Wednesday 30 December 2009

Writing the recession (3): Some numbers

There's plenty of mumbling about the recession hitting publishing - publishing houses cutting staff, cutting advances, cutting lists, trying to rejuvenate the backlist (do kids really want to read Enid Blyton?), bookshops closing, liquidating or just selling crap. There have been a few stories about 'poor' authors having their advances cut from £120,000 to only £30,000, intended to make people scoff at authors (while ignoring the vast majority of authors whose advances are often well under £3,000, and first-time novelists for which they may be only £500). But largely authors are ignored in coverage of the industry's 'crisis' — which is a little odd, as without us there would be no publishing industry.

So, is there a crisis? There is certainly a crisis in confidence. But: The value of book sales in the UK has risen by £0.5 billion over the last 10 years (representing an increase of 40%). Fiction sales in the last months of 2009 were 14% up on the same period last year (up 3.3% excluding Dan Brown). The value of children's book sales in the year is between 3% down and 5% up depending on the source you look at.

But income is unevenly distributed in publishing. Some publishers are struggling, at least in some areas of their business. They are not very good at recognising that it's vital to subsidise some under-performing areas with income from over-performing areas in order to keep the whole organism healthy. Pouring all the money into celebrity crap or a few over-hyped books will not sustain the industry in the long-term as it neglects the need to nurture a new readership. It's easy to say 'oh, this will make lots of money now, we don't need to bother with that' - but then you're left madly chasing the next 'this' with nothing steady to fall back on, and have to scrabble around making cuts if 'this' doesn't turn up or doesn't deliver.

For most of the authors I know, 2009 has been a disastrous year. Although I do my accounts April-April, I track commissions Jan-Jan, so assuming I'm not about to get lots of commissions tomorrow, I can say that commissions are, for me, a long way down. They've fallen from £53,000 in 2008 to less than £12,000 in 2009 - that's a drop of nearly 75%. (This is new commissions - it doesn't include royalties, PLR and ALCS payments which are all income on old books and so don't reflect much.) Even removing the one unusually high-value commission in 2008, this year is still 60% down. (I would have done other work in that time, so excluding it is not really fair - but it is in keeping with the industry practice of giving figures including and excluding JKR, DB, SM, etc.) The number of commissions is is down only 25%. The average value of each commission is down 50%.

Well, those are my figures. I know it's not really done to reveal this info in public, but personally I'm in favour of openness. If the problem isn't talked about, no-one will make a move towards solving it, or even just sharing the burden. So - how do we fix this broken model of publishing for writers? Any ideas?


  1. I think your point about the failure to subsidize across the business is so indicative of the whole mindset of a greedy and short-sighted generation. We'll get rich quick now (read equally: blow the planet) and never mind about tomorrow (it may never come...).
    Did you see the figures on sky for book sales for the Christmas period? One wouldn't say there was a recession or a crisis in publishing - figures were apparently higher this season than ever before.
    I suspect "regular" authors are getting rightly screwed in order to protect bonuses and salaries - or am I just being a stroppy old cynic...

  2. I wish you a big fat commission in the next two days, Anne!

    But why do you not include royalties? If I go by advances, it's always one fat year, followed by one lean year because I tend to get 2-book contracts, so a big signatyure advance and then have to scribble hard before getting delivery and publication advances.

    Is it because you do more non-fiction, i.e. the advance is the fee?

    I thing your openness is admirable, btw.

  3. Yes, Mary, most of what I do is flat fee, or effectively so even when there is a royalty as the advance is fairly accurately calculated against anticipated sales so if may be earned out but there is little extra. But really - I wanted to show the pattern of this year's commissions against last year's commissions - they should be the same, year on year (my work is on a shorter time scale than yours, my books are shorter!),

    Thank you, Nicky - I don't think you are being overly cynical at all (sadly)!

  4. James - how kind. Thank you :-) See you in ARU some time!

  5. The trend in publishing is the same as the trend in education. I'm in the other Cambridge. Here, there are less people getting published and advances are down. As far as teaching, jobs are scarce. Let's hope there's a turnaround soon. I wonder how much of a threat self-publishing will be in years to come.