Author earnings have collapsed over the past decade. You’ve seen the numbers. So if we want anybody besides the already rich to write books for publishers to publish and readers to read, something must change. The question, naturally, is what?
The Society of Authors has launched the CREATOR campaign to make contract terms fairer. We are asking publishers to implement certain changes—such as specifying term limits, clarifying accounting procedures—to make things just a little easier for authors, from whom publishers expect more than ever.
Do I think contract terms are the only reason for falling author earnings? Of course not. But the fact that they aren’t the only problem doesn’t mean they can’t be a part of the solution. (We could also dismantle capitalism, but that would take longer than we have got. One step at a time.) Because in this period of turmoil and threat, when writers’ earnings have predictably fallen, publishers’ revenues have been broadly stable. They have been able to insulate themselves, but authors cannot continue to make up so much of the shortfall. Not because it’s inequitable (though I’d argue it clearly is) but because the imbalance is desperately short-sighted, and perilously unsustainable.
Some of the adjustments we are proposing will cost money: increasing the proportion of e-book receipts going to an author, say. (Still well below what the self-publishing competition pays, but it’s a start.)
But there is also much that could help protect authors at no actual cost to publishers, e.g. reversion of those rights that publishers aren’t exploiting, through a kind of “use it or lose it” clause. It requires a willingness on the part of publishers to reconsider some old habits and contemplate surrendering some clauses that have been in contracts, unchallenged, for decades and have no rightful place there today.
Do I think any of us has the inviolable right, in the abstract, to earn a living through our writing? I don’t. But if money is being made from it, if many people are able to make a living and balance their books by selling ours, is it reasonable that we should be the only people who can’t?
Daniel Hahn is the chair of the Society of Authors