Record profits in Big 5 fails to provide a living wage
Since the pandemic first began, authors and publishing employees have broken the silence and begun to speak up against income disparity within the industry. While these discussions have shed light on the wage gap between marginalized and non-marginalized authors, demands for a living wage have fallen on deaf ears. Resignations en masse from publishing houses have occurred in increasing numbers, all while “record sales and earnings” are reported from the companies they work for. Behind closed doors, baseline publishing employees are struggling to keep up with a demanding schedule that allows for minimal breaks or time off, while lacking enough hands on deck to accomplish their tasks efficiently. Despite their financial successes, these same publishers are bending over backwards to corner author’s into contracts that withhold their earnings, leaving them unable to support themselves.
For those unfamiliar with the ins and outs of traditional publication, authors receive their income in two ways: advance payouts and royalties. Advance payouts are given to authors by publishers as an investment for their book. Through this advance, authors are expected to be able to support themselves while they complete the book. Generally, the advance is broken up and spread out, and the amount and payment schedule are negotiable. In years prior to the pandemic, advance payouts were by and large divided up into halves or third: the first upon contract signing, the second upon acceptance of the final manuscript, and the third upon release day. How much you get for your advance varies. Ideally, publishers are meant to weigh factors, including the quality of writing, the concept, whether you will be able to engage and gain traction for your book, etc. In a sense, an advance payout is a loan from the publisher, in hopes that your book will make that investment back.
Once your book has been released for sale to the general public, your advance should be fully paid, and now your royalty gains period begins. Royalties are what you financially earn once your book begins to sell copies. A percentage of each sale is then split between the author and the publisher. As your book sells, these royalties will go towards paying off the advance the publisher gave you. Authors in traditional publishing are not paid in royalties until they earn out on their advance. Until you pay off that publisher loan, your book profits go only to the house. The only upside is that you are not required to pay back the advanced payout immediately, should your book sales never surpass the payout. In some cases, rates of royalties are negotiable, but most large presses have a locked in percentage. There are two styles of royalties that publishers can use. The first is based on the retail price of your book; 10-15% for Hardcovers and 5-7.5% for Trade Paperback. The second is based on net sales, given off a percentage of what is received. However, different retailers will price your book in their own ways, which can affect the earnings, even with higher percentage rates (16-26%).
Authors have taken to discussing their advance payouts and royalty schedules to highlight the difficulty in trying to make ends meet, while waiting for the payments of one book and the slow tick of royalties to appear in their bank accounts. This issue has become further compounded as publishing houses avoid paying their authors what they’re owed with worsening contracts. Payouts and royalties have the potential to empower an author to dedicate their full time to their craft. But the pandemic has changed many factors in the writing world. Supply chain issues leak into the ability to print books, but what about an author’s pay? When the world slowed down for quarantine and safeguard, many if not all companies endeavored to cut corners. Publishing houses pushed for advance payout delays, or adding extra pay slots, increasing the previous three payment system to four and even five payouts. This not only prolongs the distribution of the money an author is expected to live off, but it also makes the dividends they receive smaller than ever before. In response, authors have taken to Twitter to discuss this new breakdown of advance payouts. Xiran Jay Zhao offered a grim view at what their payouts have been for their novel Iron Widow over the course of the last two years since receiving their book deal. Zhao emphasized that they had to start writing another series immediately to be able to support themselves.
The end result is a pay format that pushes out marginalized writers. It turns publishing into an industry that punishes those less privileged voices that want to tell their stories, but struggle to survive off the minimal wages they are offered. Authors without generational wealth, or a career that can support writing as a quaint side job, cannot “make it” as a writer in these conditions. This has been highlighted by BIPOC creators taking a stand and demanding transparency from publishing houses. #PublishingPaidMe is one such stand, wherein Black authors took to Twitter to ask authors to share their advances. The results showed a depth of disparity that was already known to many, proven at long last in a stark spreadsheet: BIPOC authors are paid less than their white counterparts, in some cases ten times less. Recent changes to advance payouts now force BIPOC authors to spread paltry advances even thinner.
In spite of the pandemic and its ripple effects, it seems the publishing industry has suffered little financial loss as a whole. Print books experienced a drop in sales in 2020, yet were met with a hike in digital sales. The trend has swapped back towards an increase in print sales, which has led to publishing houses posting record breaking profits throughout the worst of the pandemic. With steady growth, why then does it seem that publishing employees and author’s are unable to be paid? In a 2018 survey from The Author’s Guild, author incomes were down 42% since 2009. Junior Big 5 employees work tirelessly to gain recognition for their work, only to be told that they require more experience, in some cases an additional decade (even with a book on NYT bestseller list). A recent survey by the Bookseller proved this problem is not limited to the US; the very same outcries of untenable wages and impossible hours were reported within UK-based publishers. Sales and profits margins have increased–how are publishing companies then planning to compensate those who made this possible?
In 2018, the chief executive of UK’s Society of Authors penned a commentary challenging publisher’s to be transparent of how much of their money goes towards authors, illustrators, and translators. In 2020, the tag #PublishingPaidMe circulated with a similar demand for transparency from publishers. Enter 2022, authors and employees are struggling more so than ever before as one burns out the other; authors are working to meet poor income conditions the only way they know how–putting out more books. But this model increases the already demanding workload of underpaid and understaffed publishing house employees. It is not a model that can sustain itself for long, but one doomed to fail if left to continue. What then are publishing companies doing to stimulate the industry, to promote growth and address these issues before they become catastrophic?
To date, Big 5 publishers such as Macmillan have declined to comment.