As the ghosts and ghouls and trick’n’treaters were spilling out onto the Oxford streets for a ghostly-cold night, I returned (after a short trip into Oxford to find a birthday present for my mum) I returned to OUP and met up with Rachel from band to go tonight’s Society of Young Publishers Speaker Meeting. Tonight’s discussion…

Whose Book Is It Anyway?

Why are writers poor? Statistically, most writers earn under £10,000 a year, but the reality for most is earning less than £5000. Who is to blame? Linda Proud worked in publishing for many years before starting a publishing company with her husband in 2003. While working for a living, she has written eight books, both fiction and non-fiction. Despite a couple of bestsellers, she’s never earned enough by writing to feed her cat. With her experience in the industry, she thinks she knows who to blame for having to keep the day job. And it’s not the publisher.

From the outset, Linda Proud declared that this was her personal viewpoint, from having worked in publishing, from being a writer, and for being a publisher herself. She was a slightly odd lady, but then, aren’t all writer’s a bit ‘odd’? I know I am.

As to the central question as to why authors are poor (75% earn pin-money, 24% take home the wage of a teacher, and 1% are a JK Rowling) and always will be she cited three main reasons:

  • Authors themselves have an idea that they want to be published at any cost. So they are willing to sign just about any contract no matter how little money they will derive from it
  • The end of the Net Book Agreement (NBA) just over a decade a go, and the crazy discounting that has followed.
  • The public perception that reading is free and books, cheap.

It’s not, she thinks the booksellers fault because they have a hard time of it with rents and balancing the books, and its not the publisher’s fault because they are just working within the business they are in. Here, I would differ, in that I think there is a vicious circle in play between the two of them. Bookshops discount heavily because books are expensive, but books have to be expensive because of the high discounts.

Rather, it seems (to Linda Proud) that customers have a value system that does not rate books, and that reading is somehow dead time. There are exceptions of course, but by large she’s right. On TV Style programmes, how often do you see designers build in space for books, and how often to hear of people actively making time to watch television but not building in time to read – reading, if done at all – is something that is done in snatched moments whilst waiting for the bus, or a page before bed.

The public’s perception is also that reading in free, and this goes a long way back. The Public Library is a great and treasured institution but it is also ‘uniquely free’. People expect to be able to borrow books for free, and to lend them to one another, or download them off the internet. You wouldn’t expect to rent dvds or go to the theatre for free would you?