Yes, Authors Guild, writers are screwed—here’s what to do about it

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mary-resizeAny news that writers are screwed? An Authors Guild survey of members shows that 56 percent of surveyed writers earn less than the poverty line here in the U.S., if only writing income counts. Publisher’s Weekly says:

"The survey, conducted this spring by the Codex Group, is based on responses from 1,674 Guild members, 1,406 of whom identified either as a full-time author, or a part-time one. The majority of respondents also lean older—89% are over the age of 50—and toward the traditionally published end (64%)."

Guild Executive Director Mary Rasenberger, shown in the photo, cited "a swirl of factors” as PW paraphrased. They range “from online piracy to publisher consolidation to the rise of Amazon (and the shuttering of brick and mortar bookstores). Rasenberger said the takeaway from the survey is that authors should be receiving higher royalties from publishers. ‘Authors need to be cut in more equitably on the profits their publishers see, or we’ll stop seeing the quality of work the industry was built on.’” No, Ms. Rasenberger is not smiling at the status quo.

As author of seven traditionally published books, I’d be the first to agree that many publishers are shafting writers, especially in regard to royalty percentages on e-books. The trouble is that book-writers’ bargaining clout is limited, thanks in no part to the traits that make them writers to begin with. And meanwhile competition keeps growing from self-published writers and others outside legacy publishing. They won’t put John Grisham out of business. But future Grishams will feel the heat more—well, assuming they bother with big legacy houses in the first place. Not all will in an era when alternatives exist, and I don’t just mean Amazon.

books and other reading materials expenditures  The Economics Daily  U.S. Bureau of Labor StatisticsMeanwhile the Guild would do well to pay attention to the demand side. The average U.S. household is spending only around $100 a year on consumer reading materials of all kinds, not just books, if we extrapolate from figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. What to do? Pass a law mandating divorce or other forms of household break-ups if families won’t fulfill the Guild’s wishes? The Guild might also care to know that the average 15-19-old spends six minutes a week on reading for pleasure. Why has the Guild fixated so much on DRM when the big issue isn’t piracy—it’s whether the kids are reading at all? You can accuse Philip Roth of hyperbole and trolling in saying in 1993 that only 120,000 or so serious reader existed in the U.S.; but ultimately might the actual numbers catch up? In the Guild’s place I would care immensely.

With an aging membership, however, could the Guild be out of touch with pathetic condition of reading in America today among the young? Look at the BLS chart to the right (double-click for a better view) and notice how the biggest spenders on reading materials are 65-74 years of age, while the smallest are younger than 25. I don’t think it’s just an issue of the older readers having more time and money. The literary culture here in the U.S., at least among the young outside the well-read elite, isn’t nearly as robust as it was as its peak.

At the same time, it isn’t as if the Guild is entirely blind to literacy issues, which really should be regarded as market development issues if one is to think if this in business terms. It has been more sympathetic than some would have expected to President Obama’s K-12 e-book initiative.

The trouble with the initiative is that it’s able to summon up just a fraction of the resources needed. Correctly the guild has wondered about the availability of optimal hardware for the kids to read books on (cell phones are not for all despite their great promise). Moreover, zillions of other digital divide issues endure despite the current obtuseness of major media outlets like Associated Press. Beyond that, keep in mind that the initiative makes publisher-donated books available only to children from low-income families, and questions also exist about the announced size of the library, a mere 10,000 books. Not to mention the issue of suitable books for the children’s parents. Family literacy, anyone? Alas, public libraries in the U.S. can spend only around $4 per capita each year on books and other items.

Perhaps the Guild should encourage the Obama White House to think more ambitiously and work toward a national digital library endowment and separate but tightly intertwined public and academic systems online for all. Such an endowment could help libraries launch major literacy campaigns, making full use of the mass media. That is the way to boost demand for writers’ wares. Along the way, rules could exist to assure that the library systems favored publishers that fairly compensated writers—with, in other words, at least 50-50 splits of net receipts.

For inspirational memories in regard to national digital libraries, maybe the Guild can look to the late William F. Buckley Jr., a member with whose politics I mainly disagreed. That said, WFB did not let his ideology and his advanced years stop him from calling for well-stocked national digital libraries in two “On the Right” columns. I’d love to see the Guild and White House catch up with Bill’s priorities.

Information on LibraryCity’s proposal for an endowment: See The K-12 and economic cases for a national digital library endowment, as well as articles in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, the Baltimore Sun, Education Week and Library Journal. As I’ve noted, “Just 400 Americans are together worth more than $2 trillion. An endowment reaching $15-$20 billion could make a real difference in the library world, and contributions from just a tiny fraction of the 400 could do the trick and be in line with the spirit of the Gates-Buffett Giving Pledge.”

More details from PW: "So what does that Federal Poverty Level statistic mean? Given that a single person earning less than $11,670 annually sits below the poverty line, 56% of respondents would qualify, if they relied solely on income from their writing. The survey also indicated that not only are many authors earning little, they are, since 2009, also earning less. Overall, the median writing-related income among respondents dropped from $10,500 in 2009 to $8,000 2014 in 2014, a decline of 24%. The decline came for both full-time and part-time authors with full-time authors reporting a 30% drop in income to $17,500 and part-time authors seeing a 38% decrease, to $4,500."

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