Are writers an endangered species?

  • Books
  • Saturday, 16 Jan 2016

Struggling: Writers are completely essential to the publishing industry, yet they are not treated very well. Photo:

His Dark Materials author Philip Pullman is heading a new charge from writers demanding to be rewarded fairly for their work, as Britain’s Society of Authors warns that unless “serious” changes are made by publishers, the professional author “will become an endangered species”.

In an open letter to publishers, the society points to a recent survey that found that the median income of a professional British author is now just £11,000 (RM70,000) with only 11.5% of writers making a living solely from writing.

Pointing out that “authors remain the only essential part of the creation of a book and it is in everyone’s interests to ensure they can make a living”, the letter says that “unfair contract terms, including reduced royalty rates, are a major part of the problem”.

Pullman, the current president of the society, says that the case for fair terms for writers is “overwhelming”.

“From our positions as individual creators, whether of fiction or nonfiction, we authors see a landscape occupied by several large interests, some of them gathering profits in the billions, some of them displaying a questionable attitude to paying tax, some of them colonising the Internet with projects whose reach is limitless, and whose attitude to creators’ rights is roughly that of the steamroller to the ant,” says Pullman.

“It’s a daunting landscape, far more savage and hostile to the author than any we’ve seen before. But one thing hasn’t changed, which is the ignored, unacknowledged but complete dependence of those great interests on us and on our talents and on the work we do in the quiet of our solitude.

“They have enormous financial and political power, but no creative power whatsoever. Whether we’re poets, historians, writers of cookery books, novelists, travel writers, that comes from us alone. We originate the material they exploit.”

Pullman points out that the publishing industry depends completely on writers. Photo:
Philip Pullman points out that the publishing industry depends completely on writers. Photo:

The society wants authors to receive at least 50% of e-book revenue rather than the current 25%, and also asks publishers not to discriminate against writers “who don’t have powerful agents”.

“Some publishers are excellent but we see many inequitable contracts. Without serious contract reform, the professional author will become an endangered species and publishers – as well as society at large – will be left with less quality content,” says the letter, sent by Society of Authors CEO Nicola Solomon.

“Unless publishers treat their authors more equitably, the decline in the number of full-time writers could have serious implications for the breadth and quality of content that drives the economic success and cultural reputation of our creative industries in the UK.”

All writers want, says Pullman, “is fairness”.

“We don’t want these great powers to disappear altogether: the things they do are often things that need doing. Books are physical objects that need to be manufactured and transported and sold, or digital entities that need to be formatted and made available online.

“Sometimes there are things we wish they would do a little more of: editorial standards are not what they were. All those things are necessary and should be rewarded – but rewarded fairly. So is our work, and so should we,” says the novelist.

“It’s not as though the present state of things is natural and inevitable, part of the inexorable movement of history, the unstoppable juggernaut of progress. It’s a human construction, and can be altered and improved by human intervention. That is something that happens all the time. We would like it to happen again now.”

Daniel Hahn, author, translator, and chair of the society’s management committee, agrees.

“I think we all understand that the book business isn’t easy for anybody right now – well, nearly anybody – and that plenty of good publishers are struggling, too. But we’ve reached a point today where the professional author is under serious threat, and that’s not a state of affairs that is good for any of us – not for publishers, not for writers, and certainly not for readers and the wider culture,” he says.

“We mustn’t allow ourselves to drift into a situation where only the already-wealthy can afford to be writers, and so it’s time to rebalance the scales a little.”

Solomon says that the society is supported in its campaign by Britain’s Royal Society of Literature, and by the British Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society. The open letter is part of an international call to action from authors’ groups around the world asking publishers to review their contract terms and treatment of authors.

Solomon says that the Publishers Association and the Independent Publishers Guild have agreed to meet the writers’ organisation to discuss the letter, and she will also be looking to meet with large and small publishers across Britain in the coming months.

Richard Mollet, chief executive of the Publishers Association, says that while “publishers share the frustration of the author community that it is increasingly difficult for authors to make a decent living from their writing”, they “locate the principal source of this problem not in the contractual relations between publisher and author but in deeper market factors”.

“With margins being squeezed across the whole supply chain, books are facing increasingly stiff competition from other media and entertainment sectors for consumers’ time, and there simply being more writers – the reasons for the decline in average author income are wide and varied,”says Mollet. “We look forward to continuing our discussions on these policy issues with the SoA and other author representative groups.”

Independent Publishers Guild chief executive Bridget Shine says that authors are “central” to its members’ businesses. “As with any business model in any industry, it is problematic to attempt to impose blanket terms and conditions – our members operate in a huge variety of markets with complex variables, which naturally leads to different author terms from publisher to publisher.

“But we are of course very happy to share the society’s concerns with IPG members via its open letter, and welcome all debate about the future direction of publishing and authors’ huge contribution to it.” – Guardian News & Media

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