Well - lo and behold!
Philip Pullman turned some of his ire on publishers in an open letter to the Society of Authors (reported on here, in the Bookseller). He likened the publisher-author relationship to that between a "steamroller and an ant" and urged publishers to "treat authors more equitably" or risk them becoming "an endangered species".
Sadly, I can't polish my magic wand just yet - Pullman's letter came out before my blogpost. I just hadn't noticed it.
But perhaps it shows that the issue of publishers' profits and writers' incomes is beginning to have traction. Beginning to be something we can't just keep wringing our hands about.
Publishers, as I pointed out in my last post, are making profits, despite the loss of the net book agreement, despite Amazon, despite video games and the easy availability of entertaining apps on phones. Nowhere is this more true than in the area of children's books, generating something like 30% of the books market according to the Cover Kids Book campaign (here).
The problem is, very little of that money is getting through to the people who actually write the books. As we know, the average income for professional writers is £11,000, and while some earn astronomically more, many earn less. This means that if you aren't one of the lucky few, you can only really afford to be a professional full-time writer if you have: a) very little need for income, b) a salaried partner, c) other better-paid part-time work (perhaps doing school visits, or something quite unrelated to writing) which is subsidising your writing career, or d) you work like stink on non-fiction or writing for a packager. Only a) and b) are going to help your own fiction-writing career flourish.
But how can we change things? Given there is a huge pool of non-professional writers out there, desperate to get a contract and live the dream, publishers have us over a barrel. Don't like your advance? Fine, we'll give the contract to someone else. It's the law of the market.
Except - things don't always have to operate according to neoliberal fantasies of markets red in tooth and claw. There is such a thing as ethics in public life, and companies can be taken to task on ethical principles. There are strong arguments and campaigns for a "living wage", for example, or for the benefits of fair trade, which have been able to force changes in companies like supermarkets, chain stores and restaurants.
Even with the campaign for fair fees at festivals, we have seen that an outcry by major authors can force an acknowledgement of basic unfairness and the beginnings of better practice. How much more effective could a campaign aimed at major publishers be? After all, festivals aren't making profits - publishers are. And if their response was to say that if they had to pay higher advances, they'd have to publish fewer books, well, so be it. Maybe that would be a good thing. Fewer books might mean more discrimination about giving out contracts, more emphasis on publicising those books rather than letting them sink or swim alone, more emphasis on nurturing and developing writers, who would represent a more substantial investment to the company. All these things would be good. And if they meant I never got another contract again, that would be fine by me - so long as some people were, and they were being treated well, and our writing industry was in robust health, rather than limping along exploiting people's dreams of being J.K. Rowling.
So here's a challenge. The Society of Authors could investigate what it considered to be a minimum fair advance for novels of different lengths, acknowledging that writing 30,000 words of well-crafted prose takes less time than 100,000 words (but not a third of the time, since plotting and coming up with ideas and doing research can be equally time-consuming for both). They could then act like a proper union (like Equity does, for actors, another profession subject to the vagaries of a market where so many people want to act that if Equity didn't exist, the minimum wage for a jobbing actor would most likely be 50p per day). They should set that advance as a benchmark for fair trade, and publicise the fact. And if they do, I'll join them. (At the moment, I can't justify the expense.)
Obviously publishers would be free to offer more for books they think are particularly skilful or marvellous - but no one is ever offered a contract unless they are considered to be a good writer, and as such they surely merit at least minimum wage. Thus a minimum advance seems entirely reasonable. Based on my own output, I should say £10,000 per MG novel is the very bottom end of what should be considered a living wage for writers (that's three times what I was offered, in fact, for my first book).
Once this is in the public domain, we can campaign on it. Publishers could be encouraged to sign up to it as a common standard for the industry - to pledge they would offer at least the minimum living wage to all their writers. Their established writers could request that they do so, and perhaps think about leaving for a more fair-minded publisher if they didn't. New writers would be encouraged to insist on the minimum wage, in the same way that actors generally ask for Equity rates, in the same way that we are now all beginning to feel the pressure to ask for proper fees for festival visits. It's right, proper and fair - and it's time we pulled together to make it happen. Otherwise we risk seeing writing disappear as anything other than a hobby for the already rich and famous, or the incredibly lucky. This would narrow the breadth of writer's experiences, narrow the social groupings they came from, and narrow the kinds of writing our children had access to. It would be a tragedy.
So - who's with me?
CJ. Busby writes humorous fantasy adventures for ages 7-12. 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)