Authors on the march

Authors on the march

Is the pen mightier?

As if shot out of a cannon—and aimed at weak points in the walls of Fortress Publishing—many authors seem to have begun 2016 with helmets on and elbows padded.

Not long after the Authors Guild and Society of Authors led an international coalition of author-advocacy organisations in a dramatic new demand for author contract reform, Philip Pullman has ankled the Oxford Literary Festival on a two-point complaint:

  • The festival doesn't pay authors (and in his 20 years of speaking there, this has been the case); and
  • The festival throws up a 40-mile ring around itself inside which participating authors are forbidden to hold signings or speak on their festival topic.

Pullman, who has been the patron of the festival is also the president of the Society of Authors. And he tells my colleague Charlotte Eyre for our Bookseller report:

In the early days the Oxford festival was a small-scale and much more informal affair, run on a shoestring. In recent years it’s become much larger and grander, putting on an air of being ‘prestigious’ and ‘exclusive’ and flourishing its large array of corporate sponsors. It seems contradictory to me to lay on lavish ‘black tie dinners’ and at the same time claim that it can’t afford to pay speakers.

For its part, the festival has been quick to issue a statement in response. I'll give it to you in full here:

Philip Pullman has resigned as patron of Oxford Literary Festival saying he cannot support the festival’s policy of not paying a fee to speakers.

Festival director Sally Dunsmore said: “We are very sad that Philip Pullman has decided to resign as patron of the festival. We are grateful for the support he has given over the years, and for his many appearances at the festival.

“The Oxford Literary Festival is a registered charity that does not receive any government or public funding. Each year, substantial sponsorship and donations have to be raised for the festival to take place. 

“We are proud that for the past 20 years we have been able to put on a festival featuring a broad range of fascinating authors from the UK and overseas at various stages in their careers.

“We have over 500 speakers each year. If we were to change our policy, we could not put on a festival as large and diverse as Oxford’s which supports and promotes the work of both bestselling authors and of those at the outset of their writing careers or with a smaller following.”

So, as you see, a certain set of battle lines seems readily drawn and on two fronts:

  • Publishers are being confronted with a bold and very public explication of the contractual conditions under which authors are working.
  • Festivals are being confronted with a bold and very public explication of the conditions under which authors appear at, and for, them.

And wait, there's more. (Read on.)

It's all the focus of our #FutureChat today and you are most warmly (bundle up, Londoners) invited. The common thread here, we may find in our chat, is that writers, um, write. They also have the ears of their readers, and thanks to digital communications they are in much closer contact with their readers than they've ever been. Could they be catching wise to the power of public persuasion?


This story was written as the walkup to the #FutureChat of 15th January 2016. Join us every Friday live on Twitter at:

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The haves and the have-much-less

If you have a need to see your rank-and-file author buddy blanch today, show him this list:

  1. Julia Donaldson, earning £13,854,045
  2. David Walliams, £10,967,099
  3. J K Rowling, £8,315,667
  4. J Hazeley/J Morris, £7,352,534
  5. Jamie Oliver, £7,250,232
  6. James Patterson, £7,166,337
  7. Jeff Kinney, £6,842,231
  8. Paula Hawkins, £6,115,022
  9. E L James, £5,990,604
  10. Harper Lee, £5,798,661

That's from the report today by my Bookseller colleague Tom Tivnan on the highest-earning authors of the UK's year. Makes for enviable reading, doesn't it?

Tivnan sets the whole thing in the context of this contentious start to the year:

There has been a lot of talk lately about author earnings, with the Society of Authors’ (SOA) recent open letter to publishers calling for contract reform the latest blast in an ongoing battle. The SOA’s aim is to make writing more sustainable, and a particularly salty issue is a widening rich-versus-poor gap. A handful of authors now make the bulk of the money, the argument goes, so publishers tend to focus on those big beasts to the detriment of the midlist. Whether this is true is debatable (publishers, certainly, would have a differing view). What is not debatable for 2015 is that the authors at the top of the heap are coining it when it comes to Nielsen BookScan sales compared to the rest of the market.

Of course, it's a good bit more than an SoA letter, with 26 sister organisations in Europe, North America, Africa and Australia aligned in the authors' demands. What those authors and their representatives will be discussing is the striking leap of fortune made by Tivnan's top-earning 50. I'm going to parse it out for you in three bites. Check out the third line with extra care:

  • Julia Donaldson and the other 49 authors on the list of top 50 earners of 2015 collectively earned £199m of the £1.51bn sold through the TCM in 2015.
  • Around 45,000 authors recorded sales through BookScan in 2015, so the top 50 authors of last year (or a mere 0.1%) were responsible for 13% of all earnings.
  • That £199m is a 21% leap on what the top 50 TCM authors sold in 2014, far outdistancing the market’s overall 6.6% rise.

See that? A 21-percent gain in 2015 over 2014 for the top earning club.

Want two more bites to chew on (instead of those nails)?

  • The top 500 authors of the year—ranging from leading light Donaldson to C L Taylor—shifted £495.4m, or just under a third of the market’s overall value.
  • The number of authors who raked in more than £1m increased marginally (121 to 124), but those “BookScan millionaires” earned £288.5m, a12.5% bump on 2014’s—again, a healthy rise above the overall market growth.

"BookScan millionaires." Dizzy yet?

But then look at Tivnan's next point. There is, after all, something of a midlist in operation here, Tivnan revealing a sizeable chunk of change being moved around "by authors earning low five-figure returns." Tivnan:

Yes, the rich are getting richer. But here is something to mull on. The top 5,000 authors of 2015...rang up £866.5m through the tills, 57% of print sales. ...This means that a sizeable part of the market—£651m, or to put it more evocatively, roughly equivalent to what Penguin Random House, Hachette and HarperCollins combined to earn through the TCM last year—was generated by authors earning low five-figure returns. It is not just the mega-selling authors who generate cash for publishers.

What does it all mean? That's why we have you. To tell us.

See you in #FutureChat.


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Main image - iStockphoto: irontrybex