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.