Following my earlier coverage of the latest Authors’ Licensing & Collecting Society (ALCS) study on writers’ earnings and contractual terms, “The Business of Being an Author: A Survey of Author’s Earnings and Contracts,” I contacted the ALCS, the UK Publishers Association, and the Society of Authors for their reactions. Nicola Solomon, Chief Executive of the Society of Authors, was first to reply, as follows:
Teleread: The ALCS numbers show author incomes in a state of continuous decline at a time when the UK publishing industry appears to be enjoying great success. Why is this?
Nicola Solomon: While it has always been the case that a handful of writers earn a large amount and the rest much less, it is saddening to see that the inequality is increasing. It supports our observations that publishers are tending more and more to concentrate on safe choices and celebrity brands, sometimes at the expense of supporting backlist and midlist authors who sell steadily but more slowly. Publishers have done well out of the opportunities presented by digital publishing and the cut in overheads but have not passed these savings on to authors.
Teleread: Do you feel there are contractual terms in current UK publishing practice that are especially disadvantageous for authors?
Nicola Solomon: Yes, At least some of the following problems might be partly solved by short licence periods; far too many contracts are for the full length of copyright. A very high proportion of contracts are non-negotiable.
Publisher takes too large a share. By undertaking production and marketing costs, publishers justify their higher share of the income. Where these costs are very low (e.g. for print-on-demand), the royalties should be adjusted accordingly. If the publisher (or the agent in the case of White Glove deals) is only making the work available as ebook and/or print-on-demand they should be taking no more than 15% of the income. Where an advance has earned out (and so the publisher’s initial investment has been recouped) the ebook royalty should be raised to 50%.
Many contracts are misleading and disingenuous, e.g. by treating ebook sales through an arm’s length aggregator as a primary sale, and therefore paying a lower royalty than should be the case. Many contracts allow for sales through an American imprint of a publisher to be treated as an arm’s-length sub-license. There has been a sudden drop in income from subsidiary rights for specialist non-fiction authors, from 50% to much lower. Course pack rights are now 5%/10%, with no explanation as to why this should be. Where royalties are based on net receipts, there should be no drop in the royalty percentage for high discount sales; the income to the author will decrease as the discount grows in any case.
The contract is misleading to the weaker party. It is not clear from many publishing contracts whether the publisher intends to publish in a traditional way with a print-run, or whether the work will be produced as print-on-demand (often through Amazon). Where there are a large number of different payment clauses it should be clear under which clause the majority of sales will fall.
Rental/Lending: there is a lack of clarity with regards to this usage of the work, and often it does not appear at all in contracts or statements. Royalty statements should be clear and precise, particularly with regards to ebook and print-on-demand sales.
Further points: Copyright should not be assigned unless the idea for the work originates with the publisher and the author is working to the publisher’s brief. Where the author has to assign copyright in the work, this should only take place when the full fee/advance has been paid. If the contract terminates the rights should revert to the author. Where there are competing works clauses, these should be modified by duration/income thresholds. Contracts for fee-based assignments should not include competing works clauses.
Publishers should not have the right to continue to grant new sub-licenses after termination of the contract. The publisher should not sub-license English language volume rights (including ebook rights) in the home market without the author’s consent. Sub-licences should take account of the head licence period.
There should be proper restrictions on anything that cannibalises the sales in the main market; the author should receive full royalties in the work’s main territories whilst the book is still new. Pro-rata royalties for bundled/aggregated works, particularly in the first year of publication, cannibalise the author’s primary sales of the work. There should be no omnibus editions in the first year of publication.
The publisher should not take the rights to the author’s tables/illustrations etc. when this represents a distillation of the author’s expertise. Terms for specialist non-fiction writers are especially inflexible, which is all the more concerning since these projects are usually publisher-commissioned. Specialist non-fiction writers should be given an advance for revising a work.
Authors are increasingly being expected to undertake marketing and publicity work for free. Whilst it is in the author’s interests to encourage sales, this should still be considered work. In-house staff undertaking marketing work are paid a salary. Authors should not be refused the opportunity to buy their own books for resale.
There should be no option clause without very strong reason. If the publisher wants the next work they should pay for a two-book deal.
The minimum thresholds for payment of royalties has been rising. Particularly where payment can be made by BACS this should not be the case.
Revised editions: the author’s/estate’s entitlement to royalties often stops on the second edition after the author’s lack of involvement/death. This is reasonable only so far as that royalty share is required to pay a new author.
There should be a provision for the author to have a share of any income from linked advertising.
Longlist: There should be no assignment of the contract without the author’s consent.
Teleread: Is there any impact on author incomes from the growing numbers of writers?
Nicola Solomon: There have always been many writers. The only difference now is that those who cannot find a traditional publisher have another route to publication through self-publishing.
Teleread: Does the UK publishing industry have a moral and practical obligation to ensure that writers are properly compensated?
Nicola Solomon: Of course. Daniel Hahn, Chair of the SoA, said: “Anybody interested seeing in a future with books in it should be profoundly troubled by what today’s report is telling us.”
[SoA] President Philip Pullman called the situation “nothing short of a national disgrace”:
In the past ten years, while publishers’ earnings have remained steady, the incomes of those on whom they entirely depend have diminished, on average, by 29%. While bankers and hedge fund managers (who do nothing that can be understood) gather in more money than can be imagined, the work of authors (who give delight, or knowledge, or consolation) is rewarded on average with little more than 40% (£11,000) of the national median earnings. While Amazon makes earnings of indescribable magnitude by selling our books for a fraction of their value, and then pays as little tax as it possibly can, the authors whose work subsidises this gargantuan barbarity are facing threats to their livelihood from several directions: from publishers’ increasing habit of letting backlists disappear while concentrating largely on proven bestsellers, as well as from the government’s obvious disinclination to do anything to help keep the library sector alive.
The Society of Authors exists to help all authors, and to argue strongly for the value and importance of a thriving literary culture—something this country used to pride itself on, with good reason. The writers of the books that we know people love to read cannot earn a living by going on tour, filling stadiums night after night, and then signing books at the door. Our business doesn’t work like that. We’re not demanding special treatment: just pointing out the need for simple financial justice.