June 29, 2018

Authors: “Pay us more.”
Publishers: “It’s not that simple.”


According to the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS), authors are not being paid enough.

In their new report, which quizzed 5,523 British writers, the ALCS found that full-time writers’ earnings have dropped by fifteen percent in five years, to under £10,500 ($13,759) a year. Only thirteen precent of writers can afford to make it their full-time job, down from forty percent in 2005. And, surprise surprise, women earn twenty-five percent less than men.

Bestselling authors Philip Pullman, Antony Beevor, and Sally Gardner are all calling for change, as reported by Danuta Kean at the Guardian. The three believe that the dwindling number of professional writers threatens literary quality and diversity in the UK, and place the blame on publishers and online booksellers. Pullman told Kean, “Many of us are being treated badly because some of those who bring our books to the public are acting without conscience and with no thought for the future of the ecology of the trade as a whole… This matters because the intellectual, emotional and artistic health of the nation matters, and those who write contribute to the task of sustaining it.”

Nicola Solomon, chief executive of the Society of Authors, told Katherine Cowdrey at the Bookseller:

“If authors can no longer afford to make a living from their work, the supply of new and innovative writing will simply dry up. This will lead to a reduction in reading, which is vital both for boosting literacy and all the benefits of reading for pleasure, as well as threatening the success of our world-leading publishing and creative industries… This will exacerbate the well-publicised lack of diversity in publishing and create a vicious circle, making it harder to attract new and diverse readers.”

Now let’s switch to the flip-side. According to Cowdrey, the Publishers Association (PA) has “questioned the evidence-base for ALCS’ findings, which it maintains do not reflect the investments publishers are making in fostering creative talent.”

Stephen Lotinga, CEO of the PA, said:

“Publishers value authors enormously and their entire businesses are dependent on supporting them… These figures will be unrecognisable to the majority of publishers as they just do not reflect the investments they are making in creative talent. If we are to have a genuinely constructive conversation about this issue then we need a much sounder evidence base… it’s vital publishers are included in this important discussion.”

Let’s think like a publisher for a minute. Publishing is a business, like any other, and profits need to be made. Most publishers are not sitting back, gleefully exploiting their authors, cackling into their stacks of money. In reality, there are office costs to consider, staff salaries, utility bills. The cost of actually producing a physical book. The cost of storing and distributing that book. The commission and fees you need to pay your sales team. The discounts you have to give bookshops. Marketing and publicity costs. And given that the average book in the UK retailed for £7.42 in 2017, you have to sell a hell of a lot of books to get anywhere near to making your money back.

Gardner told Kean, “When I started you could still make an okay living from writing. You can’t do that now.”

Perhaps this is true. But this is reflective of the literary landscape, which is unrecognisable from the one in which Gardner first started writing twenty years ago.  The internet burst into being and Amazon clawed its way to dominance. Various large bookshop chains closed. Celebrities, regardless of talent, all decided they could write books and people wanted to buy them. The world does not sit still.

So does every author automatically deserve a wodge of cash for writing a book that a publisher has signed up? Only proportionally, according to what the book is actually going to sell and the money it is likely to make. When deciding what to pay authors, publishers do not simply pluck a number out of thin air. It is a fully considered decision and one with definite risk on the publisher’s side.

“Authors are not a special case, deserving of more sympathy than many other groups,” Pullman said to the Guardian. “We are a particular case of a general degradation of the quality of life, and we are not going to stop pointing it out, because we speak for many other groups as well.”

Understood, Mr. Pullman. And speaking for small publishers, who are often struggling to stay afloat, we don’t have it so easy either. You’re not automatically owed something just because you’re a writer, I’m afraid. We in the UK are all dealing with the same, often hostile book market, and trying to do our best.



Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.