Back in 2013, the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society commissioned a study of nearly 2500 working writers of various ages, genres and backgrounds to determine what these writers earned. Carried out by Queen Mary, the University of London, the results
were shocking but hardly surprising.
Although it was a study of UK-based writers' earnings, it seems to jibe with what I've been hearing from my excommunication at the peripheries of the publishing biz on this side of the pond. Essentially, the University of London study found that median incomes for authors both independent and published by their version of the Big Five are making 29% less than they were just a decade ago. Not only that, 80% of those indie and traditionally-published authors make just £1000 ($1,420.20 in today's dollars) per annum.
Keep in mind, that includes authors for legacy publishers, which, as with their American counterparts, strenuously refuse to read anything thrown over the transom and insist on doing business only with writers through their literary agents. But if the median income for the bottom 80% is £1000 (and 17%, the study found, made no money from their writing), then remind me again why we need literary agents?
And the current trends in author compensation eerily mirror those of laborers working nine to five jobs and seems to be all of a piece. There's a corporation named A Hold that owns a large chain of supermarkets all over New England. Most if not all of these stores are closed shops, meaning you either have to belong to the union or quit or get fired. Most of Stop 'n' Shop's employees, for example, make minimum wage ($10 ph here in MA) and get nothing to pennies on the dollar for raises. The health care benefits are negligible and while the union pretends to shadow box with A Hold every few years and makes impotent threats to strike over health care or some other issue, the union members still make minimum wage.
The union dues are especially galling (Over $8 a week, I last heard). While proving year after year of being unable or unwilling to get more than an unlivable minimum wage and tepid benefits for their members, the "union" has a sweetheart deal whereby the individual stores even helpfully siphon from the workers' paychecks the union dues and sends them directly to the union. If that doesn't bespeak of a collusive relationship between corporate management and this "union", then nothing will. It seems the union's only goal is in making money and collective bargaining and getting fair contracts for their members is, at best, of secondary or tertiary importance.
We're seeing exactly the same thing with literary agents and their dealings with publishers. Alfred A. Knopf, a true book man if there ever was one, once likened dealing with a literary agent to having "a knife at one's throat." If literary agents must
be part of the equation, then that's the way it ought to be. The agent should fight tooth and nail for their clients and try to extract as much money from the publisher as possible. But these days, we're seeing something very different. Contrary, even.
It's the same set up that you see with wishy washy unions in bed with corporations and promising to extract nothing more harmful than wishy washy "concessions", such as dooming workers to endless serfdom through government-mandated minimum wages but paying the union out of earnings as if they had the union to thank for making that minimum wage. Agents count as their best friends some of the biggest editors and publishing executives in the business. They regularly have lunch together at the Four Seasons, where countless book deals have been hashed out.
As an example of how collusive is the relationship between your typical agent and typical publisher:
Getting nowhere with agents, I decided to submit my hostage negotiation thriller The Toy Cop
directly to VP Judith Curr at Atria (an imprint of Simon & Schuster). She was intrigued with it enough so that she agreed to read the entire book. Within minutes, she sent me another email telling me she just happened to have lunch
just yesterday with a literary agent buddy of hers named Victoria Sanders. She added she'd be emailing me within minutes to request the full novel. This immediately set off warning bells.
When the usual process is inverted and a publisher tries to find an agent for an author, it looks more like a collusive kickback scheme than ever. To make matters more awkward, Sanders had just 10 days before rejected American Zen
with a terse form rejection letter. Not looking for an agent this time, I nonetheless asked Curr, "Who else do you know?" I told Sanders I had no intention of hiring her to be my employee on account of the shocking lack of respect she had systematically shown my work and I refused to send her The Toy Cop
Not surprisingly, Curr passed on the book weeks later with a perfunctory summary, having since long ago kicked it downstairs to a flunky who also rejected it. In other words, when Curr realized I was not going to help her safeguard the interests of her buddy Sanders, she immediately lost interest in my novel.
This is a pretty typical example of how things run in this filthy, collusive, massive, undeclared kickback scheme known as publishing. Why everyone who takes part in this collusion isn't rotting in federal prison for violating the RICO statutes is beyond me. It's a protection racket except the thing they're protecting isn't the interests of their authors but the interests of their buddies in the literary agencies that are part of this kickback scheme. And, like gangsters, publishers essentially tell authors, "Nice literary property ya got here. Shame if (sniff)... nuttin' happened to it."
No agent, no deal.
Now, agents make 15% of what authors make but agents typically have a stable of clients that, in the most extreme cases, can number over 100 authors. That's a lot of pelf and it's not unheard of for a high-powered agent to make more money than any one of their clients. And if authors in the UK are making 29% less than they were a decade ago, it's not much a stretch to assume this trend working to the disadvantage of authors also applies in the US. Agents are making more money than ever, publishers are, despite slowing book sales, making more than ever through the firing of employees and closing down entire offices. Yet authors are making nearly a third less than they were in 2003.
Again, remind me why we need the literary agent?
Indie authors like me need to flex our muscle. The year the ALCS study was commissioned, it was discovered that self-published authors accounted for 23% of book sales in the US. That's not to say we make 23% of the $25 billion slice of the pie because we often slash the cover price of our books in a desperate attempt to stay competitive. But three years ago, we accounted for nearly a quarter of all book sales.
Barnes & Noble, are we paying attention?
The B&N bookstore chain is the red-headed stepchild and the abusive stepfather is Jeff Bezos, the worst thing to ever happen to publishing since Nazis discovered books can burn. With the death of its sibling, Borders, Inc. a few years ago, that leaves B&N as the only child, one so abused and battered by Bezos' Amazon that's a miracle it's still alive, albeit on some mysterious life support.
Despite indie authors accounting for 23% or more of all US book sales, B&N ignorantly and arrogantly refuses to even entertain the possibility of carrying self published books regardless of their literary merit and professional execution because of this antebellum-style bigotry against self-published authors. It isn't just them. This ignorant prejudice against indie authors is universally held up as part of the zeitgeist
by publishers, literary agents, book critics and reviewers, authors and, yes, even book buyers.
It's been a successful, albeit sleazy propaganda campaign designed by the Big Five publishers to ensure people remain loyal to their brands and various imprints and not to go after "Brand X."
Not helping our own cause is the plethora of self-published authors who madly flung themselves on the bandwagon of desktop publishing eight or so years ago, publishing biographies of their great aunt Minnie who lived on the plains, propaganda, pornography and boiler plate novels you wouldn't keep in your bathroom. And, at first glance, it would seem the naysayers and literary snobs have a point when they say self published material is horrible. Often, they're poorly-written, poorly-formatted, poorly-proofread and edited and feature cover art done by rank amateurs.
But that doesn't mean we should all be crowded into the same leaky life raft. And Barnes & Noble, struggling to establish and keep a customer base and otherwise fighting Amazon's relentless onslaught against authors (as well as publishers and book buyers) ought to pay attention to that 23% of all book sales figure I'd mentioned.
What indie writers need is an organization that's part sales/publicity/placement oriented. Ingram's, the world's largest book distributor, plainly is not up to the task as they're similarly disinterested in pushing to get indie titles into Barnes & Nobles. We need a powerful organization to reach B&N executives, literary agents and reviewers (who by and large are fellow authors) and get them to accept independent books into their inventories and careers, even if only on a trial basis at first.
All books are sold on consignment. That is a fact. Publishers rent shelf space at book stores as well as the "prime real estate" in the lobby beyond the front door in which the publisher wants their flashiest displays set up. The business being as ruthless as it is, books are routinely sent back to the shredders and pulpers in as little as 3-4 weeks if they don't hit the ground running. Even in legacy publishing, 90% of books fail, setting up the temptation of basket accounting, in which the sales from a successful book are siphoned to prop up the sales of a failing book.
We need to impress upon them the fact that perhaps they can't maintain a customer base not just because Amazon offers better deals through predatory, deep-cutting discounts that harm both publisher and author alike but perhaps they're not seeing paperbacks by fresh faces, names and voices. Give the people what they want and they will come out for it, as the old show business adage says. Barnes & Noble could prove to be our salvation as we could prove to be their salvation. Otherwise, it makes absolutely no sense to refuse to offer in the real world something your competitor is offering in cyberspace.
Carrying titles by independent authors would empower us so we would have more bargaining power and start earning the money the more talented of us deserve to make.
And, to any nay-saying ladies reading this, here's another factoid from the University of London study: Female authors, as with everywhere else in the workplace, make only 80% their male counterparts make.