Authors and PLR

Authors and Money

When a new book comes out, it’s not all wine and roses, sadly. Sometimes – I know this is hard to believe – people expect authors to go out and do some work. I’ve been pretty busy since TEMPLAR’S ACRE came out, because of signings and wandering the streets aimlessly, and also because my car didn’t pass its MOT last week, which means I’ve much less in my bank than I was expecting. So this week has been a time for catching up on admin.

I’m very lucky, because I have an established readership. I can tell, usually, how many people will pick up my books and read them. For new writers, those early days, weeks and months stretch away into the future like a visit to Purgatory.

Writers, of course, are all self-employed. We depend on clients (publishers) like any other small business. The difference is, if you are a builder or a decorator, electrician or plumber, you can usually depend on even the worst clients paying up in sixty days for your work. Well, that’s nothing compared to trying to earn money from writing.

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My first book came out in March 1995, and I was really happy. It sold quite well, I learned. And for a writer I was successful – which is why I’m still writing.

However, was I rich? Not by a long chalk.

Authors are paid based on royalties. These are a kind of commission which used to be based on the price of the book when sold. The system worked well for many years, until 1997 when the publishers fought and won the right to discount books. Not a great earth-shattering event, you’d think, but for writing and writers, it was devastating.

The thing is, first, that authors don’t see any money for their writing for up to three years. Yes, three years.

The way it works is, the author sits down and does some strenuous work, exercising his brain like billy-oh, and at the end of a few months (or years) has a manuscript. This is sent off and a few months later (if lucky) he gets a nice letter saying it’s not bad. A publisher sends him money.

Oh happy day! Cash! This is, after all, what all serious writers are most serious about. Money means glasses of wine, tankards of frothing ale, colourful shots of high-octane stuff (or white powder, for the super-star sellers).

But let’s think about the money for a moment.

An author is paid cash up-front. It’s called an “advance”, because the money is an advance against future royalties to be earned. And when the book started to sell, the money must be paid back. So an author paid ten thousand pounds in advances must earn ten thousand and one pounds before he takes home more money.

That’s not the only problem. Authors are paid in stage payments, just like a builder. So, for example, usually the writer will earn one third on signing a contract, a further third when submitting a manuscript, and the last lump when the book comes out.

Of course none of that matters because the author will earn millions in the first couple of weeks after the book comes into print, right?

Wrong. The author’s book will come out in, say, March. Publishers calculate royalty payments on the basis of six monthly periods: January to June and July to December, and then pay three months later, in March/April or September/October. So, if you take my first book as an example, I finished that in March 1994 and it came out in print a year later. I could not earn anything from that until September 1995. But I knew I’d get nothing at all then, because it was a hardback (who buys a hardback by an unknown?) and I knew that I’d only start selling when I had paperbacks on the shelves. More than that, I had a firm conviction that I’d not be making good money until there were at least three paperbacks on the shelves, because I rarely if ever threw my hard earned coppers at an author until I could see that his or her publisher had the courage of their own convictions with that writer, and I suspected other readers were the same.

So, with a book every nine months, that meant I would be looking to the first quarter of 1997 before I could start earning some real money – all this from a book I wrote in 1994. And the first money would go to pay off the advances. I’d probably not be earning until the third quarter.

Which is why Steinbeck said that writing “made horse racing look a solid, stable business.” There are few professions in which it is so necessary to be independently wealthy. If you look at the top literary writers, almost all had a lot of money before they started writing, and with good reason.

Of course, advances used to be based on a realistic estimate of how many books would be sold. It was easy to see a hardback selling about a thousand copies to the libraries, for example. An author would be paid one tenth of the cover price, so for a twenty pound book, the author could expect two thousand pounds. With paperbacks earning less, usually about forty two pence, the author could expect some more money.

That all ended when the Net Book Agreement was discarded. After that, books could be discounted. And the result was, shops up and down the country closed.

In Plymouth there used to be five or six small independent bookshops. There are none left. Exeter had several – not now. Up and down the country, all the little crazy, weird shops have been shut down.

In the past, these shops were set up by slightly unwholesome characters with curious interests. Some would like craft books, others books about magic and witchcraft, while some would deal in titles that had to be supplied in brown paper bags. All depended upon the Net Book Agreement. They could stock their books because they would make money from selling the latest JK Rowling, John le Carré or Michael Connelly at a good profit. The profit from the mass-market subsidised all the stranger titles on underwater basket-weaving.

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Which is why publishing is hit badly too. Suddenly, all the more wonderfully strange titles are finding it hard. They don’t get into print because there aren’t the bookshelves at independent bookshops. Without them, and we’ve lost over nine in every ten up and down the country, I understand, there is nowhere for publishers to sell that kind of odd and esoteric title. Which means publishers aren’t bothering to print them.

Authors used to be able to count on a flat percentage of their book, but now many publishers, having successfully fought for the end to price-fixing for books, have now forced new contracts on their authors, so now if a book is discounted, the author’s percentage is also cut. If a book is discounted by fifty percent, so is the author’s take. So a hardback sold at half price to the retailer means the author gets only one pound where in the past he would have taken two. If it’s sold through a retailer like Amazon for eighty percent discount, the author collects forty pence instead of the two pounds.

And of course, many authors have disappeared, because they cannot earn enough, or because their publishers feel that they cannot.

Which brings me back to the latest piece of sad news.

As I said, this week I have been doing the admin. One essential piece of this work is to fill in the forms for the Public Lending Right for the new book.

Some years ago, it was agreed that libraries should pay authors a reasonable sum for lending out books. After all, writers depend on the books for their income, so it’s only fair that if a library wants to lend a book, it should pay the author for the right to do so.

In the past, when I started writing, the amount of money per loan of a book was about two pence. In more recent years, it’s risen to six pence. It’s not going to make anyone a millionaire – the main idea is to support writers with lower incomes, so the total any author can take is capped at a maximum of, currently, six thousand, six hundred pounds a year. Many top authors have waived their rights to PLR, so that the pot can be split in more ways to support the needy.

PLR is a lifeline to many authors. The money is paid out in February, which has been a life-saver to many impoverished writers after Christmas, when energy bills hit their doormats.

Sadly, the PLR is being hit, and hit hard. It was a marvellous and efficient little bureaucracy, but the government has decided it was too expensive, so it is becoming a part of the British Library. This may not make much difference, in truth, but the other changes do.

Many libraries are being closed. Hereford, I understand, has plans to close all their libraries except one. Other local authorities are being slightly less Philistine, but the closures are going ahead all over the country. Many are being offered to local communities for them to manage on a volunteer basis.

Which means that in future, authors will not be paid PLR. Not only to ebooks not earn PLR, neither do books lent from a voluntary library. So authors will see their incomes drop again.

When the Society of Authors last surveyed their members, they discovered that of all authors, more than three quarters earned less than the national average wage. Over two thirds earned less than half that, and fully one half earned less than five thousand pounds a year.

I wouldn’t tell any aspiring author not to write. But I would never advise them to only write. It’s becoming essential that all authors have a different, full-time job, if they want to be able to enjoy a reasonable lifestyle.

And now, I’m off. I’m packing for a few nights away with my brother Keith on the moors. And for the first time, I’m not taking a tent. Just a tarp and a bivvy bag. The idea is, I’m too old to lug around a 21 Kg backpack. Instead, I’m going to be off with a nice 10 Kg one. But that does mean certain comforts have to be left behind. Which is a pain because the weather forecasts are – well, consistent, I guess. It’s going to start raining as we leave, and the rain will stop about an hour after we get back.

Oh, the joys of an English summer …

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3 Responses to “Authors and PLR”
  1. Old Trooper says:

    Some, over time, may have been annoyed by my requests for people to share the good authors, such as Jecks, with their friends, etc. and to write a concise review when they can as to why they were happy to read a title. I also suggested that if they see a good review to mark it as helpful and to not do so with absurd so called reviews, i.e. it was badly packaged or too many mis-spellings (they never heard of British vs. American English spelling differences) is not a valid review of a title. It is likely that some think I am Michael in disguise (Michael is a nice easy going guy and very forgiving whereas I am just an old soldier who may forgive … after I have been annoyed and dealt with matters). The bottom line is, if you really and truly like a quality author do them the kindness of passing on your enjoyment with titles by saying something about why you like them and why it is worth the investment in them. Further, titles are not copyrighted so you may see a dozen titles out there but only one was written by Jecks. So, tell folks to associate the author’s name with a title when searching for it. There are some less accomplished authors out there who will write something using a similar title so that people will all too often get a book that they really didn’t want. Also, beware of some publishers who have ten authors writing in a genre but those authors are ‘fair’ in terms of writing and research abilities. The publisher then gets each one to write a line, “Such and Such’s story is just so wonderful!!!” and then these pseudo plaudits are printed on each others titles.

    I will just leave it at that. I would hope that the essential message(s) got through.

    Oh! there are already unscrupulous vendors buying up copies of Michael’s recent release (less than a week into sales) and selling them at up to double the list price not to mention postal fees (often more than the actual postage cost). The author does not profit from that.

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