On the 8th of July ALCS, the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society, published the results of its latest survey on the earnings of authors. The reported figures were so staggering that they received wide media attention through publications on the BBC, the Guardian, the Telegraph and the Bookseller, to name a few.
In brief, the main findings of the survey ‘What are words worth now?’ conducted by Queen Mary University show that only 11.5% of professional authors (a term used to refer to authors who dedicate the majority of their time to writing) make their living from writing alone. What is more, the typical annual income of professional writers stands at £11, 000. This figure is in itself disconcerting but it appears even bleaker when compared against the ALCS last piece of research on authors’ earnings from 2007, which reported annual median earnings of £12,330 for the financial year 2005. The ALCS also criticises the low figure by highlighting a 2013 finding by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that single people in the UK need to earn at least £ 16,850 before tax to be able to achieve the minimum acceptable living standard.
All these numbers so far relate to the earnings of professional authors, which, as the survey suggests, only make up a little over a tenth of all writers. For the remaining 88.5 % the trend is similar. The 2013 median income of ‘all writers’, i.e. full-time, as well as part-time and occasional writers, stands at £ 4,000. That is around £ 4,800 less than what was reported as the annual income of all writers in real terms in 2000 by the Society of Authors. The newly published findings are based on the data of 2,454 participants, hardly a negligible number. Hence, when the ALCS communicated the results of its latest survey on its website it introduced them with the following caption: ‘What are words worth now? Not much.’
It seems to me, however, that ‘Not much’ doesn’t really do reality justice. Books, along with other creative goods, must clearly be worth a lot. How else is one to interpret the 2014 statistics issued by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport according to which the creative industries now contribute £71.4 billion per year to the UK economy? The survey answers the question of the monetary value which creative works deliver to creators. Yet, further questions which need to be addressed include, where does the rest of the money go? What is the role of copyright in this context? And finally, who can do and who is doing something to change the present landscape for authors?
Various reasons have been suggested to explain the newly published findings. Nicola Solomon, the chief executive of the Society of Authors is quoted by the Bookseller as affirming that the author’s share of the profits from publishing and book retailing has gone down. She also identifies as a knock-on effect for authors Amazon’s increasing share of the book retail market. In light of the high discounts which the company offers it successfully drives prices of works down on a larger scale.
Other factors which have been brought up in connection with the survey include disproportionately low royalty rates for e-books, ineffective measures against illegal downloading as well as a general decrease in book sales and an ensuing decrease in publishers’ advances to authors.
Yet, if the majority of authors retain copyright in their works and still only earn as much as they do, where does the problem lie? Why is copyright not working the way that theory prescribes it should? The survey findings may be taken as an indicator that industry practice is focussed not on right transfers but on licensing. Although authors retain their copyright, they may be forced to negotiate unfavourable exclusive licenses, which in turn, may cover a wide range of uses. This means that authors lose the opportunity to negotiate different conditions with a number of marketers for various types of content exploitation. Furthermore, the question of copyright ownership is irrelevant in the context of piracy and illegal distribution of copies of works.
Perhaps in order to highlight a way of avoiding the conditions of market intermediaries, the ALCS survey also reports on the number of authors who have self-published their works (just over 25%). In principle, this model could enable authors to retain larger shares from the sale of copies of their works. However, while self-publishing as a business model seems to be on the rise, self-published works cannot compete with the marketing efforts and publicity that traditionally published works enjoy.
Overall, the survey sheds light on many important issues and problems. The question is how these challenges can be tackled, and by whom? During a mid-June event this year organised by the Westminster Media Forum on the next steps for copyright policy in the UK and EU Maria Martin-Prat, Head of the Copyright Unit of the European Commission, mentioned vaguely that the Commission had been studying the extent to which there are legislative mechanisms which can help authors and performers get fair remuneration for their contribution to creativity. It will be interesting to see if and how the new Commission picks up on this issue.
Still, when it comes to industry practices not all is, or should be, in the hands of the legislators. Various organisations, including ALCS and the Society of Authors can and do play a role in representing and promoting the interests of authors. How do they execute this role and what contribution do they make to improve the working conditions for authors? I will seek to shed light on these questions in the course of my research.
Periodic studies into authors’ earnings such as those commissioned by ALCS and the Society of Authors are already a valuable instrument which helps us identify industry trends and shortcomings as well as anticipate future challenges. In commenting on the latest survey, Owen Atkinson, Chief Executive of ALCS, noted that the decline in author incomes and in the number of authors who take up writing professionally may have serious implications for the success of the UK creative industries. This seems inconceivable given present statistics on the state of these industries. Yet, business models which continue to drive authors’ earnings down cannot possibly be sustainable against the increasing costs of living. It is questionable how long we can afford to take authors’ insufficiently valued labour for granted.