For the last several years, researchers in the UK have been following a startling trend. While the publishing industry itself has seen a rise in sales, the majority of authors’ incomes are steadily declining. A report released last month by the European Commission shows that most UK authors have annual incomes of as little as £12,500 or $15,288, this number is several thousand below the £18,000, which is considered the average yearly income for someone making minimum wage at a full time job. This study, in combination with a report produced by Queen Mary, University of London in 2013 that found the bottom half of writers could earn as little as £10,500 a year, paints a grim picture of the potential for authors to pursue a full time job of writing. In fact, this half of authors cannot support themselves from their writing alone and are forced to seek out alternate sources of income.
It is somewhat frightening that 58% of the money earned by professional authors is concentrated in the top 10% who make around £60,000 or more a year. In stark contrast to the bottom half, the top 50 UK authors or the 1%—dominated by children’s book novelists such as JK Rowling and Julia Donaldson—account for nearly a third of all book sales and make an average of £450,000 a year.
This disparity has caused a narrowing of titles being promoted and marketed with retailers favoring “name brand” authors, in part driven by celebrity culture and encouraged by profit-driven publishers. According to Nicola Solomon, the chief executive of the Society of Authors (SoA), publishers are partly responsible for the situation and in order to change it:
“Publishers need to take more risks with diverse titles and authors, and give more support to midlist and backlist titles.”
Many observers are worried that the diversity of works being produced will suffer as more authors are discouraged from entering the profession because the gap between the top authors and the majority continues to increase. Part of the problem is that authors are not being offered decent advances.
A study of contracts, conducted by the EU Policy Unit in 2014, first identified that authors in the UK lack many of the protections granted by other countries in the EU like Germany, Hungary, and Poland. One key item missing from many author contracts in the UK is the “bestseller” provision which prevents publishing companies from creating a disadvantageous agreement and enables authors to modify their contracts if they feel that the publisher is not being fair. Some countries like Spain, France, and Belgium also add the principle of “in dubio pro autore” which requires contracts to be interpreted in the author’s favor.
In the UK, many are in favor of a legal framework that would remedy the current situation and explicitly lay out the scope of contracts in order to give authors fair pay for their work. In the words of Philip Pullman, the president of the SoA:
“The essential point is that the balance of fairness has tilted the wrong way, and it’s often not only the work that’s being exploited – its creators are too”
With continuing advancements in the digital realm, there are more opportunities than ever for publishers to make money from their authors’ work. At present, contracts need to be limited to uses that are known and open to renegotiation in the future for the sake of author protection and progress.
Posted by Jordyn Snow