other issues … and the moment is lost.

Perhaps this is a case in which the two major camps of this increasingly crucial debate can come together and at least examine the grounds on which they might find their respective challenges acceptable for conversation.

No one believes that author income will reverse course and start growing, at least not without intervention. And for all the questions that some propose (Lotinga is not alone) about methodology and survey value when it comes to trying to ballpark where author revenues stand, the sheer number of writers in the marketplace today means that in an era of mounting strength in visual storytelling, the literary channels are under new pressure to come to terms with these issues and keep talking.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.