The author's lot

<p>As a great enthusiast for the energy and vision of the Victorians, it never ceases to thrill me that the Society of Authors, the organisation which I have the honour to chair, was founded in 1884. Slightly less thrilling, however, is the fact that the lot of the author seems barely to have changed since the society had Lord Tennyson as its first president. Today, in the digital era, relations between publishers and authors remain stuck in the steam age.</p>
<p>Anachronisms abound wherever there is a contract. Why is it, for instance, that publishers still only pay their authors twice a year? Does it really take them months upon months to do their sums? Now that most publishers&mdash;although who can vouch for all?&mdash;have dispensed with ledgers and quills, and obtained instant access to sales figures, surely it is possible for them to pay royalties within a week or so, and on a quarterly basis too?</p>
<p>No less than anyone else in publishing, authors are dizzied by the frenetic pace of change in the digital world. No wonder, then, that we should be slightly discombobulated by the continued existence of invitations to sign contracts for the full term of copyright. What this means is that most copyrights by writers living today will not expire until the next century, and that any author of a book that emerges to become a classic will be stuck with terms negotiated in what will doubtless come to be seen as an antediluvian era. It seems to us only reasonable that contracts, in the 21st century, should last at most for 30 years.</p>
<p>Nor are these the only quaint traditions that are now starting to look not a little moth-eaten. Why, for instance, do publishers continue to insist that authors give a complete indemnity against any legal problems? While most publishers are armour-plated with libel insurance, all an author's assets are put at risk. Surely, at a time when the libel laws are being questioned as never before, this is a palpable unfairness that has had its day? So too, I would have thought, are yet additional anachronisms: the offering of reduced royalties on &quot;small reprints&quot;, for instance, or the fact that publishers still have a leeway of nine months in which to reprint a book before rights can revert to the author. How bizarre, in the digital age, is this?</p>
<p>&quot;Forward, forward let us range.&quot; So Tennyson would doubtless have urged. &quot;Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.&quot; It is time for the relationship between publishers and authors to get spinning too.<br />