money_grubbing_businessman_0521-1011-0416-3829_SMUPublishers are earning more than ever before. Writers are earning less than ever before. So why are writers defending publishers? And why is all that money staying with publishers instead of going back to authors?

This debate has gained fresh point and ammunition in the context of the recent Authors’ Licensing & Collecting Society (ALCS) study on UK author incomes. Nate Hoffelder criticized the ALCS report on the grounds of methodology: “This report looks less like a true survey of writers and more like a hatchet job from a group with an axe to grind. I suggest that you ignore it.” Well, another group with an axe to grind, the UK Society of Authors, got back to me in rather more comprehensive terms about the report, warning that according to European Commission findings, “the UK lags far behind the other European countries covered in the study in protecting the rights of creators,” and providing five specific fixes for standard contract terms to address the problem.

Some authors, like Joanne Harris, who spoke at the recent ALCS debate at the House of Commons, claim that the problem is “the easy availability of free digital content, a public increasingly used to the lower pricing of ebooks,” as well as “pressures within publishing; the emphasis on marketing the best-sellers at the expense of the mid-list.” But I don’t buy the first part of that argument. I suspect that the pressures from free content and new digital reading habits are a very small component of the overall downward pressure on author earnings. Amazon’s pressure on book prices might be, but then Amazon also offers several ways for authors to make up the difference, not least through better ebook royalties and through self-publishing.

Plus, this isn’t the first time the problem has been remarked upon, in terms that make no reference to ebooks. Take the New York Magazine feature, “The New Literary Lottery,” which lays bare the problem of bulging advances for first-time blockbusters. “While the major publishing conglomerates continue to cut back on ‘midlist’ authors, they’re increasingly willing to lavish astronomical sums on unknowns,” that article states. And that’s in the world’s largest English-language literary market. Poorer relations like the UK can only expect worse.

I don’t believe this is about the decline of the literary novel and its audience, as Will Self insists. After all, we’ve got the NYMag article pointing to the huge advances available for crossover literary first-timers. I believe copyright and piracy are entirely straw men, put together by the publishing industry for its own convenience to move the debate away from contract terms and rights, since ebook sales still don’t constitute the major part of traditionally published author incomes anyway. I also suspect that the globalization of publishing, the proliferation of subsidiary rights (geographical or in other media), and the agglomeration of the Big Five, have combined to give publishers more and better means to monetize and profit from content – which can only be tracked and turned to account by exceptionally astute authors and agents. “It is becoming increasingly important for writers to prove their ownership of rights in their works in order to secure key sources of income,” states the ALCS report. And if Amazon is hurting publishers so bad that they can’t give their authors more, then how come they’re recording record revenues?

Authors everywhere, remember: You are struggling with falling incomes while your publishers grow fatter. Time to ask them to show you the money.


  1. Sadly, as evidenced by the writers you mention here, far too many in our profession are more than willing to believe any argument that doesn’t involve blaming their publishers, the butterers of their bread (what butter and bread is left when they take their cut). Paying celebrities 7-figure advances while slowly starving midlist writers out of their careers (until self-publishing became a viable option only a few years ago) is not a new practice in traditional publishing–I’ve heard writers complain of it for at least 20 years. Bragging about record profits that follow on the slashing of e-book royalties, however is a relatively recent one, as is demonizing the distributor who sells a huge percentage of their paper output, and without whom publishers wouldn’t be making any electronic profits to speak of.

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