Are professional writers an endangered species? Philip Pullman says yes.

A number of recent studies suggest authors are struggling financially.

Random House
Pullman, in a campaign with the UK trade union, Society of Authors, is calling on publishers to pay fairer wages to authors.

Professional writers may soon become an endangered species.

That's according to Philip Pullman – the bestselling British author most noted for the "His Dark Materials" trilogy – who, in a campaign with the UK trade union, Society of Authors, is calling on publishers to pay fairer wages to authors.

“Without serious contract reform, the professional author will become an endangered species and publishers – as well as society at large – will be left with less and less quality content,” reads an open letter published Tuesday from the Society of Authors to UK's publishers.

"Authors remain the only essential part of the creation of a book and it is in everyone’s interests to ensure they can make a living," the letter continues, adding that “unfair contract terms, including reduced royalty rates, are a major part of the problem.”

A number of recent studies suggest authors are struggling.

Nearly a third of published authors make less than $500 per year from their writing, according to a survey from Digital Book World. The survey found that traditionally published authors have a median annual income of $3,000 to $4,999, and independent writers a median of $500 to $999.

Another study carried out in the UK found that the median income of a professional writer there is $16,000, well below minimum wage.

And a study by the Society of Authors revealed that record numbers of struggling authors applied for emergency financial assistance in 2015, with the number of applicants more than doubling between 2010 and 2015.

In its letter, the Society of Authors asked publishers to give authors 50 percent of e-book revenue, rather than the customary 25 percent. It also asked for revised contract conditions regarding indemnity and non-compete and option clauses, and said publishers should not discriminate against writers "who don't have powerful agents."

“From our positions as individual creators, whether of fiction or non-fiction, we authors see a landscape occupied by several large interests, some of them gathering profits in the billions, some of them displaying a questionable attitude to paying tax, some of them colonising the internet with projects whose reach is limitless and whose attitude to creators’ rights is roughly that of the steamroller to the ant,” said Mr. Pullman, who is currently president of the Society of Authors.

“It’s a daunting landscape, far more savage and hostile to the author than any we’ve seen before. But one thing hasn’t changed, which is the ignored, unacknowledged, but complete dependence of those great interests on us and on our talents and on the work we do in the quiet of our solitude. They have enormous financial and political power, but no creative power whatsoever. Whether we’re poets, historians, writers of cookery books, novelists, travel writers, that comes from us alone. We originate the material they exploit.”

“We don’t want these great powers to disappear altogether," he continued. "The things they do are often things that need doing. Books are physical objects that need to be manufactured and transported and sold, or digital entities that need to be formatted and made available online. Sometimes there are things we wish they would do a little more of: editorial standards are not what they were. All those things are necessary and should be rewarded – but rewarded fairly. So is our work, and so should we."

Richard Mollet, chief executive of the Publishers Association, responded to the Society's demands. 

While "publishers share the frustration of the author community that it is increasingly difficult for authors to make a decent living from their writing”, they “locate the principal source of this problem not in the contractual relations between publisher and author but in deeper market factors," he told the UK's Guardian.

“With margins being squeezed across the whole supply chain, books are facing increasingly stiff competition from other media and entertainment sectors for consumers’ time, and there simply being more writers … the reasons for the decline in average author income are wide and varied,” said Mr. Mollet. “We look forward to continuing our discussions on these policy issues with the SoA and other author representative groups.”

Pullman's campaign is part of an international call to action from authors’ groups across the globe, asking publishers to review their contract terms and treatment of authors.

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