Event report

Conference 2010:  Bigger than Gutenberg.

Report published 08 August 2010

Author, historian and Chairman of the Society of Authors, Tom Holland started by sketching out what the Society of Authors does. Founded in 1884 by Alfred Lord Tennyson to “maintain friendly relations between authors and publishers by proper agreement”, it now has 8,500 members.

Today the task of the SoA remains what it was; to help authors in their business affairs, lobby on issues affecting authors, e.g. the recent CRB check debate led by Philip Pullman, advise on publishing deals, help chase overdue royalties, assist in libel cases and plagiarism claims, deal with troublesome publishers, and assist when authors want to change agents/publishers, etc.

Tom Holland feels strongly that the SoA offers real value for money. Membership costs £90 per annum, and they employ a helpful body of staff, offer exciting perks to authors, e.g. discounts in book shops, and publish a quarterly journal, The Author.

Until comparatively recently, apart from WH Smith, the high street included a large number of small, independent bookshops, booksellers allowed a 35% discount, no quibble, and the Net Book Agreement was still in place. The system enabled authors to find publishers who would nurture their careers, which led to author loyalty.

This was destined to change. Chain booksellers emerged, discounts increased rapidly, the NBA was abandoned, and supermarkets started selling books (books became the new “potatoes”) -  authors’ royalties became squeezed. Today’s conglomerate publishers are more run by money men and marketing departments, a lot of money goes to celebrities which creates problems for mid-list authors. Life for authors is tough and will get tougher, e.g. spending cuts, tax rises, change of pace in technology.

He then went on to pose a number of questions regarding the publishing industry today:

Does high street bookselling have a future?
Although prospects aren’t promising (e.g. Borders closing), the presence of bookshops says something about the significance of books in our culture. Also, they search out/promote new writers.

What about e-books?
The e-book market is growing fast, but the sale of traditional books will remain reasonably robust. Authors must ensure that they get a fair deal on e-books.

Should publishers or authors control e-book rights?
Publishers insist on controlling this. SoA think this reasonable as long as royalties are fair (i.e. higher than 25%). If not, big authors (e.g. JK Rowling, Dan Brown) will get their own way resulting in less money for publishers and less money for authors. We need to think as an industry.

How can material be made available while ensuring that authors are compensated?
Most famous case is the Google settlement; out-of-print material will be available online but authors have to let Google know if they don’t want this. Digitalisation is changing the rules, authors have to compromise.

Written by Henriette Gyland

It's a fact

When David Szelnick bought the rights to Margaret Mitchell’s 'Gone With the Wind', only six months after its 1936 publication, the whole world cast Clark Gable as Rhett Butler before the ink was dry on the contract.