Tuesday 14 February 2012

License to steal - Just say NO

On Sunday, I blogged on Awfully Big Blog Adventure about how proposed changes to ALCS threaten to cut the income of writers to such an extent that some will stop writing books for use in schools. You need to read that post before this one, as it was some of the comments, particularly from catdownunder, that prompted this continuation. (ALCS is the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society; it distributes to writers the money collected by the Copyright Licensing Agency.)

Many people, catdownunder said, assume all authors are rich. This seems laughable to real authors, but if that's the case the only way to persuade them otherwise is to show them why we are not. I suggested in the comments to that post that books should come with a declaration of how much the author was paid as a fee or advance. Then perhaps teachers and others - who get more per month than a writer gets from writing a book - might understand why it matters that we get paid for use of our work. It wasn't an entirely serious suggestion when I made it. But it has become one. Here are some of the fees/advances I've been paid for writing books that are likely to be photocopied in school classrooms. These books were all commissioned in the last two years:


(There's more than one book in each category; books that are unlikely to be used much in schools and that paid more are not included.)

See that one at the bottom? All my income from these (seven) books will come from royalties, ALCS and PLR. If a school can make any number of copies of the book without paying a license to ALCS there will be no royalties - because why would they buy them if they can use them for free? These books with zero advance have taken the best part of eight months to write. Would YOU (non-writers) work for eight months, to be paid up to 18 months later? And how would you feel if the government then legislated away a portion of your income by saying people can steal it?

Money from copying of our books is NOT a bonus, a bit of extra cash - it's yet another part of the complex jigsaw of writers' income. It is a legitimate part: payment for the work that we have done and that someone wants to use. If the work is rubbish, and no one wants it, there is no payment from PLR, royalties or ALCS. That's a far more brutally meritocratic and commercial system than most people - including politicians - are likely to encounter in their workplace. There can be no legitimate defence for withholding the payment if the work IS good enough for people to want it.


  1. I think there is a similar process afoot when it comes to NHS staff photocopying from publications. This, too, will no longer provide the occasional penny for the writer who has negotiated with an ethics committee, undertaken the research, written the paper, had it peer reviewed. Of course, nursing can always find this information on the internet - where there is no control over anything, no ethical oversight, no peer review, no check on accuracy or efficacy. *hangs head in hands*

  2. Jo - there is. NHS Scotland has already refused to renew its licence. I'm gutted and disgusted.

    Word verification: idiotwins :(((

  3. As I said if they really knew the pittance writers were paid per hour they would be shocked - trouble is I am not sure they will ever believe it. I think the media is partly to blame for this. They sometimes give the impression that all, rather than a very few, writers get huge advances and have their books made into films etc etc.
    It is a going to take a huge effort by authors and associated industry people to raise awareness - but it is something that should not even be necessary.

  4. As a medical / health writer, the NHS development is making me as nervous as the schools / colleges situation is making educational writers.
    I write health books and my advances are in the region of the average of fees quoted above. I'm often vocal about this - to readers, sufferers of the conditions I write about, passing acquaintances - and the bare facts are always met with surprise, even shock, but never because my fees are higher than they expected, always lower. Yes: people think we're comfortable, or earn a lot.
    I think we perhaps need to be more vocal to correct the perception. Blogging is one way we can do this, and I hope this post becomes one of many. Thanks for reigniting my frustration on the subject.

  5. I't's interesting to learn about the differences between our systems. Thank you for sharing.

  6. It seems it only takes one or two authors to make megamillions for the world and its wife to assume that all writers make a fortune. Perhaps writers need to start declaring publicly how little they actually make by comparison to the likes of, say, JK Rowling. Perhaps the lesser income of the many will show the gaping difference between them and the large income of the very few. Writers need to start standing up for their rights, and by doing it vocally and actively. Until such time all sorts will continue to take advantage of them.
    Can't see many others giving away their intellectual content so easily.

  7. Very true, Nicky. Another problem is that it's impossible to predict (except in the case of flat-fee work) what the income from a book might be. So I may sell a book for an advance of £3000 and never see a penny more. Or it may be a runaway success and bring in more royalties, PLR, and sales of foreign editions and actually generate £20,000 or even more.

    Not that £20,000 is a lot for something that could take 6 months to write: take out the 18% to the agent (15% + VAT), and expenses (which run at around 10-20% most years), and we're down to under £14,000 for half a year's work - hovering around average UK income if you are exceptionally lucky with a book. You'd have to be exceptionally lucky with two a year to live as well as someone on average earnings. And remember that most successful writers are sufficiently intelligent and well-educated that they could earn a good deal more than average income on the open market.

    Alternatively, you can do what I do and write dozens of the things, not bothering to promote any of them because the rewards are so small and fragile it's not worth the risk of investing time in promotion.

    It will hard to raise public awareness because people (not only writers) are not to keen to stand up and say 'I only earned this much' because there is STILL a tendency to judge the value of a person by their income. A public that thinks all writers are rich will naturally assume a poor writer (financially) is poor (in terms of quality).

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  9. Writers are simply not valued for their skills, is all.