The Realities of Author Payments
A recent report about author payments in the UK saw a bit of a row break out between authors and publishers, yet again. Author earnings have been sliding. And while publishers have been complaining for years of declining profits and tighter margins, many are posting healthy earnings for their quarterly reports. Author payments appear to be shrinking and while publishers perhaps aren’t rolling in it, they’re doing well enough to do more than get by.
What gives? Publishers say they couldn’t stand to part with even one percent more of their earnings, but authors beg to disagree.
Publishing Is Not Lucrative
Let me revise that statement: Publishing is not lucrative for the majority of people involved in it. Only a handful of authors, publishers, and companies actually “get rich” from publishing. The rest of us struggle by.
There are numerous reasons for this. The most obvious one is that sometimes, books flop. Readers are notoriously fickle and it’s difficult to convince them to part with their money. You can have the best book ever, and it will still flop.
And then, on the other hand, you can have crap like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey and make all the money.
Publishers often do operate at a deficit on many of their individual book projects. I’ve had book marketers look at me and say, “What sells books? We don’t know.” It seems to be a bit of a mystery, and the best publishers can hope to do is get the word out about a book and hope it sells.
So, for a vast number of books, there is no such thing as “profit.” Publishers often keep the investment to a minimum in order to limit losses on a book. That includes limiting marketing efforts and, yes, limiting the cut of royalties authors receive.
Why the Decline?
There may be a few factors behind the decline in author royalties. One is certainly publishers putting less behind individual books, which can then hamper sales. You can’t sell books if no one knows they exist.
Another issue is increasing competition in the market, which can then limit sales. Although book sales don’t yet appear to have declined, various markets have been up and down. One particular factor to keep in mind is the rise of eBooks and audiobooks. Generally speaking, these items are priced lower than their print counterparts, and thus authors get less out of the sale of an eBook over the sale of a print book, even if the percentage is unchanged.
You have to sell more eBooks in order to make the same amount of money, so as print sales have declined and eBook sales have increased, author earnings will also have declined.
Another issue no one is talking about is these enormous advances. Publishers are routinely paying six-figure advances to authors, even first-timers. These authors then have to “earn out” their advances, meaning that they may not “earn” royalties from their books for a very long time. This, in turn, skews the dataset. An author may earn $100,000 on an advance one year, and then nothing for the next several.
Of course, not all of this explains the decline or even why authors are paid seemingly so little.
This Ain’t Nothing New
People appear to be shocked and outraged, less at the decline than at the fact most authors earn 12,000 pounds (about $24,000 Canadian) or less. That would put them on par with someone in Toronto working full-time at a minimum wage job.
I’m not saying this is a great living, and those who are below that “average” are no doubt upset. Writing is hard work, and it’s time-intensive. Needing to work another job while also being a writer often feels overwhelming.
But this is how it’s been for pretty much the history of publishing. A very small percentage of published authors make above a living wage, and a smaller percentage become “rich” from their writing. The remainder work part-time and odd jobs, or may even have a full-time career or be living on a pension plan after slogging through forty-some-odd years of work while daydreaming about becoming a bestselling novelist.
So why are people so upset? I’m certainly not saying it’s right or that it doesn’t need to change, but the outrage appears to be new, as though authors have always been well-paid and suddenly … they’re not.
That’s certainly not the case.
How Can We Change the Story?
What needs to emerge from this narrative is less “outage” at declines and pathetically low earnings for authors. Instead, we need more innovative questioning. If publishing has always been predatory and the vast majority of authors never “make it,” how can we change that story?
Perhaps more importantly, why haven’t we done it yet? That link is from 2014, when traditional publishing was declared “no longer sustainable” by the Society of Authors, one of the groups lamenting declines now. So what have they done in the last four years to change the narrative?
Complacency certainly isn’t what I’m advocating here. But the idea that we should be outraged at how little authors earn feels misplaced. Instead, let’s redirect that energy from a clearly broken system—one that’s been broken for a long time—and think about how things can be done differently.
One example is the hedge fund manager who opened a publishing house promising to pay writers a salary. While this idea is new and novel, it remains to be seen how it actually works in practice. If it’s successful, it might be one way of improving the situation of authors.
And what about profit-sharing models, or models that give authors a larger slice of the royalty pie? Royalties often hover around ten percent of retail price or less, so models such as Amazon’s—where authors can earn up to seventy percent of retail—are far more appealing.
Why Should We Change?
One could argue that the system of author payments works just fine. Those who are great are richly and rightfully rewarded, while the “swill” tend to get a far smaller cut. Those who aren’t very good at all circle the drain for a bit, then ultimately give up and switch jobs, maybe to something they’re actually “good at.”
This argument is used to defend the current capitalist system quite frequently, and the reality of it is that it’s not true. Many very talented authors go undiscovered. Some never get into publishing because the bar is set too high. Others write one brilliant novel, never earn any money, and then disappear in order to survive.
The same is true of medical school. Those who can afford to go do, and those who can’t don’t. And in the meantime, some truly untalented people end up in the medical field while others who would be brilliant medical doctors, nurses, and researchers get shuffled into other professions, often where their talents are wasted.
So if the system of author payments is broken, we have to ask ourselves what brilliant stories are we missing? Whose talent is absent from the table, and what does that mean for literature?
What Good Will Change Do?
The current system works to keep out anything but privileged voices, heaping more problems on publishing’s diversity issues. It’s not that POC authors and LGBTQIA+ authors and Indigenous authors and Muslim authors and immigrant authors don’t exist.
It’s that they can’t afford to spend time telling their stories, because they’re busy trying to survive and publishing doesn’t pay.
And the world of literature is poorer for it. That’s why we need to care and why we need to change the system.
So enough about declining royalties. Let’s demand something truly better from publishers, not just a percentage here or there. Because a new system will work to ensure publishing is accessible for all people.