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As Writers' Wages Wane In Digital Chapter, Authors Pen Demands

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As Writers' Wages Wane In Digital Chapter, Authors Pen Demands

Book News & Features

As Writers' Wages Wane In Digital Chapter, Authors Pen Demands

As Writers' Wages Wane In Digital Chapter, Authors Pen Demands

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/462437823/462481151" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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A survey from the Authors Guild reveals a 30 percent decline in author income since 2009. Ariel Zambelich/NPR hide caption

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Ariel Zambelich/NPR

A survey from the Authors Guild reveals a 30 percent decline in author income since 2009.

Ariel Zambelich/NPR

The Authors Guild has started the new year with a bang. First, the group, which represents the interests of writers, asked the Supreme Court to review an October appeals court ruling, which upheld Google's right to digitize out-of-print books without an author's permission. A few days later, the guild addressed a separate issue when it released a letter to publishers demanding better contract terms for authors.

Both moves come as many writers find it harder and harder to make a living from their writing. Since 2009, the mean income for writers has gone down 30 percent, says the guild's executive director, Mary Rasenberger.

"It's alarming. Incomes are now down to unsustainable levels, and that means that even longtime authors — authors who have been writing for decades — are now being forced to seek other work," she says. "So, we are looking at this in a holistic way: Why this happening, and what can we do about it?"

Rasenberger says the Google Books case addresses the issue of copyright protection; the letter to the publishers takes on standard author contracts. Among other things, the guild says its writers should get a higher share of e-book income and authors should also be able to retain the rights to their own books. The standard contracts the guild is protesting have been part of the business for decades.

"These are the agreements that the unagented authors see — or those without powerful agents — where the terms tend to be much much worse," Rasenberger says.

But the guild faces a problem in dealing with publishers: Writers are not an easy group to organize.

"They're all at very different levels," says Porter Anderson, who writes about the publishing industry for The Bookseller, a British publication. "They have different professional experience, they have different reasons for writing, they have different types of writing. There are factions within factions inside the author camp."

Writers also are known for working in isolation. But social media is changing that, Anderson says.

"Not only are authors able to talk to each other continually in real time, but they're also in touch with their readers. This is new."

Anderson believes it's significant that international writers organizations from Europe, Africa, Australia and Canada all signed on to the Authors Guild letter to publishers.

"If an international coalition can start communicating to readers all over the world: Look what your authors are going through — did you know this is the experience and the condition in which your favorite author is working? Something has changed. The publishers, then, are facing a new world in which a lot of questions can be asked in a lot of places in very loud voices," Anderson says.

The Authors Guild plans to meet with individual publishing companies to discuss their demands.

"Do we expect them to turn around tomorrow and create new agreements that meet all of our requests?" Rasenberger says. "Probably not."

But, she says, the guild's writers are hopeful.