Following the release of the UK Authors’ Licensing & Collecting Society (ALCS) survey on author earnings, already covered in TeleRead, I contacted the UK Society of Authors to ask for their view on the report. Here are the responses of Nicola Solomon, Chief Executive of the Society of Authors.
TeleRead: The ALCS findings state that average author incomes have fallen by almost 30% in the past decade. Creative Industries Council data shows UK creative industries growing at 5× the broader GDP growth rate. Can you comment on this contrast?
Nicola Solomon: We are concerned but not surprised by the findings in this survey. Authors are not receiving a fair share of the profits from book publishing – particularly in relation to digital. While authors’ earnings are going down generally, those of publishers are increasing. Retailers like Amazon are also pressing for a larger share of the profits. Authors are the only essential part of the creation of a book, and are asked to do more and more in terms of publicity, but are receiving lower advances and a smaller share of the profits. If unchecked, the rapid decline in the number of full-time writers could have serious implications for the breadth and quality of content that drives the economic success of our creative industries in the UK. Amazon says that it only seeks a lower price for its customers but, as we have seen with supermarkets and milk production, constantly driving down prices can mean that producers can no longer economically create their goods.
TeleRead: The ALCS report calls for action to stem the fall in the number of full-time professional writers, for the sake of the UK creative sector. What if anything are you doing to address this problem?
Nicola Solomon: We lobby for better terms for writers. We lobby to protect copyright and are also calling for legislation to protect authors in relation to Unfair Contract Terms by an amendment to the Unfair Contract Terms Act, and by implementing the recommendations of the recent EU Policy study on creator contracts. See more here. We also educate authors with publications and seminars, we support them by one-to-one contract checking and tailored advice, and we negotiate with publishers and broadcasters on terms. Finally, we lobby for a culture which values reading. Recent campaigns include support for school libraries and books for prisoners.
TeleRead: Does this data and the challenge of self-publishing indicate a need for reform of the standard terms for authors’ contracts?
Nicola Solomon: Yes. The ALCS survey found that 57 percent of respondents had signed contracts that included the important “rights reversion” clause and of these, 38 percent had used or relied on this clause, with 70 percent going on to earn more money from the work in question. The Society of Authors is concerned at the very unfair contract terms that are routinely offered to authors, who often have little negotiating power. Earlier this year, the European Commission published a study on contractual arrangements for creators. It highlights how the UK lags far behind the other European countries covered in the study in protecting the rights of creators, and pinpoints areas which it deems of particular concern. Changes the report advocates include:
• any grant of rights to be limited both by time and as to the specific uses proposed (so, instead of a contract granting rights “in all forms and media” for “the duration of copyright” we would like to contracts to take for instance just print and/or ebook rights for a period of seven years);
• the right of an author to reclaim any rights which are not being exploited (e.g. an author being able to get back the print rights in a book if the publishers are making it available only as an ebook);
• transparency on what is intended (so, for example, if the work will be produced only as print-on-demand rather than in a traditional print run, that is clear from the outset);
• if the author has been paid a one-off fee (which happens a lot, e.g. with illustrated children’s non-fiction, and with educational works), a mechanism for ensuring that, where appropriate, further payments will be due in the light of the actual revenue generated by the exploitation of that material;
• making moral rights and some rights to payment (e.g. from rental) unwaivable.
• The study urges “a dialogue among stakeholders towards more flexible contracts and exchange of best practices. We warmly welcome the report, and have long advocated all the provisions it recommends. We urge publishers to start speaking to us on appropriate terminology for the digital age. Do it yourself.
As many authors have experienced, self-publishing is becoming an increasingly successful venture for writers. The ALCS study shows that while only 25 percent of writers currently self-publish their work, those that do get a typical return on investment of 40 percent. Unsurprisingly, 86 percent of those who had self-published said they would do so again. Most authors would still prefer a traditional publishing deal, but the terms many publishers are demanding are no longer fair or sustainable.