E for exploited

Chairs of the Society of Authors come and go—but the Society itself, like a stately battleship, cruises ever on. “And thank goodness for that” is my principal reflection, as I step down after what has been a hectic two years at the helm. The pace of change in the publishing industry—as everyone suspected it would—has only accelerated over my time in office, and the need for an organisation that can defend the interests of authors during a period of dislocating and often bewildering upheaval is greater now, perhaps, than it ever was.

Authors, like cats, are hardly given to collective action. This, when cartels and monopolies seem to be lurking everywhere in the undergrowth of publishing, risks putting them at a marked disadvantage. Two years ago, when I wrote my first column for The Bookseller, I decried the shamefully low royalties that publishers across the board were paying out on e-books. Since going on strike was hardly an option for authors, a long, protracted whinge seemed the best, indeed the only, option. To a degree, and however ungraciously, publishers do seem to have acknowledged the justice of the case. Royalties that two years ago were languishing at a miserable 15% have now risen to a standard 25%. What is more, there seems every prospect that they will continue to climb. It would certainly be a scandal if they did not—and so let me end my spell as a columnist for The Bookseller as I began: with an e-book whinge.

To the Society of Authors, the arguments in favour of higher royalties on e-books seem as unanswerable as they have ever been. We feel that the starting rate for an unenhanced book, including academic texts, should be at least 30%—and that where enhanced e-books are being published, the royalty rate should be negotiated to reflect the degree of additional costs and work involved. Where the deal is exclusively for an e-book, and no advance is being paid, the royalties should start at a minimum of 50% and be valid either for a period of some three years, or else permit the author to terminate the agreement. At a time when companies seem to be building their e-book lists with a view, in the long run, to selling them to the highest bidder, authors need to stand firm against what otherwise risks becoming a very blatant rights grab.

Indeed, such is the speed with which things are changing that all authors—and a fortiori agents—need to insist on having finite licences. An author who was locked two years ago into a 15% royalty will surely be regretting it now; and if indeed, down the line, royalties do climb to a more reasonable rate, then those who accept 25% now will doubtless want the opportunity to renegotiate.

Authors, just like everyone else in publishing, have to stay with the pace of change.