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  • Nicola Solomon, Chief Executive of the Society of Authors

    This month's blog is from our Chief Executive, Nicola Solomon.

    Authors and their works cross geographical boundaries and so since its inception the Society of Authors has looked beyond the shores of Britain – the first item on our first prospectus was ‘The need for an international copyright convention with the USA’. That international outlook and presence continues and I have just returned from a trip to the USA which gave me lots to think about in relation to authors' contracts, statutory protection and the power of collective action.

    My first stop was The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in Los Angeles. ‘Remarkable Works, Remarkable Times: Highlights from the Huntington Library’, exhibited in one room are some 150 rare objects grouped thematically around 12 key works, including the beautifully illustrated Ellesmere Chaucer, dating back to 1400; a First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s collected plays, published in 1623; and an autographed manuscript of Jack London's White Fang, 1905–06.

    Two texts stood out for me. The first was a Gutenberg Bible on vellum, c.1455. It is frightening and exciting to remember that our current digital revolution is really the first radical change to the way books are produced since the introduction of the printing press. There were winners and losers there too:

    Indeed the first craftsmen to introduce printing in Italy (and in France and Spain) came from Germany. These pioneers were followed by their compatriots to the point where the German presence among printers on the peninsula (especially in Venice) provoked complaints about ‘German interlopers driving honest Italian scribes out of work.

    Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe

    The other was the US Declaration of Independence, Massachusetts broadside, 1776, which owes much to our own Magna Carta which is 800 years old this year - and if you haven't been to see the exhibition at the British Library do try and fit in a visit. 

    Clause 39 of the 1215 Magna Carta states: ‘No free man shall be arrested or imprisoned … or exiled or in any way ruined … except by lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.’ This effectively established the principle of the rule of law, protecting individuals from arbitrary punishment. It was moving to see the original 1776 Declaration text: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ The passage came to represent for many a moral standard towards which the United States should strive. Abraham Lincoln argued that the Declaration is a statement of principles through which the United States Constitution should be interpreted.

    The 1789 constitution also contains the first statement of copyright in US law; Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 empowers the United States Congress ‘To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries’. It followed on from our 1710 Statute of Anne which was the first statute to provide for copyright regulated by the government and courts, rather than by private parties. The preamble to the Statute says:

    Whereas Printers, Booksellers, and other Persons, have of late frequently taken the Liberty of Printing, Reprinting, and Publishing, or causing to be Printed, Reprinted, and Published Books, and other Writings, without the Consent of the Authors or Proprietors of such Books and Writings, to their very great Detriment, and too often to the Ruin of them and their Families: For Preventing therefore such Practices for the future, and for the Encouragement of Learned Men to Compose and Write useful Books […]

    It marked the first time that copyright had been vested primarily in the author, rather than the publisher, and also the first time that the injurious treatment of authors by publishers was recognised; regardless of what authors signed away, the second 14-year term of copyright would automatically return to them. We are pushing for similar rules on limited licences and reversion of rights if they are not being used. The Green Party presumably were inspired by the Statute of Anne when proposing a 14 year copyright term – a position from which they quickly backtracked when pressed by authors and about which I wrote from the USA:

    Our stance is that copyright needs strengthening, not weakening. Authors and other creators make their livelihood from their intellectual creations and 14 years would not allow them to fully benefit from their work. In practice it is likely to mean that after 14 years large corporations would pick up the work and continue to develop, license and exploit it without rewarding the creator. Authors' earnings are already way below the national average and such a proposal would mean that authors could not survive. All political parties should support a strong copyright regime, which supports innovation and provides economic benefits. Copyright protections are currently under threat in the EU and we urge everyone to sign the FEP petition.

    The Authors’ Guild Annual Gala. Left to right: Nicola Solomon, Jan Constantine (Authors Guild), Scott Turow (author), John Degen (Executive Director, The Writers' Union of Canada). Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan

    From California I flew to New York, and the real purpose of my visit: to strengthen links with sister organisations and to work together on issues of importance to authors. On Monday night I went to the glitzy annual Authors Guild benefit dinner and celebration of writers and writing at the Edison Ballroom. At the event the Authors' Guild honoured Joan Didion with its Award for Distinguished Service to the Literary Community and raised money, primarily from publishers and agents, for the Authors Guild Foundation, which promotes the role of copyright and free speech in maintaining a vibrant literary culture, and the Authors League Fund, which provides vital financial support to book authors and dramatists in need. It made me realise that we should ask our publishers and agents to support the SoA's charities such as the Authors' Foundation and the Contingency Fund.

    The next day, I visited the Authors' Guild offices for a board meeting of the International Authors Forum. John Degen had kindly come down from Canada to join us in person and we contacted the rest of our colleagues by conference call. The International Authors Forum (IAF) is a forum for discussion, where authors’ organisations can share information and take action on issues affecting them worldwide. There is currently no other independent, global organisation representing authors’ interests in copyright and contracts, and in many countries authors are not formally represented at all. By creating a strong worldwide network of authors’ organisations, IAF can strengthen the presence of authors, and the effective representation of their rights on a global scale. We are currently looking at authors' contracts worldwide and working to produce a list of demands for minimum contract terms reflecting the best (and shaming the worst) of the examples we see.

    I was amused to see this on Jan Constantine's desk: a commemorative plaque produced at the broking of the Google Settlement. Sadly, the Court refused to endorse it and the litigation continues.

    Commemorative plaque for the broking of the Google Settlement – sadly still unendorsed. Photo credit: Nicola Solomon

    In the evening I took part in a panel discussion on authors' earnings using data from author surveys in three countries: the UK, Canada, and the US.

    Pulitzer Prize-winner T.J. Stiles moderated the event, and described the discussion as an investigation into what happens to ‘disaggregated individuals in a corporate economy’. The disaggregation of authors cuts both ways, Stiles pointed out: it allows authors to retain their independent voices, but at the same time it allows publishers to impose rigid contract terms and to prevent fair negotiations. In the corporate economy, ‘There’s a certain kind of matter that rolls downhill,’ he said. ‘And authors are at the bottom of that hill.’

    International Authors Forum panel. L-R: Nicola Solomon, Barbara Hayes, John Degen, Peter Hildick-Smith. Photo credit: Luis Garcia

    Barbara Hayes and I presented the findings from ALCS’s 2013 survey, ‘What Are Words Worth Now?’, which showed that while in 2005 40% of UK authors earned their income solely from writing by 2013 this had dropped to just 11.5%. In that year, UK authors earned a median income from writing of just £11,000.

    John Degen, the Executive Director of the Writers’ Union of Canada, presented research showing that in Canada, writers’ incomes have decreased 27% since 1998. John attributed part of that decrease to a 2012 law that significantly broadened educational exceptions to copyright and yielded an immediate 27% drop in K-12 book sales.

    The US data came from the Authors Guild's first major member survey since 2009. Though the data hasn’t been fully analysed (final results of the survey will be made public in May), Peter Hildick-Smith, CEO of the Codex Group, presented preliminary results, which showed remarkable correlation with the US and UK results. 49% of US authors assessed their writing income has decreased over the last five years. Respondents’ median writing-related income decreased 24% in that time, to $8,000, while they spent nearly 50% more time marketing themselves and their work. I was so busy speaking I didn’t have a chance to take notes, but the Authors Guild reported the discussion as follows:

    After the data was out on the table, talk turned to solutions. What can you do in your countries, Stiles asked the panelists, to help make writing pay? The consensus, as expressed by Solomon, sounded deceptively simple: stronger copyright protection and better contracts.

    Identifying the root cause of the problem proved more difficult. Stiles sees it as what he terms ‘Digital Luddite Culture’, the increasingly pervasive mindset that seduces consumers into believing creative work in digital form has no value. Hildick-Smith provided a complementary response, pointing to a major decline in bookstore shelf space that has diminished the discoverability of midlist books and authors.

    But the news isn’t all doom-and-gloom, Solomon suggested. When it comes to authors’ negotiating power with publishers, ‘for the first time in history,’ she said, ‘writers have a choice’ whether to publish with an established house or to release their work on their own.

    Nonetheless, the facts underscore a harsh marketplace reality: if writing doesn’t pay, there will be less quality writing. Stiles summed it up neatly: ‘Books won’t fare so well without us.’

    Before I went home I couldn’t resist a visit to the Strand Book Store, ‘New York City's legendary home of 18 miles of new, used and rare books’. It was totally wonderful and even at the risk of overweight luggage I couldn't resist buying some US gems to take home, including Roxana Robinson's Sparta. Roxana is President of the Authors' Guild and is currently paying a reciprocal visit to the UK.

    I walked past, but sadly not into, the Schwarzman building, the largest of The New York Public Library's research libraries. The pavements of the two blocks of East 41st Street that lead to the building are inset with bronze plaques containing literary quotations. I particularly liked one from a letter by Thomas Jefferson: ‘Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe’. The mission of The New York Public Library is to ‘inspire lifelong learning, advance knowledge, and strengthen our communities’, so it is depressing to learn that over the past decade, city funding for public libraries has been slashed by nearly 20% and library staff have been reduced by over one thousand workers. If you go onto the NYPL library website the first item that flashes up is a petition to save the libraries - maybe our library websites should do the same?

    On the plane home I watched Pride and Selma: two very different films, from either side of the Atlantic, that both remind us how much difference ordinary people can make if they band together for a common cause.

    (c) Nicola Solomon 2015 

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