Ending authors’ exploitation.
Fair pay in publishing, what does it mean and why does it matter?
Last year, a shocking report by the ALCS was published which found that professional authors, who to the outside world would seem to be successful, earn £5.73 an hour or less than £10,500 a year, far below the national minimum wage. The findings were so appalling that best selling and much loved authors made the headlines calling for change. Philip Pullman, Antony Beevor and Sally Gardner, for example, were featured in a Guardian report calling out the exploitation of writers in the publishing industry.
Surely, with such eminent figures from the literary world on the campaign trail, something must have changed.
Sadly, not. In fact, the situation has just got a lot graver with Bertelsmann, the parent of Penguin Random House, snapping up Simon and Schuster, in a merger that creates a monster out of two giants. It will leave the new conglomerate controlling 70% of all the literary fiction published in the US, and around 1/3 of all English Language book sales.
Why does this matter? It matters because, with that kind of monopolistic share, imprints owned by the publishing giant are able to take whatever percentage they like from what should be the author’s royalties. They know that authors face a very slim chance of ever being published, let alone being able to shop around for the publisher they want to work with. The power is concentrated into the hands of a diminishing number of cultural, as well as financial, gatekeepers, arguably focused increasingly on lining their own pockets rather than on enriching the world’s cultural capital or paying their authors a fair wage.
"Successful authors earn £5.73 an hour or less than £10,500 a year, far below the national minimum wage... There is a significant inequality of wealth distribution: in this case the top 10% of earners account for about 70% of the total pot."
If Penguin offers you a deal, they probably think you’re going to think with your heart, maybe even with your ego, but not with your financial head, and you are going to accept. And if you do get published by a press like Penguin, you’re going to get a lot of pats on the back, maybe even reviews from leading figures in the press and other authors. And you might get a bigger readership than with a smaller press or self publishing. Which would feel great. That is, until you watch the profits coming in for the book you spent years of your life writing, only to find that your contract leaves you with next to nothing.
Even if your book is acclaimed, you may not have the motivation, or the money and time to write a follow up. The ALCS reported a worrying trend in writers’ careers shortening. This isn’t because they’re choosing to retire early and enjoy the profits of their hard work. It is because they simply do not have a viable way to continue. And that’s just the authors who have the means and the energy to get an initial book on the market. There’s no way to count the many who will simply not be in a position to try in the first place.
"Bertelsmann, the parent of Penguin Random House, have bought Simon and Schuster, in a merger that creates a monster out of two giants. It will leave the new conglomerate controlling 70% of all the literary fiction published in the US, and around 1/3 of all English Language book sales."
As is so often the case, women are hit harder than men, earning just three quarters of their male counterparts’ salaries, and each year pay for women writers falls a few more percentage points. People of colour continue to be under represented and grossly underpaid. The ALCS survey also shows that 94 per cent of the UK’s published writers are white, and most live in relatively affluent south-east England. Yes, there are some big authors that the publishing giants champion to clear their name of racial bias, but the balance of racial diversity is off throughout. And that imbalance of a few big names at the top and a huge and unknown bottom is another feature of the big publishing houses’ exploitation. There is a significant inequality of wealth distribution: in this case the top 10% of earners account for about 70% of the total pot, confirming a feature of the writing profession that is common to other creative occupations, namely that the many are propping up the few. Unless more authors can make an independent living from their writing, it is hard to see how a more diverse literature can thrive.
"94 per cent of the UK’s published writers are white, and most live in relatively affluent south-east England...Unless more authors can make an independent living from their writing, it is hard to see how a more diverse literature can thrive."
So what can be done?
A first step we can all take is changing the way we think about the publishing giants. We give them far, far too much esteem. We see them as the home of great fiction, rather than as corporations hungry for profit with a highly skilled but underpaid workforce of writers. We don’t recognise enough that publishers’ actions are driven by money. Their employees might be smart and well intentioned literature grads, but they can only succeed in their careers if the books they choose to back bring the biggest returns. Their social media feeds might be full of books they ‘love’ and their passion for ‘stories’ or for ‘voices’, but those comments are not borne out in the way the companies operate. The people aren't bad, but the way they have to operate to thrive in a publishing house that needs to make big profits is.
Publishers tend to be incredibly risk-averse in what they go for, catering to a market that already exists rather than being brave enough to forge a new one. This pandering to popular taste also means accepting the social status quo. As massive cultural power brokers, these companies could change the kind of stories we hear, the kinds of people we think can become authors, and the kinds of voices we believe are worth listening to. Instead, they cave to financial pressures, focussing on what they know will sell, which is too often celebrity authors, leaving others with a smaller pool of money to compete for. As a result, the ALCS found, authors were finding it harder to get novels that asked big questions into print and I would add to that: women, people of colour, and people from economically deprived backgrounds, are being put off even trying to write their stories, in the knowledge that they are unlikely to be accepted, and if they are, that they are unlikely to get paid.
The publishing giants’ lack of courage to publish the best stories has another layer to it. Whilst they will, sometimes, take on something different, how much marketing they actually throw behind the book will depend on their estimation of how it will sell. If they like it, but they think it’s not a big money spinner, they won’t try very hard to turn it into one either because the marketing won't be cost effective.
So, part of the fight back is down to you. Next time you read a tweet from one of the big firms about their passion for stories, their love of writers, or the company’s commitment to diversity, just remember that those firms take home profits in the millions and billions, while authors, the only truly irreplaceable link in the value chain of publishing, are barely paid enough to survive.
Once you’ve seen through the publishing giants’ marketing smokescreens, it’s time to make space for the alternatives. That’s what we’ve spent years trying to hone at Lafiy Press, and we’re now getting ready to launch in 2021. In the end we found the answer is quite simple. This publishing house is founded on fairness not on greed, focussed on stories not on profits, and ready to change the world not pander to the structures of inequality that we see around us today. It's those switches of priority that are going to make all the difference.
Initially we are using grants, donations and sales of our merch (launching in 2021) to cover the costs of taking manuscripts from word documents to beautiful books on the shelves of our favourite shops. Once our expert marketing team have put their plans into action, and an author’s book is selling, 70% of the royalties will go to them. We don’t need to be creaming the profits off of the books we sell, because we’re not motivated by greed. We are motivated by a love of books, a respect for talented authors, and a commitment to fair pay.
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