Opportunities for authors and their ilk

The Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) recently published details of research into authors’ earnings. The study was conducted by the CREATe Centre at the University of Glasgow which found that the future of writing as a profession is under threat. But authoring isn’t under threat any more today than it ever was. People will always want to read and writers, whose imagination is their trade, are very good at reinvention. The ALCS figures, particularly the reduction in fulltime authors’ median earnings from £12,330 in 2006 to £7,000 in 2022, are alarming. But they do not tell a complete story.

Rapidly evolving digital technology has provided an environment for new commercial models within publishing. Technology has spawned a world of new opportunities throughout authors’ supply chains, primarily in online services and tools to support writers. Unfortunately this has helped to drive down average earnings.

The online publishing eco-system is a dynamic adjunct to the traditional publishing industry. It is one that publishers readily exploit without much investment. Hordes of online service providers from authors and copy writers to reviewers, filter and sift new talent at their own risk and to the benefit of publishers. These new players offer fee-based publishing opportunities and fee-based prizes in every imaginable category. New writers can today self-publish without much difficulty, because the technology and the people are there to grease the wheels. These business models did not exist in the same abundance in 2006.

There is a mutual dependency between the digital environment and those who inhabit it. And this is where publishers feed, either directly or via the agent community. That they can exploit the vanity of potential authors is a given. We are all keen for the attention of a commercial publishing contract that might take our careers in a new direction. And today there are so many more of us offering raw material: supply outstrips demand.

The online eco-system hosts all manner of writerly services from software and online courses, to review sites, editorial services, printing and publishing services, marketing, blog tours and publicity. The enormity of this opportunistic system, enhanced and amplified with a host of social media channels, means that anyone who fancies their chances as an author can present themselves as such. Authors are the raw material, rather than their work. Those who are good at the online gig (and patient enough to get good at it) are rewarded by traditional publishing in the end. Top selling titles based on blogging and websites with huge followings are massive successes. Publishers put money into these writers, knowing that their risk is mitigated.

The fall in authors’ average earnings between 2006 and 2022 reflects the brutal facts of supply and demand. Today’s economic landscape is much less favourable, as the ALCS data shows. There are so many more active authors and agents in our industry now and most will work for much less money than was likely in 2006. Back then there were far fewer writers actively pursuing success, and publishers were far hungrier.

Mainstream publishers today can and do focus on what are likely to be successful products, usually from credentialled writers. Mostly publishers are very good at doing this, as the astonishing turnover and profit figures confirm. The writer’s profession is about opportunity and yes luck. But luck has nothing to do with the inclination of mainstream publishers to turn away from reduced risk investments. That is never going to happen. Luck plays a part at all points in the publishing supply chain, from the writing and commercial attractions of a work, through to whether or not the paper costs for printing it on is within budget. The reliability or not of ‘luck’ is precisely what makes it luck. And there is nothing lucky in the success of top selling titles. They succeed because publishers put the money behind them to make sure that they succeed. As with celebrity tomes, the publishers of work that started life as a high profile blog already have a defined market.

Earning a living as an author has never been easy. Oscar Wilde wrote in a letter to one Mr Morgan that ‘the best work in literature is always done by those who do not depend upon it for their daily bread’. That was in 1885 and today’s publishing economics keep it that way.

The relationship between authors and publishers is changed. Publishers no longer want to recognise that support for authors is their responsibility. And why should it be when raw materials for new products are so readily available, the risk so much less and the profits so much more? The traditional contract between authors and publishers is broken. Authors need a new more compelling and sustainable model, one that authors themselves should dictate. This ought to mean opportunities for ambitious publishers keen to disrupt and reinvent their industry. Let’s hope it does.

Hilary Mantel at the Royal Festival Hall

On the 6th March, 2020 Alex Clark, a journalist and broadcaster, interviewed Hilary Mantel live on stage at the Royal Festival Hall. The two discussed Mantel’s the Mirror & the Light, the final part of her Cromwell trilogy that began with Wolf Hall. The conversation held an audience of some 1500 people absolutely spellbound.

The event began with two actors each reading from Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies to get the audience in the mood and to set the scene for the new book and the conversation’s context. As Mantel explained, for most of history Cromwell has been labelled a “bad man” and been viewed as such. Yet, as her books try to show and as she offered on stage, he was a man constantly climbing, looking always for the next opportunity for advancement, for ways to influence circumstances, and not always serving his own ambitions or those of his King. When Cromwell reaches the top of his ladder he’s reaching closer to God, drawn away into realms that his faith determines and of which he is unafraid. His tempting of fate is almost deliberate, logical.

Mantel said that after the success of the Wolf Hall trilogy she hoped that history would judge Thomas Cromwell differently. Perhaps opinions will move away from the “bad man” conclusions and towards more balanced thinking reflecting the man’s many achievements. She reminded her audience Thomas Cromwell was “a European … [engaged in] outreach to Europe” to strengthen trade, reduce risks of conflict, and religious fracturing. And he managed to do all three during the course of his life, despite the considerable personal risks involved. For instance, he was responsible for major reforms to how England was governed, reformed Parliament and drove improvements to the Poor Laws of the time.

The amazing Hilary Mantell (backstage?) © George Miles

It was a magical couple of hours at the Royal Festival Hall. We learnt that Mantel’s working day starts at 09:00 and ends “when my husband collects me from my writing place at seven o’clock”. We learned that the title of the final part of the trilogy refers to its mirroring of what went on in Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, and the illumination of how Cromwell’s inevitable downfall came about.

And there was much more besides, particularly insights into Mantel’s process and approach to writing and the origins of the Cromwell trilogy. The idea came to her quite some time before she started working on Wolf Hall because “sometimes you have an idea, [but] that’s not the time to carry it through”. She also said that “there’s always a prospect that a project goes stale on you”. Fortunately that didn’t happen with Thomas Cromwell, a character with whom Hilary Mantel has spent over fifteen years. She advised writers to “make sure you have a robust character on your side, if you’re going to have to hang out with them this long.”

Somewhat self-deprecating, Mantel also said that historical fiction is her preferred genre because “I have no idea how to make a plot, but history will do it for me”. Mantel works by creating the fiction equivalent of a collage, creating multiple parts and pieces that she brings together into a cohesive narrative. If she gets stuck, she just ploughs on with something else, anything because it is all part of the writing process: “it’s a question of doing it… because that’s the job, it’s showing up at the desk … even you just pass this process, if you don’t write you enter a downward process of self-disgust.” Mantel reminded her audience that “your wastepaper basket is your friend, you can always write something”.

And best of all, following the conversation, Mantel read a passage from the Mirror & the Light that took many peoples’ breath away, including mine. It’s towards the end of the novel and Cromwell is contemplating his life and its impending ending. Thinking of the dead, Cromwell sees that “They are distilled into a spark, into an instant. There is air between their ribs, their flesh is honeycombed with light, and the marrow of their bones is molten with God’s grace.” If you’re planning to read this book but aren’t sure you’ll have the stamina to make it all the way through to page 904 go straight to page 866, where you will find this lovely passage. It and the following paragraphs might even inspire you to go back and plough through the preceding 865 pages, just to get the full force of these beautiful sentences. As Thomas Cromwell says somewhere, “endings, they’re all beginnings”.

Make no mistake this book is a challenge, because of its huge scope and the complexities involved in herding us along with Cromwell and the army of other characters as Cromwell’s end draws nigh. During the conversation at the Royal Festival Hall Mantel urged readers to take their time reading the Mirror and the Light because “you’re not reviewers, you don’t have to rush; you will not be paid to read it in 48 hours”. 48 days will be more like it.

However long it takes, many of us will feel bereft when they finally reach that last page and have to face the end of our intimate time with Thomas Cromwell sharing his world. It will be an awful moment, reading the final few sentences. But we can console ourselves with the thought that there will most certainly be another play and another television miniseries. As part of Cromwell’s growing body of admirers we can also console ourselves with the knowledge that Hilary Mantel has changed how he will be judged, and indeed how we judge history from now on.