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Publishing Industry Pay and Conditions Come Under Scrutiny — Self-Publishing Advice Center from the Alliance of Independent Authors


In this week’s Self-Publishing News Special, ALLi News Editor Dan Holloway looks at a new Bookseller survey that reveals the anxieties of young people in the publishing industry

Dan Holloway head and shoulders

ALLi’s News Editor Dan Holloway

This week’s #indieauthorchat is tonight, Wednesday 24 August, at 8pm UK time, 3pm Eastern Time. Tim will be talking talking with us about something I’m very familiar with: changing genre.

Publishing Industry Pay in the Spotlight as PRH/Simon and Schuster Trial that Focused on $250,000 Advances Comes to an End

For those of us who still can’t believe that after nearly 4 decades, Neighbours has finally finished, the Department of Justice vs Penguin Random House/Simon & Schuster court case has been providing ample replacement soap opera in the past few weeks.

That trial has now ended. We don’t know when a ruling will come. But the trial itself has been a fascinating insight into the world of publishing. One of the most interesting aspects was the focus on extremely high earners. Prosecutors expressed concern that if the merger went ahead, the new company would control almost half of the $250,000 advances in the business. The companies pointed out that this represented a very small fraction of books published (around 2%). Though Markus Dohle of PRH seemed to suggest that $100,000 advances were really not that big a deal.

Publishing Industry Survey Reveals Young Staff’s Concerns for the Future

And that brings us to the most interesting story of the week. The Bookseller has just published the findings of an industry survey that shines a light on the poor pay of many who work in publishing. Now, it may be tempting to reply with, in the words of the meme, “wait until they find out about what authors earn.” But it might be more productive to consider things in the round. And to raise this as a single issue. That people in our line of work, whichever side of the fence they sit on, struggle to earn enough to live on.

First, let me remind you as context what authors do earn. The ALCS (Authors’ Licensing and Collections Society) carries out the most extensive research in this area. Many referenced their work in response to Jonathan Karp & Markus Dohle’s assertions during the PRH/Simon and Schuster trial. In 2019, they found that typical earnings from writing across all authors was £10,500 per year. That’s a long way below minimum wage.

But if regular authors aren’t getting rich, the reason isn’t that regular people in the publishing industry are getting rich from our labour either. The survey shows that more than 80% of young publishers fear for their future in the industry. Low pay and crushing workload are at the heart of those concerns. Yet publishing remains such a desirable industry to be part of that there seems little likelihood of the big players doing things differently. The only light from the survey seems to come from the smaller and independent houses. We relate!

Industry Bodies Voice Concern over New Copyright Exception for Data Mining

You will remember that a few weeks ago, the UK government responded to its consultation on artificial intelligence and copyright. The key part of this response was to propose an additional copyright exception for text and data mining. This would allow companies to, among other things, train artificial intelligence algorithms on any text. The only provision was that they had accessed the text lawfully. In practice, what that means is that if someone buys your book, or has a Kindle Unlimited subscription, they can then freely use the book’s text. 

This has concerned industry bodies. ALLi’s contribution to the consultation had raised these concerns, for example. In essence, it means that authors will neither be able to control how people use their work. Nor will we be able to fully financially exploit the rights in our work. A few cents from Kindle Unlimited is very different from the kind of licensing fee we might more commonly associate with the size of company often involved in data mining.

More to the point, authors might expect better control and remuneration, given that companies can use the AI they train for any purpose. And that includes commercial endeavours. Those commercial endeavours could even include things that look remarkably like your content! This issue has been at the centre of some high-profile instances I reported on recently.

A publishing industry-wide group in the UK has now raised concerns over the exception under the umbrella name of the Publishing Content Forum. A key point the group makes implicitly relates to innovation. The UK government sees the removal of license fees that data miners would have to pay as a benefit for innovation. Implicit in the publishing industry’s claim of harm is an important ideological point that defenders of intellectual property have frequently made. It is that rigorous defence of intellectual property law is, itself, a driver of innovation. Without protection for rights holders, the argument runs, people would not invest in producing the works in which those rights reside.

Book Sold for 6 Figures Thanks to BookTok Hits Shelves

Trends come and go very quickly in the book world as they do everywhere else these days. BookTok has been through the “you have to try this” to “Is this the book world’s magic bullet?” to “is BookTok all it’s cracked up to be?” cycle. And this week saw it enter the surest marker of declining interest. The mainstream media have picked it up.

The Guardian Books Blog carries the fascinating and clearly intended to be inspirational story of how BookTok delivered one author a massive advance and movie rights. The story of Alex Aster’s Lightlark is timely because the book hits the shelves this week. But the heart of the story comes from last Spring, several ages ago in the TikTok hype timeline. 

Last March, Aster posted the elevator pitch for her Young Adult (it’s worth remembering whenever you read hype about the power of a platform to promote books that there is almost always a genre-specific element) novel Lightlark. She had just parted company with her agent and wanted to test whether the idea behind Lightlark had legs. The response from millions of TikTokers showed that it did. Amulet bought the rights to the book. She has just sold rights to the film. And she has pocketed the kind of figure that might even register the interest of DoJ attorneys. 

It’s an inspiring story. But it’s also worth remembering a few things. If the CEOs of big publishers are right about anything, it’s that huge payouts are rare. Second, BookTok has a very specific audience and Aster was a great fit. Third, “26-year-old author strikes riches on TikTok” sounds great. But Aster had been writing for over a decade and finished several books already. She had thousands of hours of craft-honing behind her. And possibly most relevant of all, the actual hype and auction happened more than a year ago.

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