Wednesday 7 March 2018

How much do you earn? by Dawn Finch

Recently I did a brave thing - I made the decision to take one of my books out of print and take back the rights to it. I did this for one very good reason; I hadn't made any money out of it. The book had been in print with a mainstream publisher for almost four years and in that time I had seen just about enough to buy a sandwich and a cup of tea. I've made far more money with this book from PLR and the loans via the public library system than I've made from sales.

I'm jumping to the end of the story... so let's go back to the start. This all started with a sunny room and an excited handshake and a whole bunch of promises and assurances and a glass of champagne. I was going to be the next BIG THING! My book was going to be EVERYWHERE! I was so excited that I could hardly stand it. Publication day came and there it was on the shelves in Waterstones and other bookshops and I had great reviews and everyone loved it and.....well.... nothing.

Of course experience has now taught me that the fizz of publication day lasts about as long as the bubbles in that glass of champagne. My publisher quickly (immediately) moved on to the next book and the next BIG THING and there was no marketing budget, no merchandising, no tour or support. I was forgotten. I learnt to deal with going into bookstores and not finding my book, and to not getting replies from my publisher.

I soon worked out that I would have to pitch my own book and do my own marketing, something that I still find depressing and demoralising. I flogged myself half to death trying to sell the book myself, and did pretty well. I kept the numbers good on Amazon, built my own website and acted as my own publicity and marketing person. Of course this meant that I didn't have much time left to write the sequel or do any other writing, but that didn't matter much when my publisher told me they didn't want a sequel because the first book hadn't done as well as they hoped.

Great. I wasn't exactly surprised that I hadn't achieved the sales required for them to take my sequel because finding my book in a bookstore was about as likely as finding Lord Lucan on Britain's Got Murderous Talent. I was surprised that it sold anything at all seeing as it had zero marketing and wasn't sold anywhere outside Amazon.

So, skip to today and I made the decision to ask for the rights back and to put it out via an indie publisher. I don't know if I'll make any money out of it, but I'm pretty sure I'll get replies to my emails and I get to work with someone who doesn't make me feel like I'm a desperate saddo. Thankfully my non-fiction books sell well and are used in most primary schools in the country, and that has kept me going. If it wasn't for my wonderful non-fic publishers I think I would have given up completely.

I'm not alone. I really wish I was but I'm not. Time and time again I hear about brilliant books that have had no marketing push and, after an initial flurry, they slide into obscurity without the attention they deserve. I also see poorly written books given vast sums of marketing and publicity money that they clearly don't deserve. This is obviously to recoup some of the massive advances that some "authors" are being given.

The imbalance is shameful, and it is now damaging the mainstream publishing world so much that I am not sure it can ever recover. There is a popular misconception that celeb "authors" sell so many books that they prop up the publishing world and feed money back into the system allowing publishers to take a chance on new and lesser known names. I simply don't believe this as there is no way some most of these titles are earning out those huge advances, and when new authors are given that illusive "chance", they are not marketed with anywhere near the push that the celebs get. Of course we don't know this for sure because publishers will not share these figures.

This month two of the biggest English language trade publishers have seen substantial increases in their profit margins. Simon & Schuster's profit margin has risen from of 9% in 2008 to 16% in 2016. Penguin and Random House have almost doubled their profit margin to 16% since they merged. In 2016 the publishing industry turnover was in the region of £5.1 billion, of which sales of books generated 69% of that total. Despite these huge figures, writers and illustrators only received around 3% of that turnover.

The Society of Authors is challenging publishers to be more transparent about the details of contracts and to be more open about how much they are paying authors. Nicola Solomon, SoA Chief Executive, wrote a powerful piece in The Bookseller speaking up for the rights of writers and illustrators, and for fairer deals. Philip Pullman has joined the chorus of people demanding change.

The Author's Licensing and Collecting Society publish data on author's earnings every year, and these reports make chilling reading with the average income for authors hovering around the £11k mark. For comparison, a job as a junior publicity assistant in a mainstream publisher will earn you somewhere in the region of £18 - £20k. With figures like that it's amazing any of us can survive. ALCS are currently gathering data on author's income for their next survey, and I strongly recommend you fill out the survey before Friday 9th March 2018.

As book-buyers we should demand new titles from booksellers, and pay a fair amount for them to support authors. We all say we love a bit of Fairtrade, but it's amazing how many people are prepared to pay more for a sandwich than they'd pay for a book. Author and illustrator James Mayhew has written eloquently on the importance of fair dealing for authors, and this is such an important point.

As an author, I want fairer deals for writers and illustrators too, and I want publishers to expand their reach, but I also want this as a librarian. I want books of all type and genres, not just big names and big sellers. I want books for readers that are challenging, unusual, quirky, and demanding. When I go shopping for food I don't just want the same food every day, I want new tastes and flavours. As I browse supermarkets I see new things that I've never tried and I take a risk. I want to take a risk with books too and so do many readers. If publishers constantly lean towards what is a safe seller, we are all denied something new and exciting.

What of the future? I hope that publishers will look at their figures and offer fairer deals and contracts and the balance will be redressed, but that would take a radical rethink of the way they work. In the meantime I suspect that for many the best way forward is with smaller independent publishers who are more prepared to take a risk, and to share the profits more equally. These publishers are already making great inroads into the world of booksellers, and we are seeing many of these books appear on award listings. Independent publishers are out there taking risks and publishing exciting new titles that have often been shunned by mainstreams. Personally, I look to the indies now when I want something different, and I suspect that will not change for the foreseeable future.

Good! Let's give the Big Boys a run for their money and maybe we - both authors and book buyers - can make them realise that the times they are a changin' and we're slowly taking back control. If we don't, all we have to look forward to is a stagnant market flooded with safe-sellers, and a world where only the already wealthy can afford to be authors and illustrators. That fills me with dread.

Dawn Finch is a children's author and librarian, and member of the Society of Author's Children's Writers and Illustrators Committee (CWIG)


Sue Bursztynski said...

Sigh! Been there, done that! The big publishers don’t bother with you after your book is published. I didn’t know that or I would have worked more to promote my YA novel before it came out. They got me precisely ONE gig on a blog and a few - a very few - reviews. Most reviews were by people who owned the book already.

Good luck with your reprint. Let us know how it goes. It can work - my small press publisher has been reprinting books by big name authors who, despite their popularity, had some books out of print. They are working very well, with lovely, fresh new covers and intros and a chance to rewrite bits. Small press is amazing!

Hilary Hawkes said...

This was my experience too. Really depressing and discouraging. The lack of marketing (which contracts say they will do) is frustrating. And the market is saturated anyway. But, like you say, authors can try other routes for your work. I decided there are so many other ways to enjoy writing and sharing what I write. It doesn't have to be the "big" publishers everyone has heard of. Good luck :)

Katherine Langrish said...

Well said, Dawn. There are many of us grappling with this dilemma.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I’ve had good experiences with small press. I remember once having coffee with my then-publisher from a big publishing house(the poor woman was sacked before my book came out, not sure why, and they lied to her authors about it). She was a friend of my small press publisher and said, “We will never look after you as well as he will.”

Dawn McLachlan said...

I do hope that mainstreams will tackle this, but they might be too late. Indies are already putting out some of the best new books. Look at publishers like Flying Eye - gorgeous books that are tactile and high-quality and award-winning. I have two amazing new books sitting on my desk from Greystones Press including Katherine Roberts historical novel about Genghis Khan. I fear that this is exactly the kind of book that a mainstream would not take a risk on, and readers would have been denied it if it wasn’t for an indie. The list goes on. Every day I seen new authors and titles from interesting new presses, but the same old stuff from mainstreams.
If the big publishers don’t deal with this they could become the KFC of the book world, with the indies being that fantastic little gourmet place that you pay a little more for, but have a far more delicious experience!

Sue Purkiss said...

Great piece, Dawn - many of us have had the same experiences - it's all horribly familiar!

Penny Dolan said...

Well said and well written, Dawn! Thank you for spreading some of these unwelcome facts. I hope that all sorts of people are taking note.

Jenny Alexander said...

My experience too, Dawn - that's why I started self-publishing. Thank you for sharing.

Lynne Garner said...

It's a scandal when PLR and ALCS make more for authors than the book deal. This has happened with all of my books and why I've decided to self published some. One of which has sold more in one month than a traditionally published book did it six months.

Penny Dolan said...

Unfortunately, with the gradual demise of the public libraries and their book-buying, the PLR will get less and less. The PLR system doesn't apply - or so I believe - when community libraries are stocked with donated & second-hand books, only when still book-resourced by their local library service.

Dawn McLachlan said...

You are almost right about the current situation with PLR, Penny, but the outlook is even worse in the long term. Libraries that are handed over to volunteers by local authorities no longer form part of the statutory provision and that means that none of their data feeds into PLR. It doesn't matter if they have new or old books, in PLR terms volunteer libraries don't exist.
This also has an even bigger impact on the book world, because local authorities are still claiming that they have these libraries open, but are recording no lending or usage data from them. This means that it looks as if library use in the local authority is catastrophically falling when people are using volunteer ones. They become a kind of ghost library - existing but generating no issue figures and no foot-traffic data.

catdownunder said...

I am so depressed by all this. There has just been a big concert here - a "big" name - and people were paying huge sums of money for a few hours entertainment one evening. I heard the check out girls in the supermarket discussing it and saying they "couldn't wait" to get there.
Yes, they will have the memory. If they also spent the same equivalent on books they would have the books for a lifetime.

Clémentine Beauvais said...

Great piece, a lot of this chimes with my own concerns about the British market. Thank you.

Rowena House said...

Thank you for this, Dawn. Your expertise as an author & librarian is very much valued. Wicked that, like printed words, expertise has so little monetary value in our materialist world.

Shoo Rayner said...

Great piece Dawn, I think the system is basically broken and the only way for an author to make a living is to become their own publisher. As you say, the big publishers put no marketing input into new titles and rely on the author doing what was once their job. We may as well do it for ourselves. But it is extremely hard work and , as you say, leaves no time for writing.

The big problem is that there are far to many really good writers and illustrators in the wold producing far too many books. The publishers know this and so does Amazon and so, in a buyers world (Amazon's and Publishers'), they can drive the price of their raw materials down to rock bottom. Unfortunately, there is a limitless supply of potential authors desperate to get published at any cost.

This is not going to change.

Meantime, Publishing has gone corporate and a corporation has only one duty, to return a profit to the shareholders... by any means. The people you deal with at the publishers are lovely and want to help, but the corporation has only one mind.

Once, publishers and authors were partners in a project and often in a career. Now an author is merely a supplier. The only way to be a preferred supplier, is to have no writing skills but bring a successful brand name to a project - any old hack can knock up the writing for you.

The answer is to become famous - or infamous - for something or nothing, and don't waste your time writing... outsource it!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Dawn what a brilliant piece. I'm afraid I don't even make near that 11K mark and I bring out on average 2 picture books a year and have been an author for 30 years! And yes I've filled in that form... the final stats on authors' earnings should be very interesting and somewhat depressing!