Author yearnings

Some years ago The Bookseller published the results of a survey into publisher salaries. It was not well received. One publisher complained. My hunch was that the publisher thought the figures reported were far too low, and that their wider broadcast would not reflect well on the sector.

I was wrong. The publisher felt the figures were far too high, and would create unrealistic expectations among staff. The Authors’ Licensing & Collecting Society (ALCS) survey into author earnings, brought this dispute back into my mind. That authors are paid too little and that their situation has worsened is indisputable. How we respond to this news will not be the same.

The ALCS pointed to the enormous earnings generated by the creative industries, prompting concern that these earnings are not being passed on. The Society of Authors called for fairer contracts, and greater royalty rates from digital sales. But the author Nicholas Lovell took exception to the idea that authors “deserved to be paid”. Authors have to earn it, and books may not be the best source of those earnings. There are simply too many of them, available far too cheaply.

Lovell’s view is not without merit. In 2005, 110,925 new books were issued, in 2013 184,000—and that does not include the large number of e-books released without an ISBN. Over that same period the overall book market was stagnant—digital included. Since prices are not going up, then simple economics suggests that the amount earned by each author is being diluted. The publishing sector has long had an over-production problem, and the internet has exacerbated it.

A parallel problem is that earnings are not evenly distributed. Authors at the top earn far more than authors at the bottom and in the middle. As more authors join this tail without driving market growth, the situation worsens.

None of this means publishers should look to dodge this issue. Distributing earnings fairly and swiftly is part of their contract with authors. Similarly, their investment in new products remains their best defence against the dark arts. Many of the great books we have today were the result of publishers ignoring the economics.

Authors will not be cheered by this analysis. Yet, thanks to digital, their options have broadened, and their voices have grown louder. That we have not yet seen increased earnings from digital reflected in the survey does not mean they are entirely illusory.

An author is the one person 100% necessary to the process, the SoA’s Nicola Solomon said. She is right, except that it is readers who pay the bills. Squabbling over who gets the largest slice of the pie, ignores the more important issue. An industry that finds a way to grow its audience is the one that will pay its creatives more.