Friday, 6 May 2016

Publishing as a Business Part II: A Call to Arms! by C.J. Busby

Last month on ABBA, I wrote a post on the publishing business and authors' earnings (Publishing as  Business - is it time to revolt?). It took off from the campaign arguing that festivals don't pay authors a fair fee, and asked if actually it's time to start looking at publishers' payments to authors. I suggested that maybe high profile authors like Philip Pullman, who were making waves about festivals, might start turning their ire on publishers.

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)


Sue Purkiss said...

Now there's a thought!

Pippa Goodhart said...

It would be really interesting to hear a publisher's response to this. If you gave a £10,000 advance for a MG novel, would publishing it be viable? I have a horrible feeling that it wouldn't be. My feeling is that it would be make better sense all round if the royalties were higher rather than the advance being higher. That way, both author and publisher have every incentive to sell the book once it's out. And the rewards for a book that proves popular would be properly proportionate for the author.

Katherine Roberts said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stroppy Author said...

You can't expect the Society of Authors to take any notice of you unless you join. Those of us who pay our fees and give our time, free, to make it work will be happy to have you join and stand for election to one of the committees (CWIG - the children's writers and illustrators group would be ideal). You will then also see that it DOES act like a 'proper' union. The CEO has been running the CREATOR campaign for fair contracts since launching it in the House of Lords last year. They give advice to members (and non-members, for a fee) on contractual terms. The fee is not huge (about £100 a year) and you get 10% discount on books if you buy from the right shops (Waterstones, Foyles, Blackwells, for instance) and on some other things. You can easily earn most of it back.

But you would need to modify your attitude to what counts as a book and an author: '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.' Writing books other than fiction is also a writing career. Most of the members of the Society of Authors are not novelists and most books published are not novels. The situation in some fields is worse than it is in the niche of children's fiction. The Society of Authors works for all writers, including writers of - eg - biography, screenplays, poetry, textbooks, radio documentaries, and so on.

Certainly it would be better if we could all earn more from our books and we should be able to make a decent living from writing books that sell. There is a big problem with being branded as acting 'entitled' which comes from the perception that some people feel they are entitled to publication. That's not the case. Publication or not is a commercial decision. But if the publisher takes the book because they believe they can make money from it, they must be prepared to pay the author a decent amount of money. That is the basis of the CREATOR campaign (along with other aspects of fair contract terms). There is much distress amongst those writers who are being pushed towards a flat-fee contract for the first time (most EFL authors), yet that's the way publishers will move if you/we want more money up front as it makes their budgeting and forecasting easier. And they will take fewer books, of course, which doesn't benefit the reading public, and be less willing to take a risk on anything different.

I suspect, also, that many people will wonder whether it is actually possible to work 7 hours a day, 5 days a week for six months on a novel 30,000 words long. That's about 200 words a day. Doesn't look like a full-time job, does it? And if you're not at your desk writing or doing research for those hours, why should the publisher be paying for them? When the working practice is so different from that in other careers, the concept of minimum wage doesn't look applicable. But I do agree that writers should be properly and fairly rewarded for their work. Join the SocA and help fight the cause!

C.J.Busby said...

Hi Anne,
Thanks for your comments - I did say it wouldn't help your 'fiction writing career' rather than 'writing career' as obviously non-fiction (and other kinds of writing) is a writing career too, but since I know less about them I was aiming what I said at children's fiction. And yeah, you're right, I should join the Society of Authors and maybe I will if I can scrape the £100 together. It may well be that £10,000 as an advance for 30,000 words isn't the right amount to equate to a minimum wage - but working practices and outputs could be compared across a lot of different authors to see what would make sense. After all, editing work tends to be paid according to numbers of words, and while some are faster than others, there is a sense that it's fair to pay a certain level for a certain number of words. My feeling is that is has to the the advance that's made fair, as if you made authors' royalties higher, there's even less incentive on publishers to get the book out there and selling! Whereas an up-front payment that needs to be clawed back through sales is a better incentive to properly back the book. And as I said in the piece, I am perfectly prepared to see the number of books published go down, I think there are far too m nay published at the moment And I have no sense of entitlement - happy not to be one of the ones who continues to be published under any new regime, if others are at least being paid properly.

C.J.Busby said...

I suppose the reason why I hit on a 'minimum advance' was because the idea of 'fairness' is a bit vague, and hard to quantify, but a minimum advance for a certain length/type of book gives us something to start from and by which to separate publishers willing to sign up to it and those not. But maybe it's unworkable.