Friday, October 19, 2007

Australian Publishing: Don't forget the authors

Australian publishing industry exports have increased markedly in the past few years. In 2003-4, the export of Australian books, titles and rights was worth more than $195 million.
This fact alone makes the publishing industry Australia's leading creative industry. But, like almost all creative industries, it is the creators themselves who are least likely to benefit from the success of the industry.
Some Australian authors certainly do well, but publishers do better. It is important for authors that publishers makes profits so they can pay royalties, but surely it ought to be as important to publishers to ensure authors share in their success.
Apparently not.
Publishers like to place clauses in their contract that reduce royalties for reprints of 1000 copies or less, even though they will have made back their investment on the first print run. Another trick is to reduce royalties rates for other than the initial version of the work, say a mas-market edition, again flying in the face of publishing economics in that further editions maximise the earning for the publisher. That's the way publishing works, after all. And I say that with over 30 years experience in the Australian publishing industry as a publisher.
In the success of the Australian publishing industry, there seems to be some darkness for authors.
But we have to remember our past and learn from it and seek opportunities where we can.
The years 1940 and 1941 were dark indeed for Australia. Japanese forces moved steadily southwards, Darwin was bombed, the Brisbane line was drawn.
But in this darkness a benefit emerged for Australian writers. The Australian government, needing to maintain capital reserves, imposed an embargo on American imports, including books and paper. Suddenly, Australian writers were being sought to produce detective fiction, Westerns and other novelettes published to meet public demand. Writers no longer had to hawk their wares to London publishers. One of the writers who found his detective books being published locally was Alan Yates (“Carter Brown”), who later became a member of the ASA’s Committee of Management at its second meeting in September 1963.
Jon Cleary, who is still an ASA member, began to be published in Australia in the early forties, along with other early ASA members such as Morris West. The restrictions on imported books remained until 1959. A book bounty was introduced in 1969 to encourage printing in Australia, but by that time a pattern of reading Australian writers had been established.
Still, Australians’ literary diet today is spiced with writers in English from India, Canada, the UK, the US, and occasionally New Zealand, as well as Australia. Unfortunately, that means the competition for Australian writers in their own market is actually greater than that for American writers in theirs.
Australian writers are further disadvantaged by the fact that most of the 20 largest book publishers in Australia are divisions of multinational corporations whose accountants are based in New York, Paris, London or Berlin. The corporate eye is on return on investment, not, as in the days of Brian Johns at Penguin, the development of a thriving Australian publishing industry. A new author now is required to be instantly successful, able to sell the same number of books as an author who has crafted a reputation over a significant period of time. Authors whose books fail to meet these sales expectations are brutally dispensed with.
But sometimes we can spend too much time lamenting what’s wrong, and miss opportunities to improve our situation. Again, we can turn to history for guidance.
In 1905, the United States was in a similar situation to that which it is in today in that it had a Republican President (Theodore Roosevelt) who intervened in foreign countries (Panama) for American benefit.
Australia was quietly developing its newly won nationhood. Secure within their newly-federated island country, the citizens throughout Australia were placing plaques in churches and town halls to commemorate those who had served in the Boer Wars. Ten years later, the same people were counting more war dead, a count that would continue until late in 1918. Hugo (Jim) Throssell, husband of Katharine Susannah Prichard (a member of the ASA from 1964), was one of the lucky survivors of World War I, but survival did not ensure happiness. In 1933, he took his own life while his wife was travelling overseas.
Well before this, towards the end of 1905, Miles Franklin began planning a trip to London, of two minds about the success of My Brilliant Career. It had sold well, but most royalties were on “colonial sales” (copies sold in Australia) and earned only half the rate of those sold in the UK.
Nearly 60 years later, colonial rates was one of the issues that led to the formation of the ASA in 1963. The first Australian writer to have this anachronism removed from her contracts was Dymphna Cusack, an inaugural member of the Council of the ASA. The first issue of Broadside, the ASA’s first newsletter, reported that at least six British publishers had agreed to negotiate colonial rights, and, thanks to the ASA’s work, these unfair royalties have disappeared.
Regardless of the political situation in Australia or internationally, regardless of the waxing and waning of literary fashion, the ASA continues to stand for increased returns for writers and to argue for more channels of remuneration. There will always be some sad circumstance for us to lament—that is perhaps why some of us write—but nothing should stand in the way of writers achieving the right to maintain a living.
The ASA has achieved a great amount over the past 40 years. It also won Public Lending Right and achieved success with Educational Lending Right. The ASA was also instrumental in the establishment of the Copyright Agency Ltd (CAL), which now provides another income stream for writers, especially those in the education sector, for the photocopying of their work. It has also established minimum standards for book contracts.
But despite all this work there is still much to be done. In my office I have in front of me a contract from a publisher that asks the author to assign copyright to the publisher, which would spell the end to any additional remuneration -- such as a CAL payment -- for the author. As well, the contract offers a flat fee upfront and royalties only after the sale of 3200 copies, which may have an impact on the author’s right to Educational Lending Right (ELR).
These are issues of core interest to writers. The everyday task of improving the ability of writers to be able to make a living remains central to the ASA.
The publishing industry might be successful but the fight for authors to make a living from their writing continues.
Some of this material has previously appeared in Australian Author. Copyright © 2007 Australian Society of Authors/Jeremy Fisher

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