Wednesday 2 November 2011

D is for Disconnect

This is not really a How to Speak Publisher as it's just a word used in its usual sense...

I'm listening to yet another programme on books/writers on radio 4. Why is it that books and reading seem to get a massive amount of media coverage at the moment, but writers struggle to survive? If the public so likes books, why are publishers cutting commissioning and cutting the rates they pay on the books they do commission? Does the public really want books? I don't mean authors who are starting out - they have always had a hard time, and always will - but established, mid-list writers who have been making money for publishers for years and have a following. There is a massive disconnect between the public image of writers and books and the reality of being a writer and trying to sell a book.

I'm happy to work hard. I routinely write ten or more books a year (many are short - but all are books and take work). I work as many hours a week on writing as most people in other jobs work. Of course, if the publisher were not selling the books and making money, I could understand why my income drops year on year for the same amount work (or more work!) But the public is apparently gagging for books, if radio 4 is to be believed. So why the disconnect? Print costs have gone up; margins have gone down; publishers are scared of the future [come ON, guys - the future was always uncertain, that's why it's the future!] Books sell for the same or less, but the bookshops and distributors still want their cut, so that leaves only the author to dump the losses on. If the public didn't want books, that would be more understandable, but that's not how it looks. So the public is willing to buy, and the publishers cut the price. Er......

It's odd, isn't it? I accept that we live in a world of market forces, though there are some things that should not be subject just to market forces - the food supply, medicines, education. (A few books fall into the latter category.) I don't think writers should generally be subsidised if they can't write economically viable books. My view that writers should not usually get Arts Council grants is, I know, not widely held amongst writers. But if a publisher thinks a book will sell well enough to be worth publishing, it should pay a living wage to the writer - and the public should be able to buy a book without being complicit in the exploitation of the writer. 


  1. It's a mystery! But I think that really, the GBPublic does NOT buy books in large quantities. At least not compared with other European countries. I might be wrong about that. I think the fact that we hear so much about books being bought and sold is because the people who make the programmes are all READERS and books are important to THEM. I fear most people read very few books indeed. A heavy book buyer only buys 20 or so a year. I think that's right. It's the huge sellers who sell in large numbers and for the rest I reckon the numbers are actually quite small. I am happy to be corrected about this perception but that's how it seems to me, without any kind of research into it. Whatever the case, I agree writers ought not to be exploited!!

  2. This is exactly why Talli Roland is publishing her next book herself. She is grateful for all the support trade publishers have given her, and has a loyal following - so she now feels able to go it alone. I'll be amazed if more and more writers don't follow her example.

  3. I am constantly astonished that an industry which depends entirely on writers holds them in such low esteem. Everyone in publishing expects a living wage except, it seems, the writers without whom there would be no industry. And even successful authors, unless they are household names, are not treated well by their publishers.

    I don't suppose there's any possibility of a writers' strike?

  4. When I recently had my first non-fiction book published my publisher warned me 'you do know you're not going to make much money out of it, don't you?' Given that this publisher does very little marketing beyond website and catalogue I did know that and, as I was co-authoring with somebody who was just very happy to be in print, I didn't mind too much. After all, I consider myself first and foremost a novelist and playwright. But if your own publisher, vastly enthusiasitic though she may have been about the book, doesn't recognise the need for a living wage, what hope is there?
    I suppose my answer should have been 'Then I'll take it somewhere else.'
    I'll certainly never write another non-fiction book unless I'm paid up-front to do so, royalties on non-fiction being what they are...

  5. Indeed, Alis. Did you ask the publisher if he was going to make much money?
    Lexi - no writer's strike, as it would have to last far too long before anyone noticed! If we went on strike now (and could persuade all writers to take part) there would be no new books in 2014. And we would all have starved. But there are enough people - like Alis's co-author - who are just happy to have their book published at all that publishers could fill their lists with strike-breaking wannabes. Which is silly, as then there *still* won't be a living wage for them when they are establisehd!

    Adele - I fear you are right.

    Jo - lots of writers are doing this. We will have to wait and see how successful it is. The BIG problem is marketing, and it's the one thing such writers shy away from discussing.