World Book Day and the Plight of Authors in a Corporate Jungle

It's World Book Day today, when we're supposed to celebrate our favourite authors and the wonderful world of Books which, without authors would not exist.  Books are still very profitable for publishing houses and for a handful of celebrity authors.  As in ordinary life since the Great Crash of 2008, money has percolated upwards, enriching the top 1% at the expense of the other 99%.  Once upon a time, a portion of the income from best-sellers went to promote and develop authors further down the list who one day might become best-sellers.  Authors in the middle of the book-list were welcomed so long as they broke even - readers liked them and they kept a big slice of the reading public loyal to The Book.

But then publishing went corporate.  It wasn't about books any more, it was about the Bottom Line and keeping shareholders happy.  Big publishers bought up small publishers and there was blood on the floor throughout the industry, for editors as well as authors.

Mid-list authors were the first to be evicted in the transformation of the industry.  Slow burners which have, in the past, turned into publishing sensations, were out too. Catherine Cookson didn't get anywhere near it until her tenth book.  Imagine that today!  The culling of authors didn't get a lot of publicity.

Tracy Chevalier, President of the author's charity The Royal Literary Fund, describes the current plight of the typical author "who had some success in the 1990s":

 "She could live reasonably on advances and royalties from her growing backlist - not setting the literary world alight, perhaps, but solid. By 2010 however, her sales have dropped. She is not new or a celebrity, and doesn't produce the sexy hit her publishers crave. One day her agent tells her that they are not buying her next book. He finds her a smaller publisher, who pays a tiny advance and doesn't put a marketing budget behind the book, which sells poorly. That publisher doesn't offer another contract. Her agent drops her, regretfully. She gets her backlist back and self-publishes it on Amazon as ebooks. That helps, but not enough. She is too old to change careers entirely. The mortgage looms. Her income dips below her expenditure . . . . "

Tracy Chevalier probably doesn't have to worry!
This situation affects not just mid-list authors, but big literary prize-winners (including Hanif Kureishi). The Guardian tells the story of  one of them.

"Rupert Thomson is the author of nine novels, including The Insult (1996 Guardian Fiction Prize), which David Bowie chose for one of his 100 must-read books of all time, and Death of a Murderer, shortlisted for the Costa Novel of the Year awards in 2007. His most recent novel, Secrecy, was hailed as "chillingly brilliant" (Financial Times) and "bewitching" (Daily Mail). According to the Independent, "No one else writes quite like this in Britain today." Thomson has also been compared to JG Ballard, Elmore Leonard, Mervyn Peake and even Kafka. In short, he's an established and successful writer with an impressive body of work to his name."

His sixth novel was made into a film and his memoir won the Writers' Guild Prize for non-fiction. But he is one of the authors now over sixty and afraid for the future. "I don't buy anything. No clothes, no luxuries, nothing. I have no private income, no rich wife, no inheritance, no pension. I have nothing to look forward to. There's no safety net at all." 

Rupert Thomson - 'nothing to look forward to'. 

It seems we are returning to the insecurities of the 18th and 19th centuries when it was said of writers "They knew luxury, and they knew beggary, but they never knew comfort."  As one author who has been from bust to boom to bust, I can say that that is absolutely true.  There is no security at all, for even the biggest best-selling authors.  For anyone who wants to read my own story of betrayal and back-stabbing in the world of corporate publishing (the Catherine Cookson story), please click here.

I'm often asked for advice by new writers, or those who are writing, but have yet to publish.  My best advice?  Don't give up the day job!  One of the big ironies is that the day job for a writer is often tutoring creative writing at a university or college - encouraging others to compete with them in an increasingly crowded environment.  One poet I know told me, after a few glasses of wine, that they were very proud of the number of budding writers they'd deterred from the profession. I was shocked at the time and disapproving.  But now, I wonder if he was, in fact, doing them a kindness.  The book business has become a ruthless business.


If you're an author in difficulties, have you thought of making an application to the Royal Literary Fund? 


  1. I wish this wasn't true, Kathleen, but it is. I have friends whose novels won awards and now can't get published because the imprints would rather have books by celebrities. The irony is that these celebrities often don't even write the books - they need a ghostwriter who knows the craft. And this then adds another level of entropy in the system - creating the idea that anyoldperson can write a good book. Meanwhile the real writers drown.
    I hadn't read any Rupert Thomson, but I've just been to Amazon and ordered some of his books. So thank you for the recommendation.

    1. Right on, Roz! I would dearly love to see a book actually written by a celebrity without benefit of a ghostwriter. Of course, memoirs, which seem to be what celebrities usually "write", are far easier to write than fiction. There is no need to create a plot, develop characters, or use one's imagination in crafting a story. Nevertheless, I would venture to bet that most celebs would give up on actually finishing a book if they had to do it themselves. It is a much more difficult task than most people realize.

  2. This is true in every profession. Whether in IT, science, academia, or elsewhere, most people are being squeezed out.

  3. This is so depressingly true. Wish I could see it getting better, but not in the short term.

  4. So sad, but so true. Once books became a commodity it was all downhill. How do you see independent publishing playing out in all this, Kathleen?


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