Traditional Publishing is no Longer Fair or Sustainable. This was the sad but accurate headline in The Guardian this week. It followed a report on author income from the ALCS, the results of which led Nicola Solomon, head of the UK’s Society of Authors to declare:
Authors need fair remuneration if they are to keep writing and producing quality work. Publisher profits are holding up and, broadly, so are total book sales if you include ebooks, but authors are receiving less per book and less overall due mainly to the fact that they are only paid a small percentage of publishers’ net receipts on ebooks and because large advances have gone except for a handful of celebrity authors.
This comes right on the heels of The Daily Mail’s piece about Hillary Clinton’s latest book. The memoir has sold well by most measures, moving 161,000 copies in the first three weeks and 86,000 in week one, but the book has dropped in the charts, and it appears Simon & Schuster will take a loss due to the $14,000,000 advance paid to Hillary.
Forteen million dollars.
By publishing math, this advance was warranted. Her previous book sold well enough for the bean counters at S&S to come up with what seemed necessary to both retain Hillary and turn a profit. But this methodology flies in the face of recent rhetoric about the role publishers play in the protection of literature and the nurturing of “the writing life.”
With that sum of money, you could pay 500 writers $28,000 to enjoy a full year of the writing life. Or you could pay 250 writers $56,000 if they don’t understand how to squeak by as a starving artist. Not only that, Hillary Clinton doesn’t need another penny for as long as she lives. She didn’t need to be supported while she wrote the book. So how exactly are publishers the patrons of the literary arts? Nicola Soloman nails the problem with the current blockbuster model of entertainment: The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. We shovel money at the outliers and drop everyone else.
I have no problem with the capitalist argument that Hillary deserves every penny of what she can command, or that Sylvia Day deserves 8 figures for her next trilogy. Both are hardworking people who bring a lot to the table, including the potential to make publishers a lot of money. But is this the system we want? If publishers deserve special treatment and protection from the law (there are some who think publishers should be allowed to collude or that the government should have purview over the health of bookstores), then why aren’t those same people suggesting modifications to how we pay authors?
There is nothing to say that the current system needs to be retained. One idea would be a salary cap, which is used in sports to increase competition between teams so that wealthy markets don’t dominate with bloated payrolls. What if publishers had to select their celebrity authors through an open draft? That way, everyone gets a fair allotment of big-name writers at some max price, rather than competing on outsized advances that funnel money away from those who actually need it? Before you balk, consider that sports franchises adopted a system of salary caps to save them from themselves. Overspending was threatening to topple entire leagues. Publishers need similar saving. They can’t be trusted with blank checks to do what’s right for culture, much less their own bottom lines. (Once they got over the revulsion of a draft, savvy publishers would see the great benefit to themselves.)
Another idea would be to mandate that for every advance over 6 figures, two authors who are going be dropped because of disappointing sales get a $40,000 lump sum in order to write one more book, regardless of whether or not that book is picked up. Every 6-figure increment means two more writers getting another lump sum. So if you are going to pay $500,000 for a book, it will really cost the publisher $900,000, and ten other authors get a year’s wage that they don’t have to pay back. These lucky writers would be selected at random from the pool of writers who were dropped over the past five years, so no playing favorites or pretending to drop someone you were going to otherwise pay. The publisher would then get first refusal on the book, perhaps. Publishers would have to think twice about outsized advances, and do some good when they simply can’t help themselves.
Does it seem crazy to punish publishers for paying more than $100,000 for a book? It shouldn’t, not if the purpose of a publisher is to support the writing life. How much should that life cost? The argument for publishers as the saviors of literature is that non-fiction, literary works, and “think” books only come through the system of advances. Even if those books take three to five years to research and write, should that ever amount to millions of dollars? Should advances exceed $100,000 per year? $50,000 per year? If so, why? And if no one can think of a reason, how come more people aren’t advocating publishers to spend their advance money more wisely?
If a book does well, certainly pay above and beyond the advance. I (and I believe many authors would probably join me here) would much rather see smaller advances and a higher share of profits. Or smaller advances and finite terms of license. Or both. Instead of giving me $500,000 and a paltry share of royalties, how about $50,000 and an even split of revenue? The tax advantages would be immense. Much better to be in a medium or small bracket for decades than pay 40% the year of your sudden windfall. And much easier to plan your finances and to save.
Not only that, a large advance can kill a writing career if a book doesn’t earn out. Plus, I’d love to know the money saved went to supporting my fellow writers. So why aren’t we advocating for changes like these? Why are we paying multi-millionaires millions of more dollars? I don’t think it has anything to do with the writing life that the Authors’ Guild espouses.
What about benefits? The full-time employees at major publishing houses have medical coverage and other perks like sick leave, paid vacation, maternity, etc. The authors who do the actual creating have none of that. Does that not strike you, dear reader, as unfair? If the reading public understood what most writers made a year, and how contracts are growing more pernicious over time, I believe they would be outraged. Most writers don’t even understand what’s happening and how their livelihood is being eroded.
Take “high discount” royalties, which is a smaller royalty paid on books sold in big-box discounters. These are becoming a larger share of book sales, and the pay is paltry. Or what about “basket accounting”, where you aren’t paid when a book earns out its advance because other books in the series haven’t earned out their advances? These clauses, along with non-competes and reversion terms, are increasingly harming artists in order to improve the publishers’ bottom line. Someone has to pay when a celebrity book tanks, afterall.
Here’s an idea I would love to see implemented on all print books: Beside the price of the book, right there on the jacket or back cover, print the amount the author makes when that copy is sold. Sure, it would be a rough guess, because of high discount and any bulk deals the bookstore secures, but you can get in the ballpark. Right beside this measly sum, include the author’s direct PayPal address. You don’t have to appeal for anything; just inform us, as readers, and let us know where to go to make things right.
When I finish a novel that I enjoy, I would love to be able to send the author my thanks with a few dollars. Enough to buy a coffee or a beer. Seeing that he or she earned $1.20 for the $15.00 I spent would be motivation enough. While you’re at it, include the amount that goes to the bookstore and the publisher. I think readers would be interested in seeing this, and I think authors would benefit greatly. For one thing, friends and family would stop expecting free books from their writer friends.
Some musicians have played around with a pay-what-you-want model, and book bundles often employ this as well. A slider shows you how much you are paying the artist out of the full amount. I’ve seen accounts of fans paying more when they can see how much is going to the artist. Why not add this feature to the book page at online retailers? Show me how little an author is making, and give me a place to leave a tip.
The reason we are generous to our server who brings us our coffee is that we know they aren’t making minimum wage. Newsflash: Neither are most authors. If I can give a waitress a few dollars for taking my order, topping up my water, and walking my breakfast to me, I think it isn’t ridiculous to suggest I give a little to someone who poured blood and sweat into their keyboards.
Why won’t this ever happen? Because publishers would have to admit that they pay their authors shit. And they would have to lower themselves to asking fans for help. Amanda Palmer has an excellent TED talk on how difficult it can be to ask fans for help. She also explains how necessary it can be, how honest, how liberating, and how bonding.
When I promote self-publishing, it’s because I know from the cumulative experiences of thousands of others along all paths that it provides a much higher chance of earning a living as an author. Not a high chance, but a higher chance. When I advocate for publishers to change their contracts and pay structures, it is because I care equally about all writers. I stand to gain nothing from this advocacy. It’s just what’s right. I would be just as loud and annoying about this if I were an avid reader who knew what I know.
So let’s be creative. Let’s be more open and honest about author pay. Let’s think of solutions to help foster great literature instead of applauding a system where the rich get richer and the poor get dumped on. This is a trend taking place across many forms of entertainment, from film to music, and we need to find solutions. While the news is sad, I applaud the Society of Authors and Nicola Solomon for saying what needs to be heard. Let’s just hope someone is listening. Or thinking of a fix.