The Society of Authors is seeing a number of "once well-known authors" apply for assistance to its Pension Fund, intended to help those who have fallen on hard times - when with fairer contracts allowing rights reversion they could be making an income from their backlist, SoA chief executive Nicola Solomon has said.
Speaking at the FutureBook Author Day this morning (Monday 30th November), Solomon said that the SoA was now earning around £7,000 a year per title from republishing the work of novelist Catherine Gaskin, who left her estate to the author body. When she died, all her work was out of print, but the SoA was able to revert the works. That £7,000-per-title sum is far more than the Pension Fund is able to offer in its bursaries, which are around £2,000 a year, Solomon said, "yet many of our authors are unable to persuade publishers to revert the rights to even quite moribund titles."
Reversion clauses are just one of the areas where publishing contracts are unfair to authors, Solomon said, reminding her audience that the typical annual earnings of authors has fallen to £11,000 a year. "The terms publishers are asking for are no longer fair or sustainable," Solomon told the Author Day delegates. She warned: "Publishers readily accept that publishing is changing and that they do not know what may be coming along next. Their response is to take as many rights as possible from authors in the hope that they may be able to exploit them and only to offer authors a small share until they are sure what the business model will be. Publishers tell authors that they need those rights to properly exploit authors’ work but unless authors hold on to them or build in reviews and escalators, publishers will not increase authors’ share when the outlook becomes clearer. They are running businesses, despite their protestations that the author is at the heart of everything they do."
Solomon also warned that the relative cheapness of publishing today had brought "a slew of new publishers into the industry" ranging "from the good to the bad and the frankly ugly."
Consequently Solomon said that she believed US media lawyer David Vandagriff's description of publishing contracts as "conscience-shocking monstrosities" might "even be an understatement", because of what the SoA had seen in vetting over 1,000 members' contracts a year. "We see many contracts where authors hand over all their rights for no advance and with no guarantee of exploitation by the publisher," she said.
Solomon repeated her call for the government to pass legislation to protect authors, in line with the Consumer Rights Act, and in line with laws in many other European countries, with the SoA currently engaged on campaigning for so-called CREATOR contracts, which are clearer, offering fair remuneration, operate a "use it or lose it" principle on rights exploitation, have limited contracts terms, recognise author ownership of their work and have fair and understandable clauses on accounting.
"We all need to work together as the SoA has been doing since 1884, to ensure a fair and vibrant landscape where authors, independent or traditional, can continue to flourish and receive a fair share of reward for their talents and hard work," she said.