Since Mary Rasenberger took over as executive director of the Authors Guild last November, the writers’ group has undertaken two significant projects: its Fair Contract Initiative and the first survey of guild membership in six years. Both efforts, Rasenberger said, are designed to help the organization better represent the interests of its 9,000 members, not just with publishers, but with government officials and other groups that can affect the livelihood of all authors.
The membership study, released last week, found that the median income for Authors Guild members dropped from $10,500 in 2009 to $8,000 in 2014, a decline of 24%. The decline came for both full-time and part-time authors, with full-time authors reporting a 30% drop in income, to $17,500, and part-time authors seeing a 38% decrease, to $4,500. The report, Rasenberger said, is a clear indication that “authors are struggling to make a living.”
In an interview with Rasenberger and guild general counsel Jan Constantine earlier this summer, Rasenberger said the contract initiative and membership survey were done after feedback from members indicated that advocating for authors’ rights was a top priority. “We want to be more proactive in speaking up for authors,” Rasenberger said, adding that the survey provides documentation about the economic challenges authors have faced since the advent of e-books.
One factor behind the drop in author income, the guild has argued, has been publishers’ insistence on paying only 25% royalties on e-book sales, and according to Rasenberger, the survey results prove the link behind the low e-book royalty and the drop in author income. The need to raise the e-book royalty rate above 25% was the first issue discussed in the Fair Contract Initiative, which is a series of written commentaries examining what changes need to be made to the standard publishing contract. “It is time to rethink contracts,” Constantine said. “The standard contract was written for a different world.”
Other factors that have led to the reduction in authors’ income since the digital transformation that began in 2009 include the rise in piracy. The guild would like to see to publishers take a more active stance in preventing piracy and for Congress to realize that copyright rules need to be updated, and enforced, on the Internet, Rasenberger said. In addition to low e-book royalties and sales lost to piracy, other factors such as publisher consolidation, the continuing rise of Amazon’s power, and the decline in physical bookstores have all “made the business of authorship both more diverse and less profitable than it was six years ago,” she noted.
The membership survey also highlighted some other industry trends that have affected the guild. Of the authors who responded to the survey, 33% have self-published a book, although only 4% said they have self-published exclusively. This suggests to Rasenberger that more of its members are taking a hybrid approach to publishing, self-publishing projects that traditional publishers have passed on but still publishing their other manuscripts traditionally. To embrace self-published and hybrid authors, three years ago the guild began accepting self-published authors that earn at least $5,000 annually from their writing, which includes income from books, magazines, blogs, and other sources.
The survey also found an aging membership base: 89% of the authors who participated in the survey are over 50. The guild is upping its efforts to reach younger authors, and, to that end, is sponsoring two panels at next year’s AWP conference in Los Angeles. It has other events planned for Boston; Chicago; Minneapolis; New Orleans; Portland, Ore.; San Francisco; and Washington, D.C. The guild’s website has also recently been redesigned with the goal of providing more of a sense of community for members, with new features such as a forum. Constantine observed that most authors join the organization for legal services, such as contract reviews, and that these will stay intact. To cover its costs, the guild recently raised its annual dues to $125, after keeping them at $90 for 25 years.
Rasenberger knows that it may take time for the issues raised by the Fair Contract Initiative and membership survey to resonate with publishers, but she said it is important that the organization raise the topics and hopes that they will open a dialogue. The guild plans to set up meetings with the major houses, though nothing has been agreed to yet. “All we are asking is for authors to be treated fairly,” she said.