Reaching for accord: Authors' Contracts and Controversies

Image - iStockphoto: MarkRHiggins
Image – iStockphoto: MarkRHiggins

Authors approaching accord 

Two venerable author advocate groups,  the UK’s Society of Authors and the Authors Guild in the USA, have recently stepped into the limelight to announce that they are fighting for fairer contracts between publishers and authors. The impetus for these actions seems to come from reports that authors’ median incomes have dropped precipitously since 2009, while publishers have fared far less badly.

Jane Steen
Jane Steen

A frequent #FutureChat participant, the self-publishing historical fiction author Jane Steen, tweeted that she was inspired by Friday’s chat to write Why Indie Authors Should Support the Call for Fairer Publishing Contracts. Her commentary, on the site of theAlliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) Self-Publishing Advice Blog, suggests a new sense of author unity rising along with concern for author compensation. ALLi founder, author, and W.B. Yeats specialist Orna Ross joined in on our chat, as well.

Steen’s link in the passage above is to a write-up from my colleague Tom Tivnan at The Bookseller, whose Half-Year Review 2015: Publishers and authors sees “seven of the top 10 [publishers] in the black” as industry agencies in both the UK and the US continue to report substantially falling median incomes for authors.

Join us every Friday for our international #FutureChat live on Twitter at 4:00 p.m. London (BST), 3:00 p.m. GMT, 5:00 p.m. Rome (CEST), 11:00 a.m. New York (ET), 10:00 a.m. Chicago (CT), 9:00 a.m. Denver (MT), 8:00 a.m. Los Angeles (PT), 5:00 a.m. Honolulu (HAST).

The reports of author income falling:

  • See The Bookseller’s Sarah Shaffi’s report on the UK’s Authors’ Licensing & Collection Society’s (ALCS) research showing “The typical income for a professional author in 2013 was just £11,000, more than £5,000 below the income level considered to be a socially acceptable standard of living.”
  • And see the US Authors Guild’s preliminary survey report, AG Panel Explores Drop in Author Earnings, with indications that full-time and part-time authors, taken together, are reporting that their median income from their writing is only $8,000 per year — a 24-percent drop in five years.
Tom Tivnan
Tom Tivnan

Tivnan’s half-year review shows top author earnings in the UK in 2015 so far to run from £1.6 million for George R.R. Martin to £5 million for Julia Donaldson. But the 10 writers in that list are, of course, in a stratospheric realm of their own, cruising far above the drop of 40 percent described by the ALCS for typical UK writers since 2005.

It’s hard to know, say many observers, how publishers can continue to justify contractual conditions alleged to harm authors to the benefit of the corporations. But it’s easy to catch the drift: these questions are getting louder, and that noise is coming closer to a newly connected readerships’ earshot.

Philip Jones
Philip Jones

And Bookseller editor Philip Jones this week wrote this week in Authors Guild demands a 50% ebook royalty that New York’s new Fair Contract Initiative has the backing of London’s Society of Authors with:

Chief executive Nicola Solomon telling The Bookseller: “We agree with the Authors Guild initiative for the reasons they explain so clearly.” Just last week the SoA called on the government to protect creators from onerous contracts, including fair remuneration.

‘Moral rights’

It’s Solomon’s own address to the All Party Writers Group at its Summer Reception that drew attention to her organisation’s stance, outlined in a “CREATOR contracts” scheme that seeks legislation on remuneration levels, terms of rights licenses, standards of artist credit in which “moral rights should be unwaivable,” good accounting, an obligation of “use it or lose it” exploitation by publishers, and “a general test of reasonableness” called into play in cases of”a significant imbalance in the parties’ rights and obligations arising under the contract to the detriment of the author.”

And on Monday after our Friday #FutureChat, London’s new adamantly digital publisher, Canelo, launched its first trio of books, attracting major interest with its contractual terms of author royalties between 50 and 60 percent of net receipts and five-year caps on contractual durations. Canelo, remember, is not self-publishing. This is traditional publishing, with an advanced cultivation of the potential of digital output by experienced players, fully familiar to the traditional community.

And the fact of their entrance into the market with 50 percent and five years was resonant during Friday’s#FutureChat in a comment from Wall Street Journal MarketWatch columnist and independent publisher (Endeavour Press) Matthew Lynn:

Iain Millar
Iain Millar

In my Q&A with the three principals at Canelo, m.d. Iain Millar talked of circumstances under which the company might consider print as opposed to digital production:

We’d only commit to print editions if we were satisfied (a) that they wouldn’t compromise the digital element and (b) if it was the best option for our authors – that the books would be produced, distributed and marketed with real passion, skill and commitment.

Intense focus on the author’s needs, potentials, and value pervades the Canelic commentary from all three players: perhaps tipping off nearby executives in other companies to new ways to look at creative workers’ contributions to the effort. You wouldn’t be wrong to look at all these questions, demands, and new action in the area of author contracts and see a new momentum shifting the author corps to a more central position in the industry, a spot from which writers may be able to question the “same old same old” with new success if they can rise to the professionalism and business acumen required to take good advantage of these developments.

‘The efforts of our sister author organisations’

Alliance of Independent Authors 2 (ALLi) @IndieAuthorALLiIt’s into that potent fray that Steen steps with her ALLi write, which may not find immediate favour among all indie authors. The “militant wing” of the sector, after all, tends to shun traditional-industry activity as meaningless in a digitally disrupted scenario. Nevertheless, Steen knows what she’s about here:

ALLi’s attitude toward trade publishing is to see it as one of many options open to authors. Yet in the broader indie world there’s sometimes a tendency to use reports of any and all ills in the corporate publishing sector as proof that self-publishing is the better way, (indeed, for some, the only way), and that all authors should leave their agents and publishers behind and embrace entrepreneurship. I’m here to argue that we should not only care about fair contracts in trade publishing, we should actively support the advocacy efforts of our sister author organisations:

  • because it shouldn’t be about taking sides…For one thing, many indies are trade published too—they still have books in the corporate publishing world, or they choose to move between the two models as it suits them. For another, we’re all authors following the dream of reaching readers and being read.
  • because fairer terms for content creators (of all stripes) is a principle we need to stand up for. We, the creators, are the essential element in publishing. We’re also the most vulnerable, because we tend to work alone. Indies and trade authors alike are at the mercy of the large corporations that provide the platforms and/or the investment capital through which we publish. Right now the issue is being fought on the corporate publishing side, but last week it was the changes to the Kindle Unlimited program that were grabbing the headlines. We need to stand up for a fairer deal for all of us, however we choose to publish.
  • because a healthy corporate publishing industry is good for indies too. And by healthy, I mean one in which the value of literature is preserved and authors are allowed to develop their careers without constantly looking over their shoulder for the next scam or rights grab…Fair contracts could be a first step on the road to a 21st-century creative content market.


Such commentary may prove more actionable than you might think: During our #FutureChat Friday itself, Steen and a colleague, Alison Morton, quickly found and provided eligibility criteria for the Society of Authors and for theAuthors Guild. Yes, indie authors are welcomed by both organisations. While still heavily weighted to traditionally publishing authors, these organisations could quickly be rebalanced by the participation of self-publishing writers; there are a great many of them and they’re hearing interesting noises from their own this week, as the self-pubilsher Steen tells them:

Don’t talk about authors who publish through a corporation as if they’re from another planet. They are us.

It’s into these cross-currents of author impact and inquiry that we dropped our questions Friday, asking Will author contract reform succeed this time?    

There’s more to this story: Read the rest

By Porter Ander­son

The FutureBook:  #FutureChat recap: Authors’ Contracts and Controversies

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