Power...and Money

As most children’s authors know, the Authors Guild conducted an extensive survey last year and found that authors earn 42% less than they did a decade ago.

Oh, how I wish that statement were true. 

Not the second part about authors’ earnings declining by nearly half in ten years; that part is appalling and destructive and disheartening and shockingly true.

The part that isn’t true is that most authors know about it. Or even know about the survey. And some don’t even know about the Authors Guild, which is the oldest and largest professional organization for writers in America. Among other things, it fights for fair contracts and a living wage for authors. If you’re a writer, you benefit from their efforts, whether you belong to the organization or not. It fights to protect us all.

So, when the Authors Guild does the most extensive survey of writing income ever (5,067 authors responded, including traditionally published, self-published, and hybrid authors) — and considering that incomeour income, is not exactly a dull and distant subject that feels boring or irrelevant — you’d think more writers would be talking about it. 

But among the children’s writers I spoke to (granted, just a small, non–scientifically selected sample), most didn’t even know about the survey. And many shrugged it off when I did talk about the contents. You know that shrug that children’s authors do whenever we talk about the newest unfair and exploitative term that has crept into our latest contracts, soon to become “industry standard.” (As examples, there’s the insertion of unreasonable morality clauses, as well as the publishers’ in toto  hardline stance on negotiating audio royalties, which occurred when everyone in the industry at the very same instant recognized the enormous potential in the audio market as smart speaker sales grew 79% in 2018.)

The shrug that communicates Well, what can we do about it? It sure is a good thing I love writing so much, because I’m certainly not in it for the money! Ha ha! Almost cheerfully. Almost matter-of-factly. Almost…brainwashed. Shrug! Is there an emoji for that?

Anyway, I find myself asking two questions, and again, I’m just going to stick with the group I know best: those of us who write for the children’s market. The first is why don’t you know how much power you have lost? (Because money is power, more so these days than ever.) And the second is why, if you do know, aren’t you taking more of a power stance?

It all comes down to power. In business, it often does. And that, I suppose, is likely the first obstacle (or I might suggest escape hatch for authors who would rather not think about any of this) that authors summon up: Oh, I’m not a good business person. I’m an artist. Numbers! Contracts! I could never understand that stuff. Or even more likely: My agent takes care of all of that for me. So I can write.

And then I hear these same authors moaning about how they can’t get a response from their editor, or that she’s rejected a manuscript that she wouldn’t even sign up before it was complete and had gone through several revisions—after years of working together, both investing in each other’s careers. Or how their agent doesn’t return calls or send out their submissions with enthusiasm or speed. Or that their agent doesn’t even seem particularly interested in the author’s career. Or her own.

It’s all about the money.

And while editors are, in general, in my opinion (I have no data, but only anecdotal information), grossly underpaid for the valuable and voluminous work they do, I am positive that children’s book editors at the major houses have not seen their salaries decline by 42% over the past decade.

And furthermore, while declining author incomes would seem to indicate a commensurate decline in incomes for agents, I don’t believe that’s true either. I very much doubt (again, no hard data) that agents for children’s authors have, as a group, lost almost half of their annual income, as authors have. I think they’ve discovered the secret to maintaining or increasing their income: volume. 

Agents are taking on more clients than ever. At many agencies, each agent represents around 50 authors and illustrators. Since I started rep’ing myself about three years ago, I’ve learned how much work goes into vigilantly and vigorously managing the agent side of this business. (I often say to people that my favorite thing about my agent (me) is that she has only one client (me)).

So, while author incomes have gone down, my guess is agents are combatting a similarly steep decline in their own annual income by taking on more clients. If so, they’re giving each client less attention, which is simply a result of the immutability of time: there are, always were, and always will be only twenty-four hours in a day. (Fun fact: actually, the Earth’s rotation slows down over time, so most days are usually a little bit longer than twenty-four hours, although today, July 2, 2019, will be 23.9999998668 hours long, or 24 hours minus 0.48 milliseconds. So, get going!)

My point is this, and it’s an important one: it seems to me that no other group, including agents, but even more significantly the people who work inhouse at the big publishers (editors, assistants, marketers, publicists, art directors, lawyers, contracts staff, subrights managers, content managers, digital content managers, new media developers, audio producers, publishers, vice presidents, presidents, etc.) has suffered a 42% decline in their salaries over the past ten years. Not one group. They might not be making as much as they’d like and they sure might not be making as much as they’re worth, but they aren’t making half as much as they were a decade ago.

So what gives? Why are authors making so much less while everyone else in the children’s book publishing food chain isn’t?

The answer is power. 

So if you’re one of those authors who shrugs and says, Well, what can I do? I would suggest you take a moment, or a day, or a week, or a month, or a year—however long it takes—and locate your power. Because you are the one who creates. You start with nothing, nothing, and you make something:  a story, a novel, a graphic novel, an audio script, or even a form that no one has ever imagined. Before putting your time and energy and faith and talent to work, there was nothing, and now there is something new in the world that has never existed before and that could come only from you. Take a moment to reflect on that.

And think that if you (all of us) hadn’t done that work, there would be nothing for the agent to sell. Nothing for the editor to edit. Nothing for the art direct to direct artistically, nothing for the cover designer to cover, nothing for the marketer to market, nothing for the publisher to publish. 

Now create a picture in your head. Imagine all those people in that bustling, light-soaked, metal-polished, glassy, top-floor office in Manhattan that you visit once every few years suddenly sitting very quietly. Their hands folded in their laps, their glasses resting on their desks, their computers turned off, the phones silent.

Because they have nothing to do. Without the creators, the entire upside-down pyramid collapses. All those people, and the jobs they do, crumble. Without the creators. 

So, no matter what stage of your career you’re at, please take a moment to ask yourself why the people who support the entire pyramid of publishing, the ones who make it possible for the industry to even exist, have lost 42% of their income in the past ten years when all the big trade houses posted gains in the first quarter of 2019, following a similarly robust 2018. (HarperCollins had a monster first quarter in 2019, with earnings jumping 29% over the comparable period in 2018.) Think about that.

And then get mad.

And then take back your goddamn power.