Richard Charkin: Why Do Authors Feel Hard Done By?

In News, Opinion & Commentary by Richard Charkin14 Comments

Contemplating comments on his last monthly column, publisher Richard Charkin takes up the question of author pay: ‘Publishers aren’t the greedy sharks they’re sometimes portrayed to be.’

Our columnist sends his thoughts to us this time from Sri Lanka. Image: Richard Charkin

By Richard Charkin

Author Pay: ‘What’s Wrong With That Picture?’
This is my seventh column for Publishing Perspectives. It’s been an interesting experience moving into the mindset of an author. My main concern has been whether anyone is reading what I write. It is, therefore, slightly reassuring to see a few comments about the pieces, although, as with most authors, I would wish for more.

Richard Charkin

I was struck by a comment on my last column about measuring commercial success in publishing. It came from Ryan Jones who is, I imagine, an author. He wrote: “Publishers pull in billions of dollars yearly and yet few writers can even make a living. What’s wrong with that picture?”

I thought it might be worth examining this widely held sentiment.

Of course he has a point, and I’m sure the various organizations supporting and representing authors would agree. There was a recent spat between the UK’s Society of Authors, the Authors Licensing & Collecting Society, and the Publishers Association, about this very subject. The row garnered a lot of attention, as covered by publications in Britain and by Publishing Perspectives (here and here).

Per Saugman was a distinguished medical publisher, the force behind Blackwell Scientific Publications, the sale of which to Wiley is the reason that the UK still has a high-quality academic and trade bookselling chain, Blackwell Retail, in spite of the many challenges. Saugman explained to an author why he would not increase his royalty rate: “I’m not paying you the royalty, the purchasers of the book are. The higher the royalty rate, the more we shall have to charge and the less enthusiastic they will be to reward you.”

The royalty system is a fair one. It links an author’s income not to any abstract notion of worth but to how much the reading market will pay for the author’s efforts. Successful authors are hugely well rewarded and I’m sure would prefer the current system to any other. JK Rowling, Danielle Steele, Stephen King, and many others have built fortunes from their books and frequently are able to deploy those fortunes generously and properly.

And then one should consider why writers write. It’s not always (or even usually) for money. There are many motivations.

For instance, a lawyer might want to write the ultimate book on her subject of expertise. It’s a way of establishing her credibility and hence the value of her professional practice. A few hundred or thousand dollars either way will be of little consequence but what she wants is a publisher whose brand carries weight, whose editorial support systems and marketing reach are first rate.

There’s even less demand to be paid by the hundreds of thousands of authors of scientific research papers. Far from wanting increased payments, they want to pay publishers to ensure their research is available free of charge to everyone in the world. Once again, the publishers bring brand, technology, marketing reach and—crucially, via peer review—an assurance of quality free from outside pressures.

The main complaints seem to come usually from so-called midlist authors whose income is almost certainly in decline. But that’s not from publishers taking more. It’s simply the case that general fiction (the bulk of this sector) is more widely split than ever between the bestsellers and the not-so-good sellers. Public library sales, which were the bedrock of midlist hardback sustainability, are in decline. Paperback sales have been eroded by lower-price ebooks. Fewer retailers are willing to dedicate space to any but the top 100 or so novelists. Self-publishing has created a tsunami of digital fiction, thus deflecting sales from the traditional market.

None of that is of any comfort to the professional writer seeing his or her income decline. Nor does it help that publishers seem willing to pay large advances to unknown new authors in the hope of finding the next big thing after a massive twelve-way auction. The trouble is that every now again the next big thing is the next big thing and it is the big things that keep general publishers in business.

I fear I have no answers to the predicament, although perhaps readers might like to suggest some.

But I’d like to try to dispel the associated myth that publishers “pull in billions of dollars…” and that they are highly profitable.

The Solution: ‘To Find a Larger Cake’

Yes, the publishing industry is big. A survey conducted by the World Intellectual Property Organization and the International Publishers Association estimated total global sales of US$41.9 billion in 2016. (More from the study is here.) Provisional statistics  for 2017 suggest that there has been significant growth, largely from China.

The industry also employs many millions of people worldwide. And pays taxes. And creates markets.

But as I said in my previous column, sales don’t represent profits.

Publishing is highly competitive. Margins in certain sectors at certain times can be high. An unexpected bestseller can transform a business. Finding a new niche or a new market can generate profit and cash, but in the normal course of events, a publisher is happy to make a 10-percent return on sales (trade authors typically receive 10 to 20 percent of the publisher’s sales) and to generate enough cash to stay in business.

Publishing is a good business and an important one for all sorts of reasons, but publishers are not the greedy sharks they’re sometimes portrayed to be, nor are their companies out to prosper at the expense of authors. If authors’ incomes are in decline, the solution is to find a larger cake, not to argue about the size of the slices.

And Stanley Unwin’s famous quotation still holds true: “The first duty of any publisher to their authors is to remain solvent.”

Join us monthly for Richard Charkin’s latest column. More coverage of his work from Publishing Perspectives is here.

About the Author

Richard Charkin

Richard Charkin is a former President of the IPA and for 11 years was Executive Director of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. He has held many senior posts at major publishing houses, including Macmillan, Oxford University Press and Reed Elsevier, and has led many other organizations, such as the UK Publishers Association and The Book Society. Richard has an MA in Natural Sciences from Trinity College, Cambridge; was a Supernumerary Fellow of Green College, Oxford; and attended the Advanced Management Program at Harvard Business School; and he is a Visiting Professor at the University of the Arts London.


  1. Hi Richard – nice piece. I’m, I guess, a mid-list author (or was) and so your comments really resonate. Tempting as it is to blame publishers, the ones I’ve been lucky enough to work with have been unfailingly supportive. But things became a lot tougher as the Internet/digital world kicked in about a decade ago and it is very clear that the industry is still in reset mode, with a polarising, binary impact on authors – those at the top do v nicely – better, probably, than they used to; those at the other end of the spectrum are OK, too, because now they can get published (in that anyone can on Amazon) where they couldn’t before. Like everyone else, publishers included, I’m just trying to hang on and ride that wave ..! The world has moved on.

    1. Dear Nick, Hang on in there. Yes, thing are changing but the fundamentals are still sound. Copyright continues to protect creativity and creativity is still being rewarded. It has become more competitive to be recognised and heard but the rewards are still available. Best, Richard

  2. So, you’re saying the authors don’t have a legitimate complaint? I agree it might not be related to the royalty percentage, but I do think the large distribution chains could distribute their marketing efforts much more fairly.

    1. Dear Dave, I am not sure what you mean. If you mean large bookshop chains then how they decide what to sell and how to sell has nothing do with fairness. They are there to serve their customers not to act as some sort of literary referee or fairness distributor. Best, Richard

  3. I agree that the reason for these author feelings of being hard-done-by are basically a result of the fading away of the mid list. But mid-list is a trade publishing term: a sale that represents a mid-list title to Simon & Schuster is a wild best-seller for a university press. As I’ve argued in many a blog post the real reason for the financial outcry is that trade publishers have woken up to the fact that it’s not a good idea to be paying all these advances on royalties which don’t earn out. I wrote about this under the heading Brainy non-fiction just last week:

    So the loss of advances (which if not earned out in fact represent royalties on copies which never got sold) is a large part of the reason authors and their agents are upset. It’s also the case that most books are just not selling as many copies nowadays as they used to.

    1. Dear Richard, I agree about advances. I am afraid I have disappointed a number of literary agents and authors who have approached Mensch Publishing by telling them we pay no advances. We will pay fair (generous in my view anyway) royalties. I can understand why certain authors deserve or need advance royalties but is a big distorter in trade publishing. Best, Richard

  4. Thanks Richard for the interesting article. I wish you could continue to wrote without the anxiety of who read it.
    Anyway, you missed a key point. This may be due to the lack of data available but let me try to articulate anyway. There is no point in time other than the present your article refers to and hence, my question – is the situation better or worse for authors and publishers.
    Secondly, you probably know this but most aspiring (I think) authors don’t know that staff in publishing houses (editorial and publicity) is mostly underpaid (especially in India). Authors can complain and must raise their concerns but they need, especially them, to be aware and acknowledge the problems faced by everyone else apart from their own kind. Mere profits don’t make for good editors and publishers BTW.

    1. Dear Priya, I think book publishing has always been a tough business and authors have invariably felt underpaid and undervalued. And yes, publishing staff (not only in India) are frequently at the lower end of pay scales. On the other hand, it can be very rewarding in other ways for both authors and publishers. Best, Richard

  5. I’m amazed at the lack of knowledge here. Publishers, the big 5 especially, have ruthlessly screwed over authors for over a hundred years. They lie, cheat, and steal and the second they have real competition they collude with the world’s largest tech company (Apple) to force their competition out of the market… And you’re asking why authors don’t like them?

    I will name a few reasons…

    Boiler plate contracts
    Non compete clauses
    Deep discount clauses
    Audio rights included
    Copyright term of life +70 years
    Zero to no marketing
    One shot for success
    The Big Lie (Only good authors get picked)

    The list goes on. You can’t routinely screw your suppliers and then cry foul when someone else steals then from you. This is a trouble of their own making. All they have to do to fix it is stop being terrible human beings.

    Why does the person who does all the specialized, difficult work, who comes up with the idea and the words, get paid the least amount of money in the process?

    1. Dear Jeff, I am sorry you are so angry. I could try to rebut some (or even all) of your assertions but I suspect nothing would convince you. Just one thing, the term of copyright is there to protect authors’ incomes. I don’t see why publishers are guilty. Richard

  6. Richard, thank you for your response. I can imagine the flack you might get, however I won’t do that. You are correct, copyright is there to protect the authors income… And that was the case until publishers started demanding life+70 years. It protects their income, the author may or may not earn out his advance so it really doesn’t help them. As for my other points, even a cursory search of publisher behavior over the last hundred years will verify everything I said as fact. Is every single publisher bad? No. Of course not. Just the vast majority. Don’t even get me started on agents. I’m afraid unless you are a big name you are just a cog, not worthy of any human consideration.

    1. Publishers didn’t demand 70 years, authors did and publishers supported them, in my view correctly. The extension was largely about lining up various different copyright regimes. By teh way, copyright is for fifty years in China. Does that make auhtors or publishers better there?

  7. Hi Richard, you equate a publisher’s profit of 10% to an author’s royalty of 10%. Everybody makes the same out of it in this scenario. But you omit one very important point: the publisher’s profit is calculated AFTER all of their expenses are deducted, not just direct expenses but all of the overheads, salaries, taxes, and other costs. The author might draw in 10% of the sales, but has had to pay all their own costs as a writer against that 10%. That is significantly different.

    But, yes, I do agree, most publishing houses aren’t awash in profit. I wish we were. `

    1. Yes, of course, I was oversimplifying. You have to or these pieces might become as long and dry as the income tax codes of most countries. The royalty doesnot take account of the author’s overhead but, in trade publishing, the average royalty is usually rather more than 10% and the publisher’s profit is frequently less than 10%, particularly after taxes and write downs of stock and advances.

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