Traditional publishing is ‘no longer fair or sustainable’, says Society of Authors

Struggling authors applying for emergency funds in record numbers

The Society of Authors reveals 2015 saw the highest number of applications for financial assistance, with more well-known authors beginning to ask for help

By Richard Lea   @richardlea

A record number of struggling authors applied for emergency financial assistance in 2015, the Society of Authors has revealed, with applicants more than doubling between 2010 and 2015.

This year saw the highest number of applications since the society began keeping records in 1999.

ÔÇ£Median earnings of professional authors fall below the minimum wageÔÇØ

According to the societyÔÇÖs chief executive, Nicola Solomon, the writers applying for help are increasingly well-known.

ÔÇ£There are more applicants and very worthy applicants,ÔÇØ Solomon said. ÔÇ£These are people who you might call ÔÇÿproper writersÔÇÖ, who have made a living out of writing for their whole career. TheyÔÇÖre not people who once wrote a poem. ItÔÇÖs very concerning to see the huge need these authors are in and how much support they need.ÔÇØ

The Society of Authors hands out ┬ú100,000 in grants each year to writers in financial hardship. Awards of ┬ú2,000 are made to long-term members of the society who are over 60 or incapacitated from work. But with half of professional writers in the UK earning less than ┬ú11,000 ÔÇô a figure well under the minimum wage ÔÇô the pressure on writers continues to increase.

People have been educated into the belief that books donÔÇÖt cost money – Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman, author and president of the Society of Authors called the increase in applications ÔÇ£very worryingÔÇØ and said problems began when fixed book pricing ended in the 1990s.

ÔÇ£Since the demise of the Net Book Agreement 20 years ago, writersÔÇÖ incomes havenÔÇÖt followed the strong upwards movement in profits for, for instance, Amazon,ÔÇØ Pullman said. ÔÇ£The position weÔÇÖre in is that a lot of good writers ÔÇô good craftsmen and craftswomen who have worked at their craft all their lives ÔÇô are unable to make a living from their writing.ÔÇØ

With discounted books leaving authors making less money from each sale, Pullman said he would be in favour of a return to fixed pricing, but said it would be ÔÇ£impossibleÔÇØ to reinstate because ÔÇ£people have been educated into the belief that books donÔÇÖt cost money.ÔÇØ

ÔÇ£SomebodyÔÇÖs got to produce the product, as they now call it, but the producers arenÔÇÖt getting their proper reward,ÔÇØ he said.

Nicola Solomon said book sales had stayed steady, but that represented ÔÇ£a shrink in real terms.ÔÇØ

ÔÇ£Other people with more negotiating power are taking a bigger slice of that shrinking pie, putting a squeeze on author incomes,ÔÇØ she said. ÔÇ£We see that with publishers, whose profits havenÔÇÖt decreased significantly despite the contraction in the market. And there are a host of other intermediaries who are demanding a greater share. ItÔÇÖs not just Amazon, who has had well-publicised battles with publishers over market share, but even agents, who used to ask for 10% but are now demanding 15%.ÔÇØ

With fees in other sectors of the economy also under pressure, writers are also finding it harder to supplement their income with other work. ÔÇ£ThereÔÇÖs less work available in journalism and authors are increasingly expected to promote their work for free with appearances or bookshop events, leaving less time for writing.ÔÇØ

The market is also becoming increasingly polarised, with the top 10% earning 58% of all the money made by professional authors in 2013, according to the AuthorsÔÇÖ Licensing and Collecting Society. The top 5% ÔÇô making more than ┬ú100,000 a year ÔÇô took 42.3% of all earnings.

ÔÇ£Publishers are less willing to take risks, focusing on series and writers who have become brands, so the midlist are suffering terribly,ÔÇØ Solomon explained. ÔÇ£People who could get a decent advance for a book that would earn steady sales arenÔÇÖt getting the support they used to, theyÔÇÖre getting dropped after one or two titles.ÔÇØ

The difficulties are made all the worse for writers coming to the end of their careers by publishers who are unwilling to let authors take back control when books fall out of print.

ÔÇ£Publishers are demanding all the rights and then hanging on to them, fearing that some new platform for exploiting them is just around the corner,ÔÇØ Solomon said, citing the case of the romance novelist Catherine Gaskin, who left her work to the Society of Authors when she died. All her work was out of print, but after the SoA reclaimed the rights they republished them and are earning ┬ú7,000 a year from each title. The 2013 ALCS study showed that 70% of authors whose rights reverted back to them went on to earn further income from them.

According to the chief executive of the Publishers Association, Richard Mollett, publishers ÔÇ£share the frustration of the author communityÔÇØ at the increasing difficulty of making a living through writing.

However, Mollett said the relationship between publishers and authors was not the principal driver of this shift, attributing the change to ÔÇ£deeper market factorsÔÇØ.

ÔÇ£Throughout the publishing supply chain, margins are being increasingly squeezed, particularly in the online market,ÔÇØ Mollett said. ÔÇ£One of the effects of this is a reduction in the resources available for author support.ÔÇØ Books are facing increasingly stiff competitions from other media, he added: ÔÇ£Sales of fiction books have fallen by 38% in the past five years, and in all book categories the fall has been 19%.ÔÇØ

Mollett said the success of a few, prolific authors helped the rest of the industry. ÔÇ£Publishing, like all creative industries, is able to use the revenue gained from its successes to cycle into investment in developing new titles and talent.ÔÇØ

ÔÇ£Publishers want all of the authors and titles which they help to bring to the market to succeed ÔÇô that is the essence of their role,ÔÇØ he continued. ÔÇ£Of course, not every single title can achieve the same levels of success, but publishers work relentlessly with their authors to get the best possible outcome.ÔÇØ