What are Words Worth? Falling author earnings and what we can do

Nicola e1452774803624

Studies across the world have shown that authors’ earnings are falling fast. Authors remain the only essential part of the creation of a book and it is in everyone’s interests to ensure they can make a living. For that reason, the Society of Authors in the UK has banded with sister organisations worldwide to call on publishers to make contract terms more equitable and give authors a fairer share.

The Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society survey ‘What are Words Worth Now?’ shows that the median annual income of professional authors has fallen to £11,000, far below the £16,850 the Joseph Rowntree Foundation deems necessary for a socially acceptable living standard. Most authors can’t survive on writing alone. Only 11.5% of UK authors now earn their living solely from writing; in 2005, this figure was 40%.

Of course contract terms are not the only reason for falling author earnings. But the fact is that, over the period covered in the ALCS study, publisher revenues have been broadly stable and their profit margins have actually increased. They’ve been able to insulate themselves, but authors cannot continue to make up so much of the shortfall.

Some publishers are excellent but we see many inequitable contracts. David Vandagriff, an experienced US media lawyer, said the following about publishing contracts: “These contracts stand apart from the general run of business agreements as conscience-shocking monstrosities.”

In July 2015, the SoA launched the C.R.E.A.T.O.R. principles (below) for fair contracts, which cover seven key areas to make contracts fairer. Including clarity, fair remuneration and reversion terms that allow authors to make the most of their work.. The International Authors Forum has also issued similar principles.

Some of the adjustments we’re proposing will cost money:

  • Authors should get at least 50% of ebook revenue, not a mere 25%.

Others can be provided at no cost to publishers:

  • Authors should not have their hands tied with contracts which cannot be terminated when a book is no longer being exploited or be subject to non-compete and option clauses that make it even more difficult for them to write and publish new books.
  • Indemnity clauses should spread risk fairly between the publisher and the author.
  • Royalty statements should be transparent and comprehensive.
  • And we ask publishers not to discriminate against authors who don’t have powerful agents.

We’ve asked for individual meetings in the coming months with the Publishers Association, the Independent Publishers Guild and publishers, both large and small, to discuss the IAF and C.R.E.A.T.O.R. principles and what publishers can do to ensure this business is fair and profitable for all those who create the works that sustain it. We also ask that the excellent Publishers Association Code of Practice be honoured in the spirit and the letter and be updated to deal with ebooks.

We are delighted with the positive response from publishers to-date and we look forward to working together to ensure a fair deal for all. Without serious contract reform the professional author will become an endangered species which could have serious implications for the breadth and quality of content that drives the economic success and cultural reputation of the UK publishing industry.

C.R.E.A.T.O.R.: What are fair terms?

C larity

Clear contracts, in written form, which transparently set out the exact scope of the rights granted/assigned/licensed and are promptly and transparently negotiated.

R emuneration

Fair Remuneration. Equitable and unwaivable remuneration for each use / exploitation of work, to include ‘bestseller clauses’ so that if a work does far better than expected the creator shares in its success even if copyright was assigned.

E xploitation

An obligation to Exploit in each format and medium. Also known as the Use-it-or-Lose-it Clause. This is the French model.

A ccounting

Clear, detailed and comprehensive Accounting clauses.

T erms

Reasonable contract Terms (in particular, how long the contract lasts) with regular reviews where appropriate to take into account new forms of exploitation; underpinned by a reversion right where appropriate.

O wnership

Authors, including illustrators and translators, should be credited appropriately for every use of their work; the integrity of artistic works should be respected, and moral rights should be unwaivable.

R easonable

All contracts should be subject to a general test of Reasonableness including a list of defined clauses which are automatically deemed to be void and a general safeguarding provision that any provision contrary to the requirement of good faith, causes a significant imbalance in the parties’ rights and obligations arising under the contract, to the detriment of the author shall be regarded as unfair.

Each of these principles is enshrined in law in other European countries. See europarl.europa.eu

This is a guest post by Nicola Solomon. Nicola is Chief Executive of the Society of Authors. Her role includes protecting authors’ interests in negotiations/disputes with publishers and agents, advising authors, campaigning for authors’ rights, including copyright, e-book rights, Public Lending Right, defamation reforms and freedom of speech.

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  1. Very well put – too often the author is put at the bottom of the heap! Publishers, editors designers, illustrators, photographers, sales & marketing teams, foreign rights, agents, book bloggers, proofreaders, indexers, social media et al wouldn’t be here without them …Book Machine take note.

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