Dodgeball

Some years ago I got into a contretemps with one of the major publishers. Actually, it was before my time as editor, so in fact you could say that I was present but not involved. The argument was over a piece we planned to run around digital royalty rates: it will surprise you not that on one side of the debate were agents and author groups petitioning for a greater percentage of the bounty; publishers, individually and independently of each other, put forward a counter view. By reporting the argument, we were told, we ran the risk of colluding with one party (presumably to the detriment of the other).

This seemed unfair back then and it still rankles today. There is a big debate taking place around author income (as our Lead Story shows), and a huge reportable conversation over how royalty rates and the advance-based model impact the breadth of those who can pursue writing as a career and those who cannot. Publishers are right to be nervous: few houses deviate from their boilerplates when it comes to author contracts and, lest we forget, it was not so long ago that five of the biggest publishers (as was) made out-of-court settlements, after an investigation into collusion. 

Today the digital sector for trade publishing is worth upwards of 30% of total business, but for some commercial lists (and therefore a fair number of successful writers), the proportion is much bigger and, thanks to the pandemic, creeping ever upwards. The standard offer from traditional publishers remains 25% on net receipts, with or without a sizeable advance, although there are plenty of indies, as well as Amazon, prepared to offer a greater share of profits, on a no-advance basis. Adding to the complicated picture is the rise in audio downloads, the cost of them, and the different subscription models sometimes layered on top, bringing with them fears over the “Spotification” of author recompense (where, over this a least, there is agreement).

One could argue that it is up to agents to negotiate the best deal for their clients, with alternatives having grown in number. But in the real world, the market share, leverage and continued cachet enjoyed by the majors results only in an illusion of choice, with the range of authors publishing non-traditionally still incredibly narrow. Then there is the growth in profitability of the big groups, and the recent acquisitions of Simon & Schuster and Head of Zeus, both of which indicate that whatever  we might think of the digital market, we no longer consider it a threat. 

But I am not here to advocate for one side. There are many calls on publishers’ earnings, and I’m not yet convinced this is a greater cause than, say, keeping bookshops solvent or paying higher wages at entry-level. 

Nevertheless, a line over digital royalties has been held for a decade now—and some might say, impressively so—but the electronic sector is different and far bigger than it was in 2010, and a greater part of any author’s potential wage. If, back then, the argument was that we should wait to see how the sector develops, we surely today cannot make the same claim. The market is present, and we are all involved.