Are Authors an Endangered Species?

As part of our work with the International Authors Forum (IAF), Maggie Gee, ALCS Director, spoke about the importance of supporting and protecting authors at a conference hosted by the Academic and Non-Fiction Authors’ Association of South Africa (ANFASA).

Advocating for the rights of authors is at the core of our work at ALCS. To ensure that this work helps protect international authors’ rights too, ALCS is a member of the International Authors Forum (IAF). IAF represents over 700,000 authors worldwide, with member organisations based on almost every continent, thus providing such organisations with an international platform from which to advocate for authors’ interests and rights.

The ANFASA conference, in partnership with IAF, aimed to create a platform for local and international authors to discuss topics that are crucial to their writing, their livelihood and the sustainability of knowledge production. As part of the conference, Maggie Gee gave the following speech:


“Endangered species often acquire a certain dangerous glamour.  Most of us here are glad and proud to be authors. But the glamour of being an author is dangerous because publishers use it as a reason to underpay us: ‘Everyone wants this job – you expect us to pay you for it?’

We heard at the recent ANFASA conference how storytelling skills like those of griots are valued in Africa. European societies, too, place a high value on artists. YouGov research five years ago found being an author was the most desired ‘job’ in Britain. Actual authors were astonished to hear that.

I speculated in writing at the time that being an author was popular because people believed authors were free individuals who just write books, self-basting in prestige. As we all know, nothing could be further from the truth. Modern authors have come a long way from the caves where the first storytellers worked.

Our stories and our acts of knowledge transfer moved in prehistory from the oral into the material world – maybe knotted string, painted beans or cowries – and then into objects that could be valued for themselves. In that transition, storytellers gained one kind of power but lost another. Especially after the invention of printing, written texts could spread globally and be exchanged for money. Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island, described the luxurious Victorian book, ‘with its leaded type and gilded lettering’. With the story as a saleable object came a loss of the singular authority of the creator and the embedding of a network of producers who all wanted a share of the rewards.

When I’ve tried to explain to people outside the trade that the normal arrangement for profit-sharing in the writing business is 10% to the writer and 90% to everyone else, they are amazed. Self-publishing has the power to disrupt this model, but for now I’ll talk about a published author in the sense most commonly aspired to. This author might need an agent, a publishing house with editors, designers and publicists, printers, distributors and warehousers. All of them take their cut. The supposedly free, independent author ends up dependent not only on the power of publishers to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ but on a range of other people.

Yet the undeniable fact in all this remains that without the author, nothing. At bottom, that is the astonishing power of authors: the whole inverted triangle of the business, those who take 90% of the earnings, rests on the head of the author with her meagre 10% cut. It’s a power we have to remind each other we possess. That’s why authors need other authors, and why most of us help other authors. To face the sheer size of the book business which can use us, grind us up and spit us out, we need our own ecology. Authors need meeting-places, networks, legal and financial advice, friends and colleagues. The rest of my talk is in praise of writers’ organisations and as evidence of authors’ collective power.

My grandmother as a young woman in the country at the end of the 19th century wrote verses for Christmas cards. She was a working-class woman and simply wrote them until she had enough to fill a suitcase, then took the suitcase to the railway station where she sold the job lot to a man who came down from London on the train. I am sure she was shockingly exploited. She certainly ended up very poor, doing laundry to make ends meet, with seven children sharing one bedroom and my mother, the youngest, remembering no new clothes, ever, and the fried eggs being cut in two. Mum was of course completely thrilled when her daughter, me, who had her own bedroom to read in because I had two brothers, went to university, made that big move from the country to London, and 12 years later got a contract to publish my first novel with a £500 advance. But I had no agent and there was no experience or advice in the family, so I had no idea what to do when six months after signing the contract I got a letter from the publisher asking all their authors to ‘support our desire to go on publishing serious literary books’. How? By giving up our advances. I needed the money to pay the rent so I looked up the telephone number of the Writers’ Guild. Soon I was in a callbox – remember those? – feeding coins into a slot and sobbing down the line to the person manning the phone, luckily a very nice writer called Robert Hewison. I wasn’t even a member but he gave me calm, sensible advice. I didn’t burn my boats, the book did well, the publisher changed his mind and paid the advance. So I learned very early how much writers need organisations.

Over the years, the Society of Authors has given me legal support when HarperCollins reneged on a two-book contract, vetted other contracts for free, and supplied a small financial grant when I got severe Repetitive Strain Injury from over-using my first computer. I was delighted to serve on their Management Committee later. In the 1990s I had a long run of bad luck. Two supportive editors of mine in succession left the business or died: then my two next publishers went bankrupt, one of them on the actual publication day of my seventh novel. That’s when Public Lending Right became so important to me. Once a year, during my bad times, there arrived good news, and money, from PLR: thousands of readers were still reading my novels in libraries, even though the books were no longer in bookshops. So when invited, I naturally served for six years on the Government PLR committee, and learned how much PLR can do for writers internationally, too. In 1994, the year when HarperCollins dropped me for writing a book about racism in Britain, I was cheered by a wonderful honour from my fellow writers – Fellowship of the Royal Society of Literature. Once again, I later served on the RSL Council and became their first woman chair, between 2004 and 2008. For the last six years I’ve been on the Board of the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) and am proud to serve a body collecting money for secondary rights that we simply could not collect alone.

Helped at critical moments by our writers’ organisations, I have gone on to publish fifteen books with the sixteenth, The Red Children, due January 2022, and as a teacher of Creative Writing am able to encourage, advise (and learn from) many younger writers. We have power together; we can be picked off alone. I’m sure my grandmother, shivering on Market Harborough station with her shabby suitcase of rhymes, waiting for the train to bring the man who would buy them for peanuts, would be pleased. And delighted to know her great-granddaughter, my daughter, has just published her second novel* and is already a member of the Society of Authors and ALCS.”

*Rosa Rankin-Gee, Dreamland, Scribner UK.


To ensure that writers’ organisations like ALCS, the Society of Authors and the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain can continue to support writers throughout the highs and lows of their careers, it’s essential that we have the support of our members. When it comes to protecting and advocating for writers’ rights, it’s often necessary for organisations to show that they have the backing of their membership, to give strength to their campaign. Our current campaign is focused on increasing the Public Lending Right (PLR) fund, to ensure that authors are fairly remunerated for library loans of their books. Visit to find out more information and take part in this campaign.

Are you someone who feels strongly about the rights of creators? Want to get more involved in ALCS’ work? This year we will be electing new Board members to the ALCS Board of Directors. If you think this might be of interest to you, contact for more details.