Balancing the books: Is the business of writing broken?

From London to Los Angeles, authors around the world have seen their average earnings plummet in recent years, despite book sales continuing to grow. Some industry experts say this trend is a serious threat to the future of modern literature. Attending the recent Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, Arabian Business spoke to some local authors and publishing insiders to find out if the business of books really is broken
Balancing the books: Is the business of writing broken?
ttending the recent Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, Arabian Business speaks to some local authors and publishing insiders to find out if the business of books really is broken.
By Shane McGinley
Sun 12 May 2019 11:20 AM

In early March this year, on the second day of the popular Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, over 100 wannabe novelists gathered nervously in an auditorium to find out if their names would be called out as one of the five winners of this year’s prestigious Montegrappa Writing Prize.

At stake was the chance to be represented by Luigi Bonomi, a prominent British literary agent who represents dozens of top authors, including household names like John Humphrys, Esther Rantzen, Alan Titchmarsh and Judy Finnegan.

I wish there was a mechanism out there in the Middle East, or an organisation, to help these people translate their stories

“It took actually hearing Luigi read my words to believe that I’d won. I couldn’t quite believe it was me… Then, of course, I felt ecstatic,” says Polly Phillips, a British freelance writer who moved to Dubai two years ago and was chosen as this year’s overall winner.

“I’m sure many people/writers will identify with that sense of writing into the dark and having no idea whether what you’re saying is any good. To have the validation from someone who is not related to me feels fantastic. I only hope I can build on the success and the momentum and finish writing something publishable,” she tells Arabian Business a few days after the awards presentation.

As Phillips sets about finishing her debut novel, which is described as a dark tale of revenge and betrayal between two female friends, the prospects initially look promising as Bonomi, who has judged the competition since 2013, has gone on to secure major publishing deals for eight of the previous award participants, with many topping the bestseller lists in the UK, US and Australia.


Dubai Ruler Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s bestselling memoir is among favourites at this year’s event

However, the journey from dusty unpublished manuscript to the bestseller lists does not always lead to the million dollar returns earned by the likes of JK Rowling or James Patterson, who topped the recent Forbes richest authors list with earnings last year of $54m and $86m, respectively.

Writing down earnings

In fact, the reality of the modern publishing industry reads like a depressing gothic tale. Last year, industry data in the UK showed that while book sales have risen 5 percent, a report by the country’s Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) found the average earnings of full-time authors has plummeted 42 percent since 2005, to just under £10,500 ($13,739) a year.

To put that into perspective, research by The Joseph Rowntree Foundation found the average single person needs to earn £17,900 ($23,500) a year in order to enjoy a socially acceptable standard of living. A similar report carried out in the United States by the Authors Guild was even more grim, with average earnings among its membership down over 40 percent since 2009 to just $6,080 a year. The Guild said the trend raises “serious concerns about the future of American literature”.

Somebody like Charles Dickens probably wouldn’t see the light of day today. It is chilling

“I totally agree,” Susan Mears, a British literary agent with offices in London, New York and Dubai, tells Arabian Business as we meet for a chat to pour over the Guild’s results.

“I mean, if you go back in time to someone like Charles Dickens, for example, how did he get started? He got started by magazine stories and then going into publishing. Somebody like him probably wouldn’t see the light of day today. It is chilling.

“The mentality in the editors [in publishing houses] is ‘how do I keep my job? I keep my job by bringing in authors who are established, because it’s less risky’. And that’s where they’re coming from and that does not encourage new talent,” Mears says.


The festival offers enthusiasts the opportunity to meet and interact with world-famous authors

So, is she seeing authors’ earnings declining? “Yes, it’s shocking, absolutely 100 percent. And a lot of it’s to do with, generally speaking, the margins are quite small in publishing and that means the royalty earnings for authors are constantly diminishing.

“And the reason for that is really the cutthroat nature of the trade. The major distributors are asking for higher discounts, the main bookstores are asking for higher discounts and all the time the publisher gets squeezed… and they pass that on to the author…. It’s sad for authors, it makes it increasingly difficult to get new talent started.”

Advance warning

Dubai-based British author Annabel Kantaria won the inaugural Montegrappa Writing Prize when it was first launched in 2013 and has gone on to secure multiple book deals with global publisher Harper Collins. “I am writing because I love writing, because it’s a passion. Nobody goes into writing thinking ‘I’m going to be rich from day one’,” she says over a cup of coffee near Dubai Creek, taking time out from writing her fifth novel.

I am writing because I love writing, because it’s a passion. Nobody goes into writing thinking ‘I’m going to be rich from day one’

“I know advances have gone down and some people are only getting digital deals – where you get no advance and the book is only published online. If it does incredibly well then they might think about doing paperback. You are seeing a lot more digital first and see how it goes,” she says.

Sara Sadik, a Dubai-based Palestinian/Lebanese author who secured a publishing deal through an agent in New York and launched her first book in October 2018, is philosophical about the financial returns available from writing.

“I launched it in New York and everyone’s like ‘you’re buying dinner’ and I’m like ‘actually, I’m really not making money yet’. My foot is in the door and I’ve made a mark and I’ve achieved my goal with my first book. It was great and everything, but am I making the money that people would imagine? No,” she says.


There is a need for support for Arabic novelists in the Gulf looking to break into Western markets

“To be totally transparent, I’m thinking about going back to work,” she says honestly, adding that anyone who wants to make big money shouldn’t be in the writing business and instead should get a financial degree and become a hedge fund or private equity manager.

Wearing many hats

In fact, many authors often have second jobs, waking early to write their novels before going to work or at nights or weekends. The Royal Literary Fund (RLF) in the UK, a charity which supports writers in financial distress, says it has seen a rise in applications for its services.

“Authors have seen their earnings chipped away,” says Tracy Chevalier, president of the RLF and author of Girl With a Pearl Earring – a 2003 novel which was turned into a movie starring Scarlett Johansson. “Most writers cobble together a living from several sources: teaching, journalism, and odd jobs. Writing is just one shrinking source of income. Shrink it enough and people will stop writing altogether. It literally won’t be worth it,” she told The Guardian in July last year.

Publishing houses look only at numbers and how much they’re going to sell

Many bestselling authors look to the likes of the RLF or literary grants to make ends meet or supplement their income. Lucy Strange, a teacher who lived in Dubai from 2010 to 2015, secured a multi-book deal and saw her books top the bestseller lists, but she still needed to seek support.

“It can take a long time for the royalties to come through. For the vast majority of writers, the reality is you have a day job, whether it is part-time or whatever… I was teaching full-time and I moved back to the UK. The year after The Secret of Nightingale Wood came out [in 2016] I went down to teaching part-time and that was largely because I got an Arts Council grant to fund my writing of the second book.”


The festival aims to support and nurture a love of literature in the UAE and the wider region

Support for local authors, like the Royal Literary Fund or the Arts Council in the UK, is something Emirati author Roudha Al Marri says is needed in this region to help local Arab writers get started. “Publishing houses look only at numbers and how much they’re going to sell… Some publishing houses are subsidised and I think this should also apply to authors… we need the support,” she says.

Arabic opportunities

But, in addition to financial support, London literary agent Bonomi says there is a real need for support for Arabic novelists in the Gulf looking to break into competitive western markets. “I wish there was a mechanism out there in the Middle East, or an organisation, to help these people translate their stories. They don’t have to translate the full novel, just the first three or four chapters.

Writing is just one shrinking source of income. Shrink it enough and people will stop writing altogether

“Sometimes I do see some translations but they are very poor… if you had a very fluid translation that was eloquent, that might persuade British publishers to buy into those authors. I genuinely think there’s a lot of talent out there [in the Gulf] that isn’t being read here. It’s a real shame,” he believes.

The Authors Guild places a lot of the blame for the decline in authors’ earnings at the hands of Amazon, which controls around three-quarters of the global digital book sales market. While it denies the claims made against it by the Authors Guild, Amazon declined to be interviewed for this article.

The Guild, which represents mostly traditionally published writers, may be vehemently against Amazon’s big monopoly, but Orna Ross, founder and director of the Alliance of Independent Authors, a global body which includes members from the Middle East, believes the digital giant is actually a positive force, especially for self-published authors.


Literary debates and workshops have attracted interest from regional and international figures

“The publishing industry has undergone – and continues to undergo – significant transformation at the hands of the joint forces of digital technology and the economy. Amazon is more friendly to independent authors than are traditional publishers: Amazon pays up to 70 percent royalty to the self-published author, while a trade publisher offers perhaps 10-15 percent. From this, indie authors will absorb their own editing, design, and production costs but it still leaves them with considerably more profit per title,” Ross tells Arabian Business by email.

“All of this gives authors autonomy and business models that are not possible in the traditional system. For example, 8 percent of our members have sold more than 50,000 books over the past two years. A number of those have sold over a million. But what is more striking is the numbers who are making a living. It is possible now for an author to earn $100,000 a year without appearing on any bestseller list. And increasing numbers of authors are selling books directly from their own websites. As author confidence, e-commerce platforms and connections to readers continue to grow, we expect to see this phenomenon rise,” she believes.

The mark has moved from author loyalty to genre loyalty and that has impacted a great deal on the market

Dubai-based authors also seem more positive towards the online giant. “Amazon, you know they do have the power, but, at the same time, I think also it’s more positive because there are so many authors who struggle to get published. They can now self-publish and put it on Amazon. There are so many voices which were previously controlled by publishers but there are so many selling options available,” says Swedish Dubai-based novelist Jessica Jarlvi, who has published two books and has seen her titles top the bestseller lists in the UK and Australia.

Social media surge

While most authors and industry experts Arabian Business speak to for this article weren’t shocked by the industry findings from the UK and US, Kuwaiti author, publisher and bookshop owner Buthayna Al Essa is different. “I am surprised because I’m making more money. I am one of the lucky ones… But it’s not the same for everyone, I happen to be a bestseller,” she says smiling.

Al Essa released her first book in 2004 at age 23 and has written 13 books since. She admits she struggled to make a lot of money at the start but the rise of social media meant she was now able to make a decent living from writing.

“For the first year, I earned about a $1,000. The year after that about $4,000. Then Twitter came and it exploded and it became $30,000. You get to interact with the readers and when you have followers who are interested in what you tweet and post, they will get curious to read what you write in your books,” she believes.


(from left) Literary agent Luigi Bonomi, author Polly Phillips and Charles Nahhas of Montegrappa

However, Bonomi believes the advent of modern e-books has also meant readers often don’t know who the author of the book they are reading is and the industry is seeing less and less author loyalty.

“The mark has moved from author loyalty to genre loyalty and that has impacted a great deal on the market. So you know you can get an author who does well one year and sold enormous numbers but by book three, their sales have collapsed,” he says.

As Dubai’s writing community expands, let’s hope the trends being seen internationally don’t come to fruition and authors will soon start to earn a fairer slice of the publishing pie and no future masterpieces will be lost due to the financial constraints on those who passionately produce the work.

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