Underpaid Authors

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
This article, from today's Guardian, highlights the problem of underpaid authors:

Philip Pullman calls for authors to get fairer share of publisher profits

The source article is worth a look, as it contains more statistics:

The profits from publishing: authors' perspective | The Bookseller

The statements by a publishing industry chief executive in the final paragraph of the Guardian article are a prime example of despicable doublespeak, in which he justifies the divide-and-rule tactics of contracts in a patronising way:

Stephen Lotinga, chief executive of the Publishers Association, said on Monday that “publishers absolutely recognise that writers should be fairly rewarded for their work and they do a huge amount to support talent”.

Royalties and advance flows are agreed on an individual, case-by-case basis and will vary across the industry. Publishers do communicate directly and transparently with authors, for example through royalty reports, but each contract is business-sensitive and so the communication is understandably with the individual concerned,” said Lotinga. “There are commercial sensitivities around much of this information that will inevitably impact what could be shared more widely.”

One thing that I've never understood about publishing contracts, is how did it ever get to a point where writers gratefully accepted a pittance of 10-15% for their work? Imagine presenting those terms to any other profession or trade.

That this form of slavery has come about is surely because we are scattered individuals trying to progress with our writing alone. Sure, there are associations we can join, but they are toothless lapdogs if all they do is politely whine for more money. But, how would you organise a writers' strike?

It's easy to see how self-publishing has thrived!

It's possible the money publishers save by selling ebooks rather than printed books isn't being passed on to the author in a proportionate way. So the increase in profit due to money saved by not doing a print run or shouldering distribution costs is much greater than the profits they allow to 'trickle down' to the author.

Meanwhile publishers can also save money on nationwide and international promotions. Appearance type of promotions entails plane tickets, hotels, and meals-- often for more than one person -- most nationwide promotion can now take place on the internet. Publishers have the means of setting up an effective promotional machine which once put into place, can work for them day and night. The success of their strategies can be measured immediately and in a much more meaningful and inexpensive way than flying an author from one coast to the next--paying for conferences, assistants -- all of that.

Then the author, depending on how big they are, is left to shoulder a degree of responsibility for local promotion (and social media usually). They might be given help but I would guess this help also depend.

One particular better than average romance author I know from RWA paid for her own assistant, made her own goodie bags, did her own promotion, paid for her own website --- and let's see how much she makes (because I can look it up) and.... drumroll.....after ten years as a traditional and self-published author she is now making around 75k a year. Last year, it was significantly lower -- poverty level lower -- and the year before that -- it was pennies on the ground lower.

The question then becomes, how did she live and manage to present herself to her readers in a way which would make them admire her and not just her writing before this point? Because, that's what it would take. Romance readers don't want to see their authors looking frumpy. They'll accept overweight and you don't have to be beautiful, but put that package together well if you're showing up at conferences and signings.

Well, she obviously didn't support herself. Let's hear it for support systems. She's worked very hard with little return for a very long time and when she gives that speech, I'm sure she will thank everyone who was there for her when. Four hours down the highway in Texas, her books aren't carried on the shelves of any bookstore I could find. She made her own success though.

And my point is ... because I'm afraid it's been lost ... is she was traditionally published by a HUGE publisher and from what I see, her success isn't only about her writing -- I've always thought she was good -- but about her putting her money, time, and energy into midwifing her career in a way which I suspect few authors really have the stomach for let alone the money and time for.

It makes you wonder who is really taking the chance.

It's long been my belief that publishers often take on many romance authors to throw something at the wall and see what sticks. I heard horror stories from an author who is now one of the most successful paranormal romance authors of all time about how when her first few books were published, they didn't sell well. She had to pay back her advance. She had friends who had to pay back their advances.

This was something I heard during her talk at a conference. I'm not pretending I was her buddy -- her pal -- her goto gal.

But in defense of publishers. Well -- a tiny bit in defense:

One thing that I've never understood about publishing contracts, is how did it ever get to a point where writers gratefully accepted a pittance of 10-15% for their work? Imagine presenting those terms to any other profession or trade.

It used to be expensive for publishers to publish an author's work. But that's been a gap which has been growing for a very long time. Also, those terms are very much like the terms presented to other types of creative artists. I can't think of any type of artist that gets to keep the majority of their profit unless they sell it themselves. Which means it isn't profit for them because they have to reinvest it in themselves.
I work in retail and when I saw writers receive 10-15% commision I did not think it was a terrible deal.

To help out fledgeling writers it would make sense for the commission to be high at first and lower as sales go up. However, businesses do not want to lose money so that would never happen.
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Fanfare! Ink Tears Short Story Contest . . .


Interview with Todd Hasak-Lowy