Publishers Weekly has shared a post by Martin Shepard, an independent publisher, which takes issue with Authors Guild claims of poverty-line incomes for its members. His points will delight Amazon fans, but are they convincing?
As David Rothman reported earlier, Authors Guild Executive Director Mary Rasenberger found from a survey of 1,674 Guild members that 56 percent had writing incomes below the federal poverty level of $11,670. She blamed Amazon, as well as the Big Five, bookstore closures, and sundry other causes. Shepard takes issue first by pointing out that “it became clear that Rasenberger was talking about the five publishing conglomerates, while ignoring the more than 2,000 independent publishers listed in Literary Market Place.” So only the largest, wealthiest, and most powerful and influential publishers are responsible for pushing authors into the breadline? That’s reassuring.
Shepard doesn’t actually engage with why the Big Five aren’t delivering better incomes to authors – seeing as they’re so big, rich, and powerful, and stuff. He does upbraid them, not for rapacity, but for Philistinism: “The reason we’ve been able to find, introduce, and publish so many award-winning novelists is because the conglomerate publishers increasingly reject them. Dumbing down artistic merit in favor of wider sales works if the goal is making money.” And he has some good words for Amazon:
Despite Rasenberger’s claim that Amazon has hurt author earnings, in our experience, Amazon has never been a detriment to either author earnings or publishers’ earnings. When Amazon orders printed books, they rarely return anything, while wholesalers and bookstores typically return a high percentage. As for electronic sales (such as with Kindle), we split them 50/50 with our authors, as we do with all subsidiary rights—another good deal for writers, despite the Authors Guild’s warnings.
Shepard’s perspective on author incomes isn’t likely to reassure anyone, though. “What compels someone to enter the arts and keep at it, despite the fact that most put hours into their work that and still remain below the federal poverty level?” he asks. “I’ve known many artists, from writers to painters, sculptors, musicians, actors, playwrights, and poets. All of them work because that’s what dedicated creative people do.” And as for authors not receiving their due, he adds, “This is an argument used by workers everywhere. But what is due to anyone? And don’t authors have the right to sign or refuse any contract offered by a publisher, large or small? I rest my case.”
Case not proven, I’d say ever so slightly. For one thing, as the Society of Authors in the UK has pointed out time and time again, authors may not have the power to understand, let alone query, the contracts foisted on them by some publishers. That’s exactly why the organization is pressing for changes in UK contract terms. And it’s not alone. It seems that, notwithstanding Shepard’s experience, actual artists, authors and creatives have a good deal of time to do more than just create – they’re busy protesting and complaining against unfair contract terms that dun them out of their livelihoods.
This sounds like an argument used by publishers, recording studios, art galleries, and all other organizations keen to get a lock on the fruits of creative endeavor. It’s a shame to hear it come from one of the smaller entities who should be close enough to the poor authors to actually care about them, instead of heap praise on their noble suffering. But if any indie publisher is going to come out with such a line, trust Publishers Weekly to find them.