We’ve all been talking a lot lately about how authors’ earnings are down, even while publishers continue to profit. But how bad is it, actually? The Authors Guild hosted a panel on April 28 that set out to explore the question using data from author surveys in three countries: the United Kingdom, Canada, and the U.S.
Pulitzer Prize–winner T.J. Stiles, who moderated the event, framed the panel as an investigation into what happens to “disaggregated individuals in a corporate economy.” The disaggregation of authors cuts both ways, Stiles pointed out: it allows authors to retain their independent voices, but at the same time it allows publishers to impose rigid contract terms and to prevent fair negotiations. In the corporate economy, “There’s a certain kind of matter that rolls downhill,” he said. “And authors are at the bottom of that hill.”
Stiles’s conclusion was supported by the U.K. data, presented by Nicola Solomon, Chief Executive of the U.K.’s Society of Authors, and Barbara Hayes, from the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS). Solomon and Hayes led the audience through ALCS’s devastating 2013 survey, “What Are Words Worth Now?,” which charted the diminishing prospects of professional authors in the U.K. In 2005, for example, 40% of U.K. authors earned their income solely from writing; by 2013 this had dropped to just 11.5%. In that year, U.K. authors earned a median income from writing of just £11,000.
Equally bleak was the news from Canada, where writers’ incomes have decreased 27% since 1998, according to John Degen, a novelist and poet who serves as the Executive Director of the Writers’ Union of Canada. Degen attributed part of that decrease to a 2012 law that significantly broadened educational exceptions to copyright and yielded an immediate 27% drop in K–12 book sales.
How do these numbers stack up next to the domestic data? In April, the Authors Guild conducted its first major member survey since 2009. Questions went out to all Guild members, as well as 1,300 non-member writers. Though the data hasn’t been fully analyzed (final results of the survey will be made public in May), Peter Hildick-Smith, CEO of the Codex Group, presented preliminary results, which suggested that 49% of U.S. authors assessed their writing income has decreased over the last five years. Respondents’ median writing-related income decreased 24% in that time frame, to $8,000, while they spent nearly 50% more time marketing themselves and their work. And, interestingly, 30% of those surveyed have self-published a book.
After the data was out on the table, talk turned to solutions. What can you do in your countries, Stiles asked the panelists, to help make writing pay? The consensus, as expressed by Solomon, sounded deceptively simple: stronger copyright protection and better contracts.
Identifying the root cause of the problem proved more difficult. Stiles sees it as what he terms “Digital Luddite Culture,” the increasingly pervasive mindset that seduces consumers into believing creative work in digital form has no value. Hildick-Smith provided a complementary response, pointing to a major decline in bookstore shelf space that has diminished the discoverability of midlist books and authors.
But the news isn’t all doom-and-gloom, Solomon suggested. When it comes to authors’ negotiating power with publishers, “for the first time in history,” she said, “writers have a choice” whether to publish with an established house or to release their work on their own.
Nonetheless, the facts underscore a harsh marketplace reality: if writing doesn’t pay, there will be less quality writing. Stiles summed it up neatly: “Books won’t fare so well without us.”