My last post pondered the merits of ‘fair trade’-style labeling on books: ones that directly told the reading public how much of the sales price went into author pockets. It has interesting potential for alerting readers to unsatisfactory contractual practices – like the ‘export sales’ rules that can see Australian authors receive just AUD $0.20 per copy. (By the way, if you want to learn more about writers’ earning in Australia, the terrific author Annabel Smith has written a courageous series of demystifying blog posts – see eg ‘How authors earn money #1: Advances’, and ‘How authors earn money #2: Royalties’. I strongly recommend that you check them out.)
Since then I’ve come across several essays and posts out of the UK also calling for ‘fair trade’ style author protections.
Here, author and illustrator James Mayhew draws attention to the practice of ‘Special Sales’, which can see authors receive just a fraction of their ordinary royalty. He was offered about 3p per sale on books that had a £6.99 RRP, which would see him receive about £300 on 10,000 copies (from which agents’ fees, tax etc would then need to be deducted), while all the while his publisher reassured him that the Chinese printers would receive ‘fair trade’ conditions’.
In this post, children’s author Jonathan Emmett writes about how his publisher also proposed a ‘Special Sales’ deal that would see him receive about 3p per sale. Previously, he reports, he’d received as little as 1.8p from such deals. He points out that these amounts are less than the Public Lending Right payments he receives on a single UK library checkout of the same title (which at the time was 7.82p, of which his 50% share would be 3.91p). He tried negotiating from 3pm to 3.91p in order to at least secure match that minimum amount – and the publisher walked away. Emmett writes:
‘The publisher will no doubt offer the same 3p per book deal to another picture book author or illustrator, who may well accept. But what if they didn’t accept? What if all PLR-registered authors and illustrators started using the PLR per loan rate as a minimum benchmark based on the reasoning above? If enough PLR-registered authors and illustrators commit to a PLR-benchmarked minimum royalty, special sales royalty payments would have to go up. A PLR-benchmarked minimum royalty is still a tiny amount per sale compared with a standard royalty, but it would be a small step in the right direction and would help to halt the current race to the bottom in special sales payments to authors.’
Finally and most recently, Tamsin Rosewell of Kenilworth Books has written ‘Publish and be damned’, an excellent and thought-provoking longer read that systematically describes some of the practices that are driving down authors’ incomes. She doesn’t pull any punches:
‘The British Book Industry has a monstrous fair-trade and exploitation issue skulking beneath the surface which is slowly suffocating everything – it needs to be dragged in to the light and be seen for what it is.’
Her analysis explains how royalties work in a typical publishing contract, and how the changing nature of the industry (including those ‘Special Sales’) exerts downward pressure on authors’ incomes. One author she spoke to said this:
‘I have produced more than 200 books in 30 languages; many of my titles have sold over 1 million copies, I have a stack of awards – and yet I have not yet earned out the £10,000 advance I was given to cover two years’ work, and struggle to make ends meet’.
There can be no doubt that the increasing difficulty of earning a living from writing is and will continue to affect the stories we get to read; the voices we get to hear.
This increasing trend of authors and industry insiders writing explicitly about the specific dollars and cents and pounds and pence of their livelihood might help in bringing about real reform. Hearteningly, the shocked comments and social media reactions to these various pieces show that the reading (and even writing!) publics are largely unaware of how perilous financial outcomes have become for many authors. And it makes me think that labels announcing the author’s share really could make a difference.