The Bookseller‘s FutureBook Author Day seems to be throwing up significant findings for authors everywhere. Some are served up by Nicola Solomon, chief executive of the UK Society of Authors (SoA), who warned that many formerly well-known authors are applying to its Pension Fund for support – when they could be earning far more from their own backlist, if only they had retained the rights. She quoted the example of Irish-Australian romantic fiction writer Catherine Gaskin, who left her estate to the SoA. Gaskin wrote steadily from the late 1940s to the late 1980s, yet all her books were out of print by her death in 2009. The SoA was able to recover the rights, and is currently earning £7000 ($10,540) per annum from her backlist. In contrast, it can only pay out £2000 ($3010) per year per individual pensioner author.
Solomon repeated her call, often made elsewhere and here at TeleRead, for fairer author contracts in the UK, in line with the SoA’s C.R.E.A.T.O.R. campaign. She also identified changes in the disrupted publishing landscape that are driving some publishers to be especially exploitative in contract terms. “Publishers readily accept that publishing is changing and that they do not know what may be coming along next,” she said in The Bookseller. “Their response is to take as many rights as possible from authors in the hope that they may be able to exploit them.” Furthermore, she added, “a slew of new publishers” of all ethical standards had sprung up because of modern publishing’s relative cheapness – which makes you wonder how publishers justify the share they take of author incomes.
Many authors are left dependent on programs like the SoA’s author bursaries because they don’t have exploitable reversion clauses in their contracts. And modern publishers are ever more conscious of the value of backlists – and ever more likely to try to retain backlist rights. That said, there’s no one more truly incentivized to keep a backlist in print than authors themselves – which is one argument for self-publishing or very robust reversion clauses. After all, if you can more than triple your additional income in your old age, that’s more than enough reason, no matter how modest your backlist sales.