Writing: The State Of Play


A quick health check on the average writer reveals that the patient is not doing so well. The average median income from writing for those who spend more than half their working life on books is around £10,000 p.a. It gets worse; Between 2006 and 2018 the average income for authors fell by 42%, according to the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society.

Now comes the final blow; the Brexicution.

Before Brexit Britain was part of the EU’s copyright agreement. This says that our books can be freely sold within Europe, but when sold outside they can’t be reimported to the home market. The British book industry is protected by strong copyright laws which means its writers, photographers and artists are fairly compensated and British books can be sold around the world.

An option of the new agreement being considered by this government would be to allow cheap foreign editions of our own books to bounce back and flood the UK market without the copyright holder’s permission. Prices would be driven even further down and authors’ earnings would dwindle to nothing.

If this seems like just another squabble over the fine print of a post-Brexit deal, it’s not. The creation and production of books in the UK is a key plank in the nation’s creative output. The agreement would crush royalties, undercut domestic sales and have a devastating impact on the nation’s writers. The Publishers’ Association estimates that if a new regime is introduced, the industry could see a drop of £1 billion in physical sales.

It means that the next generation of authors would consist of those who do not need to earn a living from books – so we return to a 19th century model wherein writing is for titled dilettantes. To allow the free-for-all would also be slashing long-term revenues from the creative industry. 

The consultation continues.

9 comments on “Writing: The State Of Play”

  1. Keith says:

    I used to purchase most of my books in the UK instead of the US because they were exempt from import duty. Recently I bought a couple of novels from England. After paying costs for registered shipping (which you have to do nowadays to avoid books getting ‘lost’ in the post and having to reimburse the seller. Beware PayPal scams.) I was horrified at having to pay a further 19 euros BTW to receive the package. All thanks to bloody Brexit. There are some great booksellers in Holland, but if you want that one rare book that’s been on your wishlist for years you now have to pay through the teeth to get it.

  2. Stu-I-Am says:

    What is also likely to play out is a dearth of new British authors, full stop. Britain had Europe pretty much to itself for English language-rights books before Brexit. This was based on a combination of informal agreement — American and British publishers long ago divvied up countries, based largely on proximity and history and — trade law. As an EU member, publishers in the UK had essentially frictionless access to any EU country. This access with no tariffs and almost no competition, especially from the US, was a financial boon and the industry had its best year ever in 2019 (the last year for which final numbers are available) with a turnover of  £6bn+, 60% of which came from exports — and 36% of this figure from the EU market alone.

    With US publishers now ‘rolling up their sleeves’ to do battle in Europe post-Brexit, British publishers will very likely have to offer their best-selling authors ever more lucrative deals for exclusive rights, making them far more risk-aversive to signing and promoting new and aspiring authors. Even if a promising new author were to be signed, the chances are that they would be forced to forgo more rights, on less lucrative terms, earlier in their careers as financially fragile publishers seek to make their investments pay off. Not a pleasant prospect all around.

  3. Liz+Thompson says:

    We need books and their authors a lot more than we need politicians.

  4. Stu-I-Am says:

    ‘I’d like to have money. And I’d like to be a good writer. These two can come together, and I hope they will, but if that’s too adorable, I’d rather have money.’

    ‘To me, the most beautiful word in the English language is cellar-door. Isn’t it wonderful? The ones I like, though, are ‘cheque’ and ‘enclosed.’

    — Dorothy Parker, American author and world-class wit

  5. Helen+Martin says:

    Keith, a question. What PayPal scams?
    In a moment of desperation would a British writer (after all, the government obviously neither knows nor cares about their fate) be better off with an all American deal? or a Commonwealth one? It’s hard enough for a person to get a publisher to accept a manuscript without having to deal with pirate stabs in the back as well. That’s going back to the 19th century, too.

  6. chazza says:

    Another aspect of inter-country transactions – postage costs. I recently bought a book from the US for $75; the postage to the UK – $70! I won’t buy books from the US if I can help it anymore…

  7. Brooke says:

    @Helen. Google “PayPal scams 2021.” Articles published by PayPal to alert users are posted. Usually phishing. Beef up your online security with free stuff, e. Avast and/or upgrade to known brand products. Covid brought out the worst in hackers and porno tribes. Zoom just settled a major law suit for allowing hackers to breach meetings.

  8. William says:

    Surely copyright law still applied so why would imported books be cheaper?
    One could argue UK hardback are somewhat expensive for a voracious reader.

  9. Stu-I-Am says:

    @William Without getting too much further into the ‘legal weeds’ about the international book trade — the issue of the UK possibly being inundated with inexpensive copies of books originally published there under UK copyright laws, has to do with these rights once a sale of the books are made.

    Under UK EU membership, while the copyright protected control of distribution (‘exhaustion’ principle) ended with a sale of a book in an EU country, which could then be sold on, the book could not be imported back into the UK, typically on a ‘parallel ‘ basis — that is, as part of a lower cost “grey market.’ Under consideration, as CF pointed out is the possibility post-Brexit, of allowing these cheaper imports on an international exhaustion principle basis. For example, UK books purchased more cheaply by country A than by country B could then be exported by ‘A’ freely back to the UK, at a price conceivably well below the domestic price. Of course, this scenario would mean lower sales of domestic market books and a correspondingly lower royalty income for the authors, since “home market” royalties are the highest paid. Great for consumers, not so good for authors.

    The other related disturbing issue for authors is that post-Brexit, there is no longer any automatic exclusivity for UK published books in the EU, for which British authors were also paid at the highest “home market” rate, rather than the much lower “international” rate, which will almost certainly replace it. The one positive thing for UK authors on the horizon is, for the first time, receiving royalties from secondhand books. So far this scheme is only available from one retailer but it is supposedly the largest seller of used books in the UK.

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