Author of the best-selling His Dark Materials books, Philip Pullman, has warned that unless publishing houses make “serious” changes, the professional author “will become an endangered species.”
Pullman is heading a new charge from writers demanding to be rewarded fairly for their work, as the Society of Authors points to a recent survey that found the median income of a professional author is now just £11,000, with only 11.5% of UK writers able to make a living purely from writing.
The Society of Authors points out that “authors remain the only essential part of the creation of a book and it is in everyone’s interests to ensure they can make a living.”
“Unfair contract terms, including reduced royalty rates, are a major part of the problem”, the Society adds.
Pullman said that the case for fair terms for writers was “overwhelming”.
“From our positions as individual creators, whether of fiction or non-fiction, we authors see a landscape occupied by several large interests, some of them gathering profits in the billions, some of them displaying a questionable attitude to paying tax, some of them colonising the internet with projects whose reach is limitless and whose attitude to creators’ rights is roughly that of the steamroller to the ant,” Pullman, the current president of the Society, said.
“It’s a daunting landscape, far more savage and hostile to the author than any we’ve seen before. But one thing hasn’t changed, which is the ignored, unacknowledged, but complete dependence of those great interests on us and on our talents and on the work we do in the quiet of our solitude. They have enormous financial and political power, but no creative power whatsoever. Whether we’re poets, historians, writers of cookery books, novelists, travel writers, that comes from us alone. We originate the material they exploit,” he added.
A key change necessary to improve the lot of professional writers comes in regard to revenue from ebooks, with the Society of Authors arguing authors should receive at least 50% of revenue from these digital sales, rather than 25%.
The society also asked publishers to stop discriminating against writers “who don’t have powerful agents”.
“Some publishers are excellent but we see many inequitable contracts. Without serious contract reform, the professional author will become an endangered species and publishers – as well as society at large – will be left with less and less quality content,” the letter, sent by Society of Authors’ chief executive Nicola Solomon, reads. “Unless publishers treat their authors more equitably the decline in the number of full-time writers could have serious implications for the breadth and quality of content that drives the economic success and cultural reputation of our creative industries in the UK.”
Professor Wu says: “Established and aspiring authors already know only too well how difficult the challenge of earning a living through writing can be – and it is a challenge made all the more difficult by current practices within the publishing industry. Authors and writers play a crucial role in our society, and in our culture, and there needs to be recognition of this.”
“Of course, we understand that the book business is facing a number of challenges, and it’s important that we see publishers do well – for the same reasons that it’s important to see writers do well. However, we must be careful not to fall into a situation where only the already-wealthy can afford to be writers. How many voices are being denied a deserved platform because of current financial restrictions? How many great novels are we not getting, because fantastic writers aren’t able to afford the costs of writing their magnum opuses? And what degrading impact is that having on wider society? What new ideas are we not hearing? What new ways of looking at the world are we failing to see? It’s time for a change – it’s time for authors and writers to unite; after all, we have nothing to lose but our draconian publishing contracts.”