James Mayhew: Fair Trade for Authors

16 November 2016 James

Christmas - the season of goodwill, overspending and bargain books. Great for some, argues illustrator and children's author James Mayhew, but a pretty unfair deal for the author (and the book).

We all love a bargain. Discount stores and on-line offers are constantly being dangled before us, and it is undeniably hard to resist. And yet with food and drink this discount mentality has been, to some extent, tempered by the idea of fair trading. It touches our conscience to consider the humble coffee bean grower and his or her livelihood.

Can this philosophy apply to books and their creators too? Recent figures suggest that the average author earns only around £11,000 a year, and most earn a great deal less than that. Perhaps the ever cheaper book - and its creator - deserves to be more fairly traded too?

This whole argument grew from a bargain deal proposed to me for 10,000 sets of 10 books from a successful series to be placed in a well-known discount catalogue. Further print runs were planned for a discount high street store and, more still, for a discount warehouse.

"The figure I'd get in this case
would be about 3p per book."

The books (RRP £6.99) would be sold by the publisher at a discounted rate. These books would then be sold for £1 each, giving the seller a very handsome profit. And me? The figure I'd get in this case would be about 3p per book. Is this really what we sign up for when we make an agreement with a publisher? Meanwhile a popular and successful series will have been largely compromised, the market flooded with the cheaper version, making it next to impossible to sell the books at anything like a more reasonable price.

Fortunately, some of the titles in this series had been contracted through an agent, and those particular agreements had a clause which gave me the right to refuse - something I was, I admit, hitherto unaware of. I’ve had such deals go ahead before, happily oblivious to the wider implications, presented to me by the publisher as a faits accomplis. This time the agent in question alerted me to the terms, and I took advantage of my right to veto. I said, “No”.

I decided to meet with my publishers and hear their side of things. The conversation was very illuminating, even though it was made quite clear to me that there is no flexibility. The deal is the deal - you take it or leave it. And if you say “no”, the big bad bargain book seller goes to another publisher, another author. The publisher felt that these “special sales” as they call them are sometimes the only way to keep certain titles in print - although it seems to me that it is successful books that are most often targeted by these discount sellers.

I questioned how books could be produced so cheaply. My publisher reassured me about their code of ethics, using only “fair trade” printers in China, and explaining that only by printing huge numbers could the unit price be so low. But where is the fair trade for authors? Publishers think these deals are great exposure – the volume of sales really “gets your name out there”, apparently. But I think that very often it is authors themselves who do that. This may be an older series of books, but all the years of promoting and speaking at festivals (for no fee, usually), the blogging, the website, the social media, the visits to bookshops, libraries, signings, readings… what is it for? I suppose I was always thinking of the “bigger picture”. Is this the reward – seeing big impersonal booksellers prosper as a result of my “investment”? These are not unsuccessful books, this is not old unsold stock, this is a hard cynical deal in which copies are printed to order from these giants.

"But for the people who can afford £3 on a daily latte or magazine, or who happily spend £6 for a cinema ticket, should books be just £1?"

There is, however, the altruistic argument, about getting books into the hands of even underprivileged children. I am rather unconvinced by this. I suspect bargain catalogues are really a middle-class opportunity, and those families unwilling to invest in books will be largely unmoved. For charities like Book Start, or for deals specifically for school libraries, there may well be a good argument for such terms, and I would be very willing to support that. But for the people who can afford £3 on a daily latte or magazine, or who happily spend £6 for a cinema ticket, should books be just £1? This is about far more than my personal return on sales. It is about the symbolic devaluing of books.

What about the Independent Booksellers? How can they compete? I have, in the past, been mortified at book signings to have gleeful mothers in the queue, with an armful of books bought not in the bookshop, but from a cheapo catalogue. Yet my publisher implied that independent bookshops don’t suffer because they buy the bargain books too, and sell them on at full price.

It seems that the only person losing out is the author.

"This is about far more than my personal return on sales. It is about the symbolic devaluing of books."

A recent draft of a new EU directive, Safeguards for Authors, highlights the need for transparency in all dealings of rights and exploitation.  If it moves forward, it could be a very useful development in authors’ rights. You can read about that here.

So what can we do in the meantime?

  • Check our contracts and be sure we have a clause that allows us to veto to this level. Members will know that the Society of Authors will check our contracts. Most of us probably have an agent representing us to check on these details. Nevertheless, there are clearly lots of authors who do not have the right to veto these deals as standard. And this should, I think, be an essential part of any agreement with a publisher.
  • Be aware of how poor these deals are, and that this right to say “no”, is ours. Whether we act on it or not is entirely up to each individual author. All the arguments in favour of these deals will be presented by publishers, and just like giving free talks for book festivals, the choice is ours. But there should be that choice, and I hope that more of us act on it.
  • The industry will not change unless we collectively push for change. I believe another model of business must be possible, but it can only happen if we, the authors, step out of the shadows and stop being so cloak-and-dagger about terms. We need transparency about the deals offered, the terms presented, about the dirty business of money.
  • And maybe sometimes we should just be empowered to say “No”.

James is an illustrator, author of children's books, concert presenter and storyteller. He has published over 50 books, including the Ella Bella Ballerina series, Miranda the Castaway and BOY.

www.jamesmayhew.co.uk

Comments

Laurence Anholt 21/02/2017 10:28:21
" I'd like to add my voice to the discussion - I agree with everything James has said and congratulate him for speaking out. I have also written and illustrated many children's books (more than 200 titles over 30 years) Although I still love my work, my income has been massively reduced in recent years and I have never known a more demoralising time in publishing. Authors and illustrators are the geese that lay the golden eggs, but too often they are treated like battery hens! There is far too much investment in 'celeb' authors; which reduces funds for everyone else. And of course Amazon is a huge problem too. I would respectfully ask my publishing friends to wake up to the fact that the majority of their authors and artists are deeply unhappy about the present situation (why do publishers not conduct regular surveys to find out how their authors are feeling?) It is impossible to work effectively if you are beset with financial problems. Authors do not expect to get rich but they should expect something slightly above the minimum wage for their work. I'm sure most readers would be appalled to know how little the author/illustrator receives from each book. Something needs to change... or perhaps it's time for the Society of Authors to set up up a co-operative publishing house, run by authors/ illustrators for authors/ illustrators?"
Joyce Dunbar 17/02/2017 16:13:25
" Dare I say it - who but the Society of Authors has presided over this dramatic slump in author income? I know it tried to defend the Net Book Agreement - but to no effect. Another big factor is self publishing - where some canny authors make much more than they ever would with a publisher. That is the way it is and inevitable.

I have another beef with the loose interpretation of copyright law. A very successful series I did with James Mayhew called MOUSE & MOLE was turned down by our American publisher - because it was 'too English.' Lo and Behold, some years later an Americanised version appeared also called MOUSE & MOLE,
with some of the illustrations directly copied from James's work, published by my own US publisher. This effectively blocked the future of our series in the UK and elsewhere. I know I have changed the subject somewhat - but it is all part of the corrosion of author's rights and publishing integrity. I produced a detailed file of the infringements but this was dismissed as 'true, but tough.' As a person 'on low income,' I cannot afford lawyers and I was reminded sharply of possible negative repercussions. Like all authors, you have to go with the positive and not let the negative get you down. Part of it also is that when a new author is starting out, they would give their eye teeth just to be published, on any terms."
<a href="http://isparmo.web.id">las</a> 11/01/2017 14:36:00
" I really enjoyed reading your article. I found this as an informative and interesting post, so I think it is very useful and knowledgeable. I would like to thank you for the effort you have made in writing this article."
Lucy 28/12/2016 15:02:06
" quite interesting..btw..can i use your ideas in my paper with http://www.writemyessayfast.org/ ??"
jackie morris 27/11/2016 11:16:41
" Good to see that this blog post generated interest in the discount trade in TheBookseller, who crafted a great article on the problems we face as authors and illustrators.
However I found the responses of both the publishers and the high discount 'providers' to be so thin.
Really hoping momentum continues with this, as I don't feel the responses from the publishers were anything other than a bit patronising really. As to the Book People, they suggest that they are supporting first time authors. This really isn't so. The books on their list are already proven to be good sellers and their discounting will continue to undermine high street shops and authors incomes.
In the meantime here is a really interesting article from a small indie publisher on nurturing talent. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/dec/22/are-small-independent-publishers-doing-the-work-for-big-publishers"
Diana Kimpton 25/11/2016 17:40:35
" I've just done some arithmetic for a hypothetical book priced at £4.99 on a 6% royalty and compared how much the publisher and the author get at 59% and 60% discounts. At 59%, the author gets 29p and the publisher gets £1.75 (which has to cover cost of production and any payment to the illustrator so isn't pure profit). At 60% the high discount clause comes into play so the royalty changes to 8% of price received. Under this, the payment to the author drops by 44%
to 16p and while the publisher's take goes up to £1.83. So the publisher earns more by offering a bigger discount that's completely funded by the author.
(NB: None of these numbers work out exactly so I've had to round them.)"
John Shelley 21/11/2016 18:51:44
" Very well said James, It seems discounted books are the new library service - take away free access to books (loans of course pay PLR to authors) and replace by profit driven business that cuts out the creators. This must stop.

My Japanese books are never discounted, sure the Japanese publishing industry has it's own problems, slower sales, shorter print-runs, fewer overseas rights sales.... but discounting books and impoverishing authors and illustrators isn't one."
Stuart Hill 21/11/2016 18:02:03
" I watched a documentary the other night on TV in which a delivery driver for an online company earned such a good living he was able to buy and drive a Bentley! Wonderful! But then I got to thinking wouldn't be equally wonderful if all of the authors whose books he was delivering, could also make enough money to buy and run a luxury motor car! Please don't misunderstand me, it really was a pleasant surprise to find that a delivery driver is making such a good living and I truly applaud the fact that he can do so, but how ironic that many of the writers and artists, whose work was contained in the parcels he carried in his van, are barely able to pay the household bills.

We all know that many writers and independent book shops have suffered in the new world of publishing. My partner works in an independent shop in a small village in Leicestershire and depsite the fact that it's a forty minute car journey away from Leicester, it can still claim that it is the nearest indie to the city centre! How times have changed; perhaps they should change again and this time for the better."
Candy Gourlay 21/11/2016 17:34:35
" Thank you for speaking out, James."
Bernie Bell 21/11/2016 16:35:36
" Hello
I'm not 'a writer', but I am a reader - have been since childhood, and ruined my eyes at one stage doing so! Torch under the bed-clothes scenario.
Anyhoo - at the moment, loads of cataloques arrive at our house. They go straight into the re-cycling, but even that annoys me a bit - waste of resources.
A catalogue arrived from a company which sells books - I can't remember what it's called, as I don't buy books from those kind of cataloques, so it went into the re-cycling, without much thought. BUT.........I noticed that it included one of Jackie's books.
As an innocent in these things , I thought "Oh, good, a big company is promoting and selling Jackie's books - that will be good for her."
As I said - I'm an innocent in these things. From reading Jackie's blog, which led me to your blog, I now realise that this was probably a prime example of this kind of shikanery.
Moral is.......it's a good thing that you folk are making this known, as folk such as us - 'The Public' aren't really aware of all this stuff.
By the way - I damn Tesco anyway - I damn them roundly - but that's another rant."
jackie morris 20/11/2016 15:39:18
" I think what is really needed in this is for some of those really big hitters, like Philip Pullman, Michael Morpurgo, Julia Donaldson, to take a stand against these practices as philip Pullman stood up for authors receiving fees for festival performances.
I think the most remarkable undermining of indies happened during the harry Potter phenomenon. I can't have been the only parent who had to buy 2 copies of this book. The books would have sold at full price, but once the mania had been built, its roots again in word of mouth and indies championing the first couple of books, they were sold off at such huge discounts that some indie bookshops actually bought their stock from Tesco because they could get the books cheaper there than direct from the publishers. What other industry brings out its star creations and sells them cheap on publication day? This could have been a time to have put some serious revenue back into indie bookstore, get people into bookshops who hadn't been for years. Maybe it would have been too much for them. Maybe. But to have indie booksellers buying copies at Tesco to resell to people trying to support them. It made a mockery of the industry.
Anyway, it's Sunday. I have a deadline. I need to be painting."
jackie morris 20/11/2016 15:38:50
" I think what is really needed in this is for some of those really big hitters, like Philip Pullman, Michael Morpurgo, Julia Donaldson, to take a stand against these practices as philip Pullman stood up for authors receiving fees for festival performances.
I think the most remarkable undermining of indies happened during the harry Potter phenomenon. I can't have been the only parent who had to buy 2 copies of this book. The books would have sold at full price, but once the mania had been built, its roots again in word of mouth and indies championing the first couple of books, they were sold off at such huge discounts that some indie bookshops actually bought their stock from Tesco because they could get the books cheaper there than direct from the publishers. What other industry brings out its star creations and sells them cheap on publication day? This could have been a time to have put some serious revenue back into indie bookstore, get people into bookshops who hadn't been for years. Maybe it would have been too much for them. Maybe. But to have indie booksellers buying copies at Tesco to resell to people trying to support them. It made a mockery of the industry.
Anyway, it's Sunday. I have a deadline. I need to be painting."
Compostwoman 20/11/2016 15:09:02
" As a reader I am appalled at what I now know goes on in book selling. I have stopped buying books from the "large river in S America" company and also the company who have "the working" online and high street presence . Even chains of bookstores now get my cold shoulder if at all possible. I try to buy from small indy shops whenever/wherever I can and I am going to redouble my efforts to do so in future. Ok, it may cost me a small amount of money more but it is worth it to feel I have not ripped off my author friends and to support indy booksellers and publishers. Also to feel I have not contributed to such an appallingly unfair situation.
Well done for highlighting this unfair situation James"
Margaret Holbrook 20/11/2016 12:33:25
" A really interesting blog. I think it's outrageous that the author of any book should be expected to receive so little in royalties. It makes the author's work very undervalued. If you take into consideration the fact that most books cannot be written over weeks, most authors will probably earn less than the minimum wage but this is not the view of the majority of the public, if you write you must be wealthy!"
Diana Kimpton 19/11/2016 19:55:50
" How about putting a floor in our contracts - something like "At no point will the royalty paid fall below 15p per copy, regardless of the sum received by the publisher"? Publishers only manage to do these ridiculous low priced deals because we get less - stop that and they'll have to price more realistically."
Michela Cocolin 19/11/2016 16:23:21
" Great blog, James. A lot of similarities can be found in the music world too. Unfortunately we live in a society where quantity seems to matter more than quality. When we were little a book was a wonderful Christmas gift. Now it's called a "stocking filler". One book is not enough a gift. Do people realise the amount of work that goes into it? The planning, the writing, the illustrating, the editing, the printing, the promoting etc? People would rather buy 5 items (often made in the Far East by children) from a high street "cheap" retailer than one good quality item made using sustainable resources according to fair trade standards. I believe in the old sayings "you get what you pay for", "buy good quality and you buy once". "Fairtrade for a fair world"."
Paul Wallace 19/11/2016 15:20:49
" Thanks James for your piece, illuminating and thoughtful, I agree absolutely with your sentiments. Your reported conversation with your publisher is interesting and I would take issue with their comment regarding independent booksellers being happy to buy them cheap and sell at full price. I suspect most indies would agree with me that it would be far better they didn't feel obliged to participate in this particular race to the bottom, quite apart from the fact they are reinforcing the price differential between the bargain seller and themselves. Deals such as this encourage expectation of unsustainably low prices.
As a bookshop selling secondhand and remainder books as well as new, we sometimes see the distorting effects first hand, as when whole series of popular childrens' books start appearing in pristine condition over and again - and we realise why they suddenly stopped selling off the new shelves! We buy and sell large quantities of bargain books ourselves but there is a big difference between remaindered books, returns (usually overstocks) on the one hand, and the manufactured bargains to which you refer. A fair deal for everyone - author, publisher, bookseller and reader is called for."
Gretta Curran Browne 19/11/2016 14:24:49
" Perhaps if, firstly, the publishers were to give a moment's consideration to the "author" in deals like this, instead of their own profits, they would shun the insistence of a massive discount and say NO. They do have a fiduciary duty to their author, and by agreeing to huge discounts, knowing the author will have little or no profit from it, is surely a breach of that duty.
But yes, authors blindly put their careers in publishers' hands - the people who can make or break them - agree to the "only one book a year" rule, and all other one-sided clauses - but if they make the smallest complaint, then the frostiness is instant.
Now hate me if you like - but I wish the SOA and everyone else would admit that the only company that has finally forced a rethink about fair royalties and fairness to authors is AMAZON."
James Mayhew 19/11/2016 10:30:30
" I think it is really important to emphasise that this has never been about my personal income and circumstances, but about fairness in the industry for ALL. I am lucky, I make a living (at the moment). I'm not rich, but I manage by supplementing with author visits etc. I am fortunate to be in a position where I can get those engagements, and to be old enough to have established books.

As an author illustrator, I'd have made around £3,000 from the deal, a not inconsiderable sum. Of course, if I was *only* the author, it would have been half of that. But I felt I could (just) afford to say no. Many authors would not. And some see it as some kind of accolade to be selected for the catalogue, a feather in their cap!

I think it is important to spread the word and get as many authors commenting and "on board" as possible. I believe another business model is possible. I am not against discounting as such, but the levels and the contractual terms are currently not fair. It must be possible to fight for even a small change to terms.

I have invited my publisher to come to a CWIG meeting. I hope they accept and that we can discuss possibilities in a professional and positive way, that leads to change to benefit the whole authoring community."
Michellle Robinson 19/11/2016 09:45:16
" I agree completely. And I thought the previous comment (I forget the commenter's name, I read so many - apologies!) about people feeling entitled to free content is absolutely bang on. It's a disgrace. These same people wouldn't dream of giving away their own work and time for free. There is definitely a perception that author = rich. HAAAAAA! *wipes away tears of mirth and woe*

By the way, my agent has been pushing my worst offending publisher on this issue and they have grown decidedly frosty towards us. But seeing as all my other publishers look after my interests so much better, I don't need to panic if this one particular relationship turns sour and ends. If they were my only publisher, however, they'd have me over a barrel.

For many authors that's the reality and it is exploitation, plain and simple. I hope you are not suffering for bringing this issue out in the open."
James Mayhew 19/11/2016 09:12:01
" And sorry for typos..."
James Mayhew 19/11/2016 09:10:25
" Thanks Michelle, Miriam, Audrey, Judy and Jill.

Michelle, don't worry about being in fragments... I also keep thinking of new things to add. It's such a big thing to discuss, and a bit scary to be sticking my neck out like this; I'm sure some of my publishers are furious. But it is clear that the authoring community are a) in agreement and b) disillusioned/angry with the way it currently works.

As for charity, I think it's great to support schools, libraries and amy scheme that actively puts books in the hands of those who really need them and will benefit and I would wholeheartedly support any such plan, regardless of the financial return. But wheat I really find abhorrent is to see middle-class parents gleefully (ad competitively) celebrating their bargain shopping prowess in school staff rooms (etc), as they do their Christmas shopping, giving huge companies enormous profits. These bargain book sellers are million pound companies; they hold (slightly patronising) grand author parties on a huge scale at places like the Royal Festival; Hall, throwing money around on over-priced food and decorations and general "showing off". And it's small change to them. Publishers do pretty well also, I think. It is all at the expense of the author. And it's unfair. So charity, YES, but lining the ruts of big business with fur... NO!"
Michelle Robinson 19/11/2016 08:06:41
" Excuse my fragmented post, I think I ought to explain a little more to give my comments context.

I choose to donate books to the local food bank, as well as to waiting rooms, libraries, local schools and nurseries and children's hospital wards. These are usually my own contractual copies. Sometimes they are copies that I have bought with my author discount from the publishers.

I recently worked with a local primary school to create a school library from scratch. We raised thousands. We needed carpet, shelves, electrics, shelving as well as books. We spent a couple of thousand on books, mostly via the local independent bookshop who gave us a small but very welcome discount. We also took advantage of some horrible discounting deals along the way - not many, though. I should add that many of my publishers very kindly sent us box loads of books that were going spare.

Not that it makes it any better, but when I used catalogues I deliberately selected titles by those very, very rare, very high earning celebrity authors and long dead ones! All future stock will be bought via the indie book shop and pilfered from publishers wherever possible!"
Michelle Robinson 19/11/2016 07:13:59
" PS when I say free books I'm talking about second hand books in good condition or perfectly good books that are set to be pulped."
Michelle Robinson 19/11/2016 07:08:39
" Hello James. I wholeheartedly agree with all of this, thank you for leading the charge. My bestselling series earns me bugger all because of 'special sales', meanwhile the publishers are quids in. I particularly like your idea about such special sales applying to the likes of Book Start and libraries. With low literacy levels becoming endemic and poverty rife, I also think we all - including publishers - have a duty to find ways of getting cheap or even free books into the hands of the youngest children. Currently this is something I do out of my own pocket - often having to exploit cheap deals, using scrappy earnings which have been greatly compromised by crap deals. I stress not all of my publishers are so unscrupulous, there's one in particular and it's one that I will take a lot of convincing to continue working with."
Miriam Moss 18/11/2016 18:55:34
" James, I'm full of admiration. Congratulations for sticking your neck out. It's wonderful to see this controversy being aired at last, and great that there's so much support coming in. Adequate remuneration for authors and illustrators also ties in with the Society of Author's C.R.E.A.T.O.R campaign for fairer contracts. (see main page.)"
Judy Astley 18/11/2016 18:14:30
" Sadly, there is now a whole generation (and some) who no longer expect to pay for anything connected with the arts. They have this idea that the creators have already been well paid (outlandish ideas about vast advances, simply because those make media headlines) and therefore shouldn't expect to make more. It is the same with music - streaming is now how so many get their songs and the writers/performers make pretty much zilch. I know many who also download all their films from pirate sites, cheerily assuming that once a movie is out there (and with the stars massively well paid), it's anyone's fair game to nick it.
And itt won't be a popular view, I realise, but I do hold some charity shops responsible for the assumption that books are so cheaply available. I meet people all the time who gleefully tell me they've read my books, having bought them all from charity shops. I don't grudge the charities their income, but in the case of books I do see a case for some sort of licence system, similar to the PRS registration that all shops that play any music at all have to have. Maybe it could somehow be linked to PLR (not sure how it would work but it can't be impossible) and applied to any charity shop that has shelves offering over, say, 500 books. And yes, a paperback book costs about the same as a cup of coffee - not expensive in the big scheme of things but it's people's attitudes that need sharpening up. The sense of entitlement to free/cheap stuff really is massive these days."
Audrey 18/11/2016 18:13:58
" I love books - LOVE books - I just donated 2 boxes of kids books and accidentally put a library book in there so that turned round and bit me - and I happily pay £3.49, £4.49 for kids paperbacks when I'm shopping, that's what kids magazines cost. I don't pay more, and I don't pay less, and this is why; £1 shop books are horrid. The paper's thinner. The colours are muted. They're just so much less, and not just price wise. I don't pay more because, it's a book. It has the same content whether it's new or second hand, and I hope the author got a fair cut when it was new too. But I can get it for £5 online, so I'm not going to pay more if I don't have to. As a parent, I don't have huge amounts of time or money, so if it's not online or in the big four, I'm unlikely to get it. The last time I paid full price for a book I could only get in a bookshop was a Ladybird Grown Ups book, and they're half price everywhere now so I feel mugged! We have (I think) all the Katie books, except the Christmas one. They are beautiful and we love them. I would more than happily have paid full price and more for the treasure of a signed copy last year, but we couldn't make it to London (and we missed Katie's trail too :( ). If you're signing them again this year (on a Sunday perhaps, when we can park in cental London) we'd certainly be interested."
Jill Peer 18/11/2016 17:08:08
" I thoroughly applaud your blog here. Thank you. I am merely a part time author and illustrator. Each time I do it I am horrified by the amount of time I put to it and the very little money I receive for the work I' ve done.

I do many other things fortunately though none very lucrative but I told a friend recently that making a book is the really flattest thing you can do. Its so flat when I have finished a new book, the book is flat. Ha ha! and when I flick through it, after all the work I remember it for, I can't believe how flat I feel about it.

A love/ hate relationship. No one could ever know or describe the hours of pain it costs us.

Thank you for what you are saying and good luck."
James Mayhew 18/11/2016 15:42:08
" Thanks Sophie. And following a social media conversation, Daniel Blythe al;so raised the idea that some might think this is a First World Problem. The idea of wingeing authors or a literary elite is hopelessly out of touch with the reality of the enormous majority of people trying to earn an honest living with words and pictures. To expect something like a minimum wage is absolutely NOT a first world problem, and no other industry would tolerate the terms authors have to accept in order to be published. It's fundamentally unfair. How would teachers or doctors or civil servants or *politicians* or - frankly - publishers feel about getting only 10% of their expected income because it gave them "great exposure"? Or because it reached "poor families" (a horribly patronising simplification of a major social and educational problem with literacy in this country). If intelligent voices and talented people are giving up, a) that's tragic and b) the whole of civilisation suffers, because it's through the eyes of the great observers that we understand, historically, our fragile existence. This year more than ever, we need wise words and intelligent thought. Lose that because of poor pay, and society falters."
Catrin Collier 18/11/2016 15:40:37
" This is an ongoing problem that I and several other authors have been fighting all our working lives. I recall the marvellous Beryl Kingston making a stand against The Book People when her publishers wanted her to sell them one of her books for a heavily discounted royalty of pence per copy. Authors are expected to accept royalties of pence per copy for supermarket and discount store sales and be grateful while their income drops below subsistence level, and as if that isn't enough, the rights department of one of my publishers negotiated a deal with a Turkish publisher, my translator contacted me to congratulate me on the deal, the same day the the Turkish Publisher contacted my English publisher to inform them that they'd decided not to publish after all. My books appeared not only on the Turkish publisher's site but Amazon (who did eventually after a solicitor's letter take them down) And now, we are expected to smile and put up with Google publishing up to 90% of our books to be read and downloaded online for free. I've actually had people tell me that no copyright should last longer than one year. Given the number of free downloads of my books on websites several people seem to agree with that philosophy. A bestselling author and family name recently told me he was giving up writing because between heavy discounting and blatant theft he saw no point in continuing. The sad thing is I understood how he felt."
Sophie Anderson 18/11/2016 15:09:42
" Such a brilliant piece, thank you James. I signed a few books to a small independent publisher a couple of years ago and have been completely taken for a ride. They made money from my work with very little effort, and I made no money at all with lots of effort. I do worry that this kind of behaviour will put writers off writing, and so limit the number of wonderful books out there. I'm at a loss of how to try fight my corner with the publisher, and so have ended up cutting my losses, hopefully learning from the experience, and moving on. I have an agent now so am hoping they can help me get a better deal with my next publisher. It's a minefield out there!"
James Mayhew 18/11/2016 14:26:12
" Thanks Nicola, Jackie, Lucy and Mary... the more support for this the better. If enough people voice displeasure, the more pressure we can put on publishers to rethink. Unfortunately, the big, high profile authors who *do* earn good amounts will not probably care less, because it makes no difference to them. I hope some will come forward in support of those less fortunate, in a bid to reshape the industry. I suppose there is a common link with the music industry and how recordings are sold (and pirated). Not that that's a reason to NOT try to overhaul publishing as an economic model. Musicians can, of course, generate income from performance (in theory), although I daresay that is often not well paid. It is rare, though, for authors to get good, regular paid work for public speaking, where, once again, the expectation that we will do it for free, is worryingly common. Fees, where they exist, are modest. I genuinely think that the whole industry is corrupt and needs to change. Really it's about fairness. When authors sign deals they expect a certain royalty to be achievable, but with contracts as they stand, and book selling operating as it does, the return is almost always less than what is expected, and publishers take too much advantage of the meek, naive, self-depracating, authors who "just want to be published". The belief that we should "be grateful" to get a contract needs to change."
Lucy Owen 18/11/2016 13:21:20
" I'd like to thank you for ripping the scab off this and exposing the unpleasant underlying pus of this kind of deal to the light of day too, James. And yes, I do feel that the practice of this kind of mass discounting is just that - a suppurating wound which is poisoning authors' incomes - most of which are low enough at the best of times. I really do hope your piece will open up a full and frank public discussion with all publishers, who must address this matter urgently and admit publicly to their mistakes in this field. We do need to re-look at our contracts and make sure that we are communicated with by our publishers BEFORE this kind of deal is done, and try to get a better outcome for the creators. Change is needed -- and desperately -- and bullying is never acceptable in any field."
jackie morris 18/11/2016 12:30:12
" Just wanted to add that when I was in conflict with my publishers over the unused merchandising rights the Society of Authors was incredibly supportive. Feels lonely out here sometimes. Good to know someone had your back."
jackie morris 18/11/2016 12:27:33
" Taking up what Ken Wilson Max says re agents, yes. It's time publishing was changed I think. I've seen the power taken from the creators over the years. Now it feels as if more power lies with those who are employed to sell books rather than those who create and if the sales people don't 'get it' the book never sees the light of day.
If a book doesn't do well straight away the artist/ author can be dropped by the publishing house, rather than author, illustrator, publishers and sales working together to 'grow' a reputation. Too much waiting for the 'next big thing' to magically come along rather than making it happen by working together. And then, when something does lift above the mass of books , usually because it has been pushed by the author, working hard with amazing indie bookshops to raise awareness and visibility, in come the high discount people to jump on the success, get what profit they can and give back so little, so very little to the creator. With publishers profits rising year on year and author's income falling it is time to go back to the historic contracts that were drafted in a different world and give a fair share to those who made them, so that we can continue to make more.
Recently I wrestled the merchandising rights from a publisher who had sat on them for 20 years. The process was unpleasant verging on bullying, but the result has been an increase in my income by about £5000 a year. That's not insignificant.
So much needs to be addressed in the world of publishing. We need to work together, not undermine each other. It's time to make changes."
Nicola Morgan 18/11/2016 12:09:45
" Excellent, excellent piece. It's what (as others say above) some of us have been trying to say for ages. And you've now got people listening, James! Hooray for social media, too!

I tried the "Fair reading" tag some years ago and there was quite a lot of dissent (though agreement, too) but maybe the time has now come and more people are ready to understand that their buying choices affect the people who create the things we buy and if we pay less the creator actually suffers. Materially. And that the creator is most often NOT well paid."
Mary Mayfield 18/11/2016 10:21:25
" For a long while, as a member of the buying public and effectively an 'outsider', while I naively assumed that authors were paid a flat rate per book sold, and that any drop in revenue from these cheap catalogues was taken by the publisher or retailer. It's only through blogging and having contact with authors that I've seen their side of the story, but most folk buying books will still be in the dark. Everyone likes a bargain, and if they wonder about where their money goes they probably assume much as I did."
James Mayhew 18/11/2016 09:52:47
" Thanks Tamsin, Ken, Helen, Jackie and Karin, really interesting, passionate thoughts and good points. It has also been pointed out to me on twitter (by Tanita Tikaram, no less) that cinema tickets are more like £14!"
Tamsin Rosewell 17/11/2016 19:12:28
" I've been a bookseller at an independent bookshop for nearly 9 years now. Totally agree with James; my feeling when I read the blog early this morning was one of overwhelming relief that someone had said publicly what we have all been discussing quietly behind the industry's back for far too long. The example of this book series by this author/illustrator is interesting as I honestly believe that if they were reissued by a publisher and not discounted, they would still be of great interest and sell very well - we'd certainly be buying them into stock and promoting them to our customers. There are many authors whose work we don't often stock at all, or get to talk about. If someone can buy it for even less than we can buy it into stock then there is not much point in us stocking it at all. There is a new book out called The Book of Tides, for example, which looks amazing, the cover design is a thing of beauty, and it looks really interesting. It has got £20 written on the back. We can order it in to the shop for about £12.50. You could go and buy it on Amazon for £5. Why?! What purpose does selling a newly issued book that cheaply serve? This is just one example but I'm afraid that we are quite used to not bothering to stock the some of the latest Hardback fiction because it is so heavily discounted elsewhere. Ok, yes there are many loyal customers who will ask us to order it because they feel strongly about their local shops - but lovely as they are these people are the exception rather than the rule. This must be one of the only industries where products are heavily discounted on release. You wouldn't go to a high street clothes shop and expect to find the new clothes designs for the season selling at 25% of their stated retail value. Likewise the latest technology or children's plastic toys. From where we stand, quite apart from the obvious matter of us being put on the back foot on sales of these books, we think that in the longer term this will be significantly to the detriment of many authors whose work is discounted this way. Many of the writers and illustrators reading this will have seen what we CAN do to support an author or illustrator, new or well-established. We talk to customers about them. We put the books on a prominent display. We write reviews and circulate them widely to the right audience. It is people like us who write the book review that go into family magazines, for local newspapers, parish newsletters, and it is us who go on to local radio to recommend good reads. We talk to schools - and supply books for school libraries. We talk to parents. We recommend to and order for book groups. We recommend books to the county library service (with whom we work closely and support). We tweet about books - a lot. We take photos of books on display; and those photos circulate for many months often, not just for the period that the display is in the window. The photos I took of the window display for Marcus Sedgwick and Hachette in early October are still doing the rounds, they pop up often - and it has long gone from the window! In short, even the smallest shop can punch well above its weight in supporting a writer and a publisher. If we can't stock the book at all, we'll never do any of that. It is really not fair on the author; all of those little blocks of support that keep books moving won't be there. And we all know that it is word of mouth that ensures a book's longevity, certainly not awards or big starting publicity - people come and say things like 'I've heard it's quite good despite being the X or Y Prize winner!'. The books we sell most of are the ones we recommend continually. Our authors are being treated little better than sweatshop workers if they are getting just a few pennies for these important creations. We did the maths on James' article in the shop early this morning and these companies must be making a higher profit than publishers who don't discount - up to 70% profit. We agree too that the 'ethical' arguments don't stack up. We are parents too and have all seen that it is certainly not the less well off families who turn up at school-based discounted book sales. When so many of us are working hard to support the authors whose books we sell (we'd be foolish not to because without them we don't have a business at all) it seems that they are being pushed right down to the bottom of the industry's economy. And God knows we need our writers and illustrators now more than ever. They are the ones who can show us the truth from all its angles, challenge belief and prejudice, make us rethink what we thought we knew, and ultimately they will be the ones who provide the lasting chronicle of this very difficult age. Writers and artists are far more important to the health of humanity than politicians, gods or corporate interests. If we undervalue our writers to this extent, we undermine something very much more important than longer term retail figures."
Ken Wilson-Max 17/11/2016 18:22:45
" Well said James. I don't think book contracts have changed as fast as the numerous ways stories and books have become available. Maybe its time for creators to re-read old contracts and suggest changes in our favour before publishers try things that benefit them more? Its also an opportunity for agents (those of us who have them) to step up a bit..."
Karin Celestine 17/11/2016 17:00:30
" Thank you so much for writing this James. I am new to the book world having my first books published this year. I have been rather shocked at how it works. Friends say 'oh now you'll make your fortune, you can retire now with your 6 books'. Oh my goodness, I had no idea and they have no idea and you feel so churlish and ungrateful if you start to explain how little you get.
Even though I like my publishers and don't feel screwed over by them, like Jackie, I subsidise the books with my art.
I am being invited to do book signings and events with my books and the only way I can afford to do this is to run a craft workshop alongside it. That funds the travel, parking etc. I am coming to terms with this, after realising you didn't get paid to go to a bookshop and there were no budgets for publicity and you really needed to do it yourself. I adore local bookshops and want to support them where I can, knowing that they too are struggling to compete with the discounts.
This mass discounting book thing, however, I can't understand. I can't come to terms with. It feels criminal. Bullying and undermining.
I don't know any other business where you discount a product before it has even been released, and any other business where you get so little and can be forced to get even less than you thought.
We have all these awards for books and celebrate writing but then screw authors into the ground with wanting the books for free or next to nothing to read with our lattes that cost nearly the price of a book.
As for books in the hands of the poor, that is what libraries are for. I was poor when my son was young. I couldn't afford £1 any more than £7 for books but we had a library and we read every book in it. And the author gets some money for that too. And altruism doesn't feed your family. Fine if you are a millionaire, but how many authors even make the minimum wage? Libraries, school libraries cherish them, they are the way to go for people who can't afford books not ripping off authors with cheap books.
If people knew how little an author got for these discounted books, they might reconsider buying from these discounting places. Maybe it is time to all say how it is.
Coming in new, I picked my contract to pieces. I assumed that is what one did. I am glad I was naive and did that.
My heart breaks for authors like yourself James being faced with this. Such wonderful beautiful work devalued. If one translated this into any other profession it would be laughable if it weren't so unfunny.
Thank you from the new ones coming up behind you for highlighting this and I hope it can be stopped. Maybe if everyone says no, it will have to be. But perhaps once again I am being naive."
Helen Watts 17/11/2016 16:46:53
" This is such an important piece. Thank you, James. If we don't stand up and show that there is value in what we do, then no one else will. I am off to check my contracts."
James Mayhew 17/11/2016 16:46:10
" Thanks Jackie.
Following a Twitter exchange, I would like to also add that this is not about second hand books (which have been sold once, hopefully for a fair price) or supporting charities. This is about cold cynical print runs by large successful businesses, allowing them to profit at the expense of the creator of the commodity. And it is about the fine details of contracts that sometimes allow publishers to broker such deals unchallenged. I think Jackie is right, there is an element of bullying in the publishing world, and a sly secrecy, be cause they are really rather embarrassed to be doing this. No one talks about it, and I'm sticking my neck out here by doing so."
jackie morris 17/11/2016 16:19:43
" I know some booksellers who are made to feel like crooks for charging full price for books by people who say 'well, it was only £2 in our school's book fair'. I once travelled all the way to Milan to work in a school for two days. They had not a single one of my books for sale there because they had a Scholastic book fair on. I am seriously considering giving up working in publishing. I think the only thing keeping me there at the moment is Barrington Stoke and Hamish hamilton. And Otter-Barry Books.. Things have changed so much in the last 15 years and I feel it is shameful the way many authors are treated.
When I was a child I was told it was impossible to make a living as an artist but I have subsidised my publishing career for far too long by selling paintings.
I think my worst ever experience was working for a bookshop in schools, for free for 2 days and then discovering the shop had been given a 70% discount on my books. When challenged the person in the publishers who had made this decision said she had felt 'backed into a corner'. So, it's not only the mass discount book people who do this kind of thing. Bookshops can be guilty too. But most bookshops work so hard to help build our careers and are seriously undermined by the discounting of books to those who sell us off cheap.
Thanks for bringing this into the open. It's a hard thing to do. I know some publishers who will not take kindly to these practices being aired in public. There is sometimes a culture of bullying in publishing that is deeply unpleasant."
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