Concerning times for authors

The results of the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) survey, What are Words Worth Now?, published yesterday (8th July), tell a story that many authors know only too well: authors' earnings are falling fast.

In 2013 ALCS commissioned Queen Mary Intellectual Property Research Institute (part of University of London), to conduct some independent research into authors' earnings in the UK today. Here is what they found.

Only 11.5% of authors earn their living solely from writing. In 2005, this figure was 40%. Authors' incomes are falling in real terms: the typical annual income of professional authors has fallen to £11,000, a figure far below the level identified by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, as necessary to achieve a socially acceptable standard of living (£16,850). This decline is set against the increasing wealth generated by the creative industries, which now equates to a staggering £8 million per hour.

The picture is much worse when you look at those for whom writing isn't their main profession. In 2000, the typical annual income of 'all writers' was £8,810 in real terms, whereas in 2013 this figure had fallen to £4,000.

We are concerned but not surprised by the findings in this survey. Authors are not receiving a fair share of the profits from book publishing - particularly in relation to digital. While authors' earnings are going down generally, those of publishers are increasing. Retailers like Amazon are also pressing for a larger share of the profits. Authors are the only essential part of the creation of a book and are asked to do more and more in terms of publicity but are receiving lower advances and a smaller share of the profits If unchecked, the rapid decline in the number of full-time writers could have serious implications for the breadth and quality of content that drives the economic success of our creative industries in the UK.

Amazon says that it only seeks a lower price for its customers but, as we have seen with supermarkets and milk production, constantly driving down prices can mean that producers so that they can no longer economically create their goods- and writers, unlike farmers, do not receive Government subsidies.

Read the small print

The ALCS survey found that 57% of respondents had signed contracts that included the important "rights reversion" clause and of these, 38% had used or relied on this clause, with 70% going on to earn more money from the work in question. The Society of Authors is concerned at the very unfair contract terms that are routinely offered to authors, who often have little negotiating power. Earlier this year, the European Commission published a study on contractual arrangements for creators. It highlights how the UK lags far behind the other European countries covered in the study in protecting the rights of creators, and pinpoints areas which it deems of particular concern. Changes the report advocates include:

• Any grant of rights to be limited both by time and as to the specific uses proposed (so instead of a contract granting rights "in all forms and media" for "the duration of copyright" we would like to contracts to take for instance just print and/or ebook rights for a period of seven years)

• The right of an author to reclaim any rights which are not being exploited (e.g. an author being able to get back the print rights in a book if the publishers are making it available only as an ebook)

• Transparency on what is intended (so, for example, if the work will be produced only as print-on-demand rather than in a traditional print-run, that is clear from the outset)

• If the author has been paid a one-off fee (which happens a lot e.g. with illustrated children’s non-fiction, and with educational works), a mechanism for ensuring that, where appropriate, further payments will be due in the light of the actual revenue generated by the exploitation of that material

• Making moral rights and some rights to payment (e.g. from rental) unwaivable

• The study urges "a dialogue among stakeholders towards more flexible contracts and exchange of best practices". We warmly welcome the report, and have long advocated all the provisions it recommends. We urge publishers to start speaking to us on appropriate terminology for the digital age.

Do it yourself

As many authors have experienced, self-publishing is becoming an increasingly successful venture for writers. The ALCS study shows that while only 25% of writers currently self-publish their work, those that do get a typical return on investment of 40%. Unsurprisingly, 86% of those who had self-published said they would do so again. Most authors would still prefer a traditional publishing deal but the terms publishers are demanding are no longer fair or sustainable.

Nicola Solomon is the chief executive of the Society of Authors