Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Publishing as a business - is it time to revolt?

At the beginning of this year, there was a flurry of letters, blogs and publicity about authors' fees at festivals. Philip Pullman's decision to pull out of being a Patron of Oxford Literary Festival was prompted by, and itself prompted, a widespread debate about the ways in which literary festivals reward the authors that are the primary reason for their existence, with well-known authors such as Joanne Harris and Francesca Simon joining in to condemn the fees policy and even pulling out of appearances as a result.

It is striking that, while the administrators, the catering staff, the ticket collectors, the marquee companies, the stewards, the plumbers, the booksellers and the technical support, who all contribute to making the festival run, are paid wages, the authors (and, at children's festivals, the illustrators), those who are at the very heart of what the festival is about, are often paid with a free lunch or a few bottles of wine - and even when they are actually paid money, it's generally a nominal sum. Unless they happen to also be a Big Draw or a Celebrity Author. It has been argued (for example, by Claire Armistead, here) that those authors who aren't a Big Draw or a Celebrity should simply be grateful for the exposure - they aren't who the audience have come to see. They gain publicity and profile from their association with the festival and that's their reward. But I think this misses the point. Audiences come to festivals not just for the Celebrity Author but to discover new writers, new voices, to hear something inspiring that they weren't expecting - to browse among a curated set of the latest talent. The new authors  are worth every bit as much to the life of a festival as the older, established ones - and I'd like to bet that the people that come back again and again do so because of the new writing they've been exposed to more than the familiar stuff that they always knew about.

But I don't want to rehash the arguments over festival fees. What seems to me more interesting is the question of who really benefits from festivals? And the answer is, by some considerable margin, not individual authors but the publishing industry. Which begs the question, why are publishers not paying for their authors/illustrators to attend festivals? Are we aiming our ire at the wrong target?

It's clear that many small and even large festivals wouldn't survive if they had to pay all their authors fair fees. But it could be argued that the industry they are really benefiting is getting a pretty cushy deal: free (or at the least very very cheap) promotion for hundreds of their books and authors, as well as a massive coming together of industry insiders in a congenial location where deals can be done and networks strengthened with booksellers, journalists, bloggers, authors - the kind of event that if it was an industry conference (which it almost is) would cost them thousands of pounds per delegate.

And the publishing industry is not short of a bob or two (profits of the biggest companies are in the millions, and margins are as high as 10%, compared with the general retail trade at 3-4% and bookshops at around 1% or lower (see here for figures).

So really, what the debate over author fees raised for me was not how mean the festivals are, but the wider question of how a whole industry can justify running a profit on the basis that every single contributor to the basic commodity it sells - the editors, the publicists, the computer support, the receptionists, the printers, the CEOs, the cleaners, the van drivers - is paid an appropriate wage, but the writers and illustrators are paid amounts that mean that, on average, they are working for less than the minimum wage.

When I go to schools, I am sometimes asked how much money I make as an author. I generally reply with another question - how much money do they think I get for each of my books that sells? Guesses generally range from about £5 per book to £1 or £2 per book. They are all utterly flabbergasted when I tell them that it's often less than 10 pence.

I can't think of another mass commodity industry that works like this, apart from the music industry. In all other areas, the core people involved in producing the commodity at the heart of any industry, whether it's a newspaper or a dishwasher,  are always waged. And music is slightly different, because its arguably performance that is at the heart of most music rather than recordings - and when a musician is performing, they are generally paid an appropriate wage.

I don't know what the answer is - but I do wonder if we need to get more angry about this. I wonder if we need to be agitating more forcefully. I wonder if the Society of Authors ought to be lobbying publishers and saying, look, you may think there is an inexhaustible supply of would-be writers who want to be published so much that they will accept any kind of deal, but unless you start offering proper returns for the business of writing, returns that however they are organised (royalties or retainers) deliver proper decent hourly rates of pay, we, your published authors, mid-list and celebrity alike, are going to start refusing to write for you.

So, Philip Pullman and Joanne Harris, and all the other well-known authors who have been putting pressure on festivals. How about it?

Cecilia Busby writes humorous fantasy adventures for ages 7-12 as C.J. Busby. Her latest book, The Amber Crown, was published last year by Templar.


"Great fun - made me chortle!" (Diana Wynne Jones on Frogspell)

"A rift-hoping romp with great wit, charm and pace" (Frances Hardinge on Deep Amber)


Sue Purkiss said...


Lari Don said...

You are completely right to identify that the financial rewards within publishing are distributed extremely unfairly, and that as a business model it's probably dysfunctional and possibly unsustainable. BUT you also identify why it works, for the publishers. Because there are always other writers happy to accept that unfairness to get their first book published, hoping that the deal will get fairer as their career develops. But almost all of us stay trapped in that 'will accept anything to get first book published' model, because if we do revolt later on, someone behind us will grab the deal with both hands. (Unlike a marquee rental company at a book festival, say, or a printing company bidding to print our next novels...) So Celia, if you can think of a way to revolt that deals with the fact we are driven to write, and hundreds of thousands of others like us are driven to write, and that we are therefore our own worst enemies in negotiations, both collectively and individually, I would love to hear it. Fascinating post. Well done for saying it. Long live the revolution!

Linda Strachan said...

Interesting post, Celia.
I am not sure the campaign to get festival to pay is missing the point. They should pay authors who they ask to come and speak so they can sell tickets! It may interest those south of the border to know that all the main and many of the smaller festivals in Scotland pay their authors, and some have just increased the fee. Why would they organise a festival and plan a budget without having included in their initial costs the authors' fees? It makes no sense. It is the same argument as with schools and others who invite authors to speak and seem to think it should be free, they would not ask their own staff, or a plumber or electrician to come in and do a job for free so why should an author.

With publishers, especially the bigger ones, the question I think we should ask is why they spend so much of their marketing budget on the high profile, bestselling authors whose books already sell well, and celebrity books rather than nurturing their mid-list authors who continually sell and would benefit more, and of course their new authors. Smaller publishers who may be struggling to survive often do an excellent job for their authors but could find it almost impossible to fund festival appearances as well as travel costs.

The society of authors campaign has had some success in that many of the festivals who had not paid authors in the past seem to be rethinking.

With publishers the Society of Authors is pushing for better terms with its C.R.E.A.T.O.R. campaign.

The SoA has called for authors and other creators to be protected from onerous contracts. All creator contracts should comply with the following minimum requirements:
C. CLARITY Clearer contracts including written contracts which set out the exact scope of the rights granted.
R. Fair REMUNERATION. Equitable and unwaivable remuneration for all forms of exploitation, to include bestseller clauses so that if a work does far better than expected the creator shares in its success, even if copyright was assigned.
E. An obligation of EXPLOITATION for each mode of exploitation, also known as the 'use it or lose it' clause.
A. fair, understandable and proper ACCOUNTING clauses.
T. TERM. Reasonable and limited contract terms and regular reviews to take into account new forms of exploitation.
O. OWNERSHIP. Authors, including illustrators and translators, should be appropriately credited for all uses of their work and moral rights should be unwaivable.
R. All other clauses be subject to a general test of REASONABLENESS.

C.J.Busby said...

Lari, you're right about the basic problem and I've been thinking about ways to get round it. I may have more to say in my next blog...! And Linda, ideally I do think festivals should pay, but it seems curious to me that we are so willing to hold them (and schools and libraries) to account while letting publishers get away with such blatant exploitation.

Katherine Roberts said...

Too many authors, too many books? But festivals are not really anything to do with writing them. I'm quite happy not to get invited these days - it leaves more time and energy for the actual writing and means I'm not out of pocket for travelling, either. Though, to be fair, my publishers always paid travel expenses and sometimes overnight stays for me to attend festivals, and I did get paid for my 'Great Pyramid Robbery' talk at Edinburgh where the curse in my book famously broke the microphone. So I don't think I've ever felt exploited.

Leslie Wilson said...

I did a workshop at one literary festival which was very well attended- but the bookshop didn't bother to get my latest book because it was hardback and 'wouldn't sell' though I had about twelve people out of twenty wanting to buy it. Then I didn't even get a present cos I was a sideshow! I felt well exploited. I've had other good experiences at festivals, usually when I was paid. I did enjoy doing Oxford with the History Girls but if I'd come down from Scotland to promote a book I'd have been seriously annoyed about the clause prohibiting me from doing events in the area for- I think- four weeks? But as regards publishers, I think the problem is that they expect quick and unrealistic profits, so don't give authors time to build up. It's to do with the stock market and how money people expect their shares to perform. So better to try the next new hopeful than build up a promising but not spectacular start. Graham Greene would have been chucked by his publishers nowadays, before he made it big..,

Anne Booth said...

This was really interesting - and I enjoyed reading all the comments afterwards.