Jo Revill on writers, rapid change and finding solutions

Each generation of writers has faced its own set of challenges, and with persistence, collaboration and not a little courage, we have found our way through.

When the photocopier came on the scene in the 70s, there was suddenly a large black machine sitting in the corner of the office that allowed easy, cheap copying of huge amounts of content. For businesses, colleges and individuals, you didn’t need a pile of books anymore. Thousands of copies could be made with a flick of a switch in a way previously unimaginable.

The poet Maureen Duffy, now our Honorary President, came together with others to start the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society 46 years ago, built on the work of earlier writers’ groups, and it was to campaign for creators to be listened to and to receive payment for the secondary uses of their work, including from the prolific copying happening across the country.

From tiny beginnings, ALCS has grown to be an organisation with a mighty reach, simply because that’s what authors needed to happen. Earlier this week, we distributed more than £31.8m to more than 101,000 members: authors, poets, journalists, illustrators and writers of all ages, genres and nationalities.

I’ve read their messages on social media with a mix of great emotion and pride. As one writer, John Fareham, wrote on what’s now being called ALCS Day: “It’s there dudes, we earned it, and they collect it for us – what’s not to like?”

The money is indeed there. We are restless and want to do more for those who see ALCS payments as a lifeline, often paying for the research they need to do, the printer ink or the gas bill. The money that we distribute comes from the earnings they have built up from their repertoire of works, often over many, many years. A textbook that is used in schools can earn an educational writer vital funds decades after it was first published.

We energetically support screenwriters too, and one-third of the money that we collect now comes from audiovisual works. With a small team led by the very capable Barbara Hayes and the use of bespoke digital systems, we collect money from all over the world through agreements with over 55 different societies in more than 40 countries.

The payments we make this week may be lower for some writers. Increasingly, there are groups such as freelance journalists who are making so little that they won’t be able to carry on working this year, in magazines or in journalism. Our own authors’ earning survey last year pointed to a drop in the median annual earnings, and we know that the current environment is difficult for many. But the sums – even small ones – can mean the difference between someone being able to continue their work or give it up.

The world is changing so rapidly for writers. The nature of content is changing, and so is how work is edited, sold, read, and how it reaches audiences – just look at the power of BookTok. But if it’s not too cheeky to quote Albert Einstein, here goes: ‘In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.’ As we face the seemingly mountainous challenge of generative AI and text and data mining, our job is to work across sectors, as we did with other challenges such as photocopying, to find solutions that cross territories and narrow interests and ensure that authors continue to receive the money they are owed for their works.

To close, I’d like to give a shout out to a wonderful book, My Pen is the Wing of a Bird. It’s a collection of short stories by 18 Afghan women, published by Quercus Publishing. It’s been produced through UNTOLD, a development programme for marginalised writers in areas of conflict and post-conflict. The stories here are moving, often harrowing and tell of everyday lives, but they are told by women in a world where often only men have the right to a voice. I urge you to read this remarkable collection!

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