Authors Guild Pushes for Book Contract Reform

Authors guild book publishing contracts digitalThe Authors Guild launched a “Fair Contract Initiative” yesterday designed to rethink what the organization sees as inequitable agreements between authors and publishers in the digital age.

Through a series of “commentaries” it will publish on its website, the Authors Guild wants to arm authors with information about key terms over which to haggle with publishers.

According Mary Rasenberger, Executive Director of the Authors Guild, the program is designed to “open up a conversation” about a “publishing agreement [that] dates back a hundred years.”

She adds, “Why are we stuck in this old worldview?”

To help modernize it, the Fair Contract Initiative takes a two-step approach. The program will “first address the major inequities in many boilerplate contract terms today, and then move on to educate authors on the standard contract terms that publishers often will change if pressed, but which too many authors don’t know to negotiate,” according to the project’s mission statement.

In an interview with Digital Book World at BookExpo America yesterday, Rasenberger argued that authors have increasingly found themselves faced with certain contract “clauses that have become even more draconian in recent years.” But the organization has often found that if authors know enough to “push back, there are certain clauses that the big houses are willing to say, ‘Okay.'”

In preliminary findings from a recent study of its members, the Authors Guild discovered that the amount authors earn from their writing dropped 24% over the past five years, with veteran writers taking the biggest hit.

“Authors are earning less, but publishers are making as much money as they used to,” Rasenberger said. That “authors are getting less of the share” the Authors Guild attributes, based on its survey results, to a combination of low digital royalties relative to print, shrinking advances and the pressure of Amazon’s market share on publishers.

Dissatisfied Authors Aplenty

If the author-publisher partnership has indeed broken down, as the Authors Guild contends, its fraying has been detectable for some time.

In 2014, a survey conducted by Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest found that while many authors slightly preferred traditional publishing arrangements to indie options, there was an apparent gap between authors’ expectations and their actual outcomes, leading to high rates of dissatisfaction with publishers on a range of issues.

The comparatively narrower gap a follow-up survey in 2015 detected was more likely the result of authors having revised those expectations than of any major fence-mending on publishers’ parts.

Indeed, Dana Beth Weinberg, who conducted both studies and authored the reports based on them, concluded that neither traditional nor indie options “could declare a clear victory” when it came to questions relating to authors’ satisfaction. A separate study this year, by Jane Friedman and Harry Bingham, also found high rates of dissatisfaction among both U.S. and UK authors on a host of other issues, from communication to editorial input.

Will Publishers Listen?

The Fair Contract Initiative represents a largely unilateral push for reform, and Rasenberger concedes that a few solitary authors who are better empowered to negotiate is unlikely to lead to meaningful change industry-wide.

But the Authors Guild wants to generate what Rasenberger called a “groundswell” of support for fairer terms among authors and the agents representing them that is too powerful for publishers to ignore.

There are already calls within the industry for publishers to conceive of authors as customers and treat them accordingly, but so far they seem to lack the force and urgency the Authors Guild believes the issue deserves.

At the Digital Book 2015 conference at BookExpo America this week, Bloomsbury’s Executive Director Richard Charkin set himself apart from publishers calling for a renewed focus on readers. “The next few years will be about looking after our authors,” Charkin said, since they, too, are acquiring more power in the publishing ecosystem.

If other the publishers in attendance agreed with that sentiment, none ventured to say so.

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