Make Words Pay: a new deal needed for writers

Photo by Ritesh Nayak
Photo by Ritesh Nayak

As 2016 gets underway, I’m beginning a three-year term on the management committee for the Society of Authors, the trade union for UK writers. The SoA has kicked off the new year with an open letter to publishers, part of an international campaign calling for fairer terms for authors.

It’s a response to the under-recognised crisis which has seen authors’ incomes plummet over the past decade. According to a 2013 survey by the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society, a minority of UK professional writers – 11.5% – make their living exclusively from writing, a fall of nearly a third since 2005. It’s a reflection of a polarised market in which commercial success is increasingly confined to an elite composed of famous writers such as J K Rowling.

Meanwhile, publishers’ profits are largely holding up, and the market is becoming dominated by big players who are setting the terms of publication.

‘It’s a daunting landscape, far more savage and hostile to the author than any we’ve seen before,’ says SoA president Phillip Pullman. ‘But one thing hasn’t changed, which is the ignored, unacknowledged, but complete dependence of those great interests on us and on our talents and on the work we do in the quiet of our solitude. They have enormous financial and political power, but no creative power whatsoever. Whether we’re poets, historians, writers of cookery books, novelists, travel writers, that comes from us alone. We originate the material they exploit.’

Yes, it’s always been hard to earn a living through words, as departing SoA management committee member Andrew Crofts points out in this review of forty years of professional writing. But while everything he says is true, things have changed to the point where professional writing is in danger of becoming the province of the rich, and the books we read an expression of a limited viewpoint.

My hunch is that the changed landscape of publishing is a mirror image of what’s going on more broadly. British society is becoming increasingly commercialised, with growing inequalities and big organisations grabbing a disproportionate share of the wealth and power. Add to that the confusion that accompanies a technological revolution in the form of the unhelpful belief that books should be ‘free’, and you have a cultural disaster in-the-making.

Writers and bookish folk generally tend, for temperamental as well as practical reasons, to be leary of standing up for their rights. (See the libraries campaign.) But if we want writing to remain a real possibility for the ordinary rather than the elite, now’s the time to wise up and speak out.