The publishing industry needs to pay authors fair wages

While the publishing industry is focused on celebrity authors, mid-list authors have turned to self-publishing as an outlet for their work. | Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/ user: Vesihiisi

The recently released Authors Guild 2018 Authors’ Income Survey, the largest survey of writing-related incomes, has stirred controversy in the dismal picture it paints. The report shows that the median for writing-related incomes was just $6,080 in 2017. The number represents a 42 percent drop from 2009’s median income of $10,500.

That’s not as bad as it gets. The median for book-related income from published authors was just $3,100, down 21 percent from 2009’s figure of $6,250. Fairing even worse are the literary authors, who have experienced a 27 percent decline in their income since 2015.

The real takeaway from all of this is that working, mid-list authors are going extinct. Gone are the days of the full-time writer who’s not a celebrity. Gone are the days of the literary full-time writer.

The report calls this a “crisis of epic proportions” for authors. Why is the future so grim for working-class authors, and how can it be fixed? Where does the blame lie?

Earning below minimum wage

First and foremost, the publishing industry has failed its authors. The industry has a history of nickel-and-diming writers, and the problem has only gotten worse in recent years. The failure is several-fold.

Publishers are risk-averse. They want to maximize profit and reduce the risk involved. They focus on celebrity authors who can sell books by name alone. These celebrity authors reduce the pool of money for the rest of the authors on the publisher’s list.

On top of the blockbuster mentality, certain industry practices have cultivated an “author last” mentality that has quickened the oncoming extinction of the working author.

For instance, publishers are now demanding audio rights without exception. While it’s not uncommon to see authors sign those rights away, some try to hold on to them and see if they can make better money elsewhere. Now, big-five publishers refuse to play ball with anyone trying to make the best deal for themselves.

A study conducted by the U.K. Publishers Association found that authors are being egregiously underpaid.

“Authors received around 3 percent of publisher turnover,” said Chief Executive of the U.K. Society of Authors Nicola Solomon when breaking down profit margins released in a 2016 report .

There is an enormous gap between author revenue and publisher profit.

“Even if we take out journal revenue —where authors are, shockingly, paid next to nothing — authors were receiving less than 5 percent of turnover in the same year that (major) publishers’ profits were around 13 percent,” Solomon said.

Taking the DIY route

There’s got to be good news somewhere, right? As it happens, self-publishing authors as a whole saw their income rise. Amazon has democratized publishing and opened the doors for everyone. One could argue that things have never been better for authors.

While it’s true that more people are publishing works on their own, they’re always at the mercy of Amazon and are often lost in the noise.

Self-published works accounted for two-thirds of all books published in 2017. Of the self-published authors surveyed, 76 percent of them used Amazon in some capacity, whether it was Kindle Direct, Create Space or ACX. If you want to self-publish, you go through Amazon, and their terms are non-negotiable.

Some authors are finding success in hybridizing their work. For these authors, it seems there’s never been a better time to be a writer. They can self-publish as they need or want to and still retain the legitimacy of a traditionally-published author.

The issue remains, however, that when an author self-publishes, they are doing all of the work that a publisher does by themselves. That can be incredibly taxing, and the average writer may not find themselves up to the task of marketing, hiring and producing on top of their workload.

The question is, how does the industry survive this changing landscape? How do mid-list authors avoid going extinct? It’s clear the publishing industry needs to adapt to the new reality of self-publishing and pay their authors fair wages. If they don’t, they’ll go the way of the dinosaurs, and they may take the working author with them.

Opinion columnist Ian Everett is a communications junior and can be reached at [email protected].

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