Bookseller Briefing 25/19 – week ending 21 June

Wolf book postponed in US as Virago holds firm

Publication of Naomi Wolf’s latest book has been postponed in the US following “new questions” about its contents but UK publisher Virago is standing by its publication.

Wolf was initially alerted to errors in Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalisation of Love during an appearance on BBC Radio 3 last month.

Historian Dr Matthew Sweet pointed out she had misunderstood the legal term “death recorded” to mean executions when it actually meant judges abstained from pronouncing a death sentence. Sweet also claimed she was wrong about the reason for the sentences. The error called into question her claim that “several dozen” men had been executed for homosexual sex in the UK.

After initially standing by the book, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt told the New York Times on Thursday (13th June) it was delaying the release. A spokesman told the paper: “As we have been working with Naomi Wolf to make corrections to Outrages, new questions have arisen that require more time to explore. We are postponing publication and requesting that all copies be returned from retail accounts while we work to resolve those questions.”

In a Twitter thread, Wolf said she “strongly objected” to the decision and reiterated she made the necessary changes “immediately” after her BBC interview.

However, she added: “Critics also introduced errors of their own. Dr Matthew Sweet of BBC gave faulty information from secondary sources re sentences, for instance. The heart of my book is not criminology though but censorship;chill felt by pioneers such as J A Symonds who tried to speak about love. I’ll do all I can to bring Outragesto American readers.”

Wolf’s UK publisher Virago said “necessary corrections” will be made to future reprints with the current version, that was released on 20th May, remaining on sale.

A Virago spokeswoman said: “Though the book received excellent reviews it also attracted criticism. As a result, Houghton Mifflin have decided to postpone their June publication ahead of their books going on sale while they explore the questions that have arisen. Virago will be making any necessary corrections to future reprints.”

Two thirds of professional writers earn less than £10k, RSL survey finds

Sixty-seven percent of professional writers earned £10,000 or less in 2018, a Royal Society of Literature poll of more than 2,000 authors has found, with a room of one’s own still viewed as the most important requirement for a writing career 90 years on from Virginia Woolf’s seminal essay.

‘A Room of My Own: What writers need to work today’ launches today (Wednesday 19th June), and examines the state of author earnings and the need for connection across the industry. It is the first time the society has undertaken such research and shows that a writer is almost three times as likely to earn £30,000 or more from work outside of their writing (14% compared to 5%), a statistic labelled “astonishing” by RSL chair Dr Lisa Appignanesi. However non-financial forms of support were seen as more important to sustaining a writing career.

Across a survey of 2,166 respondents, writers said the most significant kinds of support to them were a room of one’s own (80%), followed by peer support (65%) and emotional support (60%). Financial support came in last at 58% in the survey, which was conducted to mark nine decades since the publication of Woolf’s essay, ‘A Room of One’s Own’.

When identifying challenges at the beginning of their career, writers cited a lack of money (68%) and lack of time (67%) as the biggest barriers. Beyond this, 54% identified lack of confidence in their ability as a challenge and 53% identified lack of information about financial support available to them as a challenge.

The 40-page report cited the “vast majority of authors do not earn the income that Woof argued a writer needs [in ‘A Room of One’s Own’]: £500 a year, equivalent to just over £30,000 in 2019”. The research showed that more than two-thirds (67%) of writers (who earned anything from their writing in 2018) earned £10,000 or less. In regards to the top earning authors, only 5% earned more than £30,000 from their writing last year. (The RSL sought views from writers working professionally as well as aspiring authors and so the report also features views from those who do not earn money from their writing.)

In regards to diversity, pay gaps in relation to social class identity, gender identity, ethnicity and geographic region were reported as “greater in a writing career than in employment outside it”. A quarter of respondents identified as working class, but they make up only 11% of the highest earners from writing (earning over £30,000 from writing last year). In terms of ethnicity, around one in eight (13%) identified as being from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, but are only 9% of the highest earners from writing. Almost three-quarters (72%) identified as female and made up 57% of the highest earners from writing. By comparison, respondents identifying as male comprised 25% of overall respondents but made up 41% of those with the highest incomes from writing. In regards to geographical regions, two-thirds (66%) of the highest earners lived in London or the South of England.

Where class was concerned, some of the results echo the findings of The Bookseller’s Class survey published in February which showed that 80% of respondents in the publishing industry who see themselves as working class feel their background has adversely affected their career.

In terms of social class, 54% of respondents to the RSL research described themselves as middle class, compared to a quarter (25%) reporting as working class. “Many writers addressed the dissonance of their upbringings and backgrounds with their current positions, particularly in relation to their interaction with literature as an industry,” the report reads. “These writers told us that – despite their changed circumstances – their upbringings continued to inform their lives and decisions.”

Asked for the piece of advice that encourages them to pursue a career in writing, the most common were to persist through rejection, and that their voices are important.

Dr Lisa Appignanesi, chair of the RSL, wrote in the report’s introduction: “Virginia Woolf famously called for ‘a room of one’s own’ and £500 a year (equivalent to just over £30,000 at today’s rates). Yet only an astonishingly small 5% of writers earn over £30,000 a year. They may rarely sustain even that regularly throughout a working life.

She wrote of the findings, which were released days before the society’s annual intake of fellows: “It may well be that the RSL’s place as a fellowship of writers is more crucial than ever before as we approach our 200th year.”

Appignanesi told The Bookseller that the emphasis on non-monetary support surprised her. “The most striking thing for me… is the emphasis on writers who are wanting and needing fellowship and support of other writers. This is interesting. We always think of writers as people who revel in their loneliness and separateness.” She spoke of how the virtual world and accompanying “disembodiment” led to more of a need for connection and for writers to find refuge in friendship groups or informal mentoring. She added: “It is so crucial that they earn enough to survive, that writers are paid, but the thing that is new information is the need for support.”

“It made me think that the Society now has a renewed sense of purpose.”

Appignanesi does however believe there is space for reform when it comes to writers’ earnings. “Perhaps publishers who pay huge advances – I’ve been lucky with this as have others – but perhaps they could consider a living wage for young writers if they believe in their future work.”

The Audience Agency collected and analysed the data arising from the survey. It was funded by the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) and involved consultation with a number of trade bodies including Arts Council England, the Scottish book Trust and The Literary Consultancy.

US publishing warns Chinese book tariffs could be ‘devastating

Donald Trump’s threat to slap a 25% tariff on goods, including books, imported from China could drive shops and publishers out of business, leading US industry figures have told a public hearing.

A series of sessions are being conducted by the United States Trade Representative this week, with around 300 witnesses including business leaders expected to testify over the Trump administration’s proposals to implement $300bn of new tariffs on Chinese products.

Members of the US publishing trade, according to Publishers Weekly, said the low margin industry would be badly hit by tariffs and they had little choice but to use Chinese printers for some publications.

Lui Simpson, v.p. of global publishing for the Association of American Publishers, said: “Many of the most technically complex and innovative books, including many children’s books, can only be printed in China.”

She added the tariffs would reverse a long-held US policy of not imposing barriers on educational, scientific and cultural material, the website reported.

Simpson said: “It is hard to see any gain from tariffs on books, while the harm to American publishers, their customers, and American readers — as well as the American voices that are so important to education, religion, history, and culture — would be devastating.”

Workman c.e.o. Daniel Reynolds said: “Today nearly three-quarters of our catalogue consists of four-colour books, board books, and other types of unusual books that cannot be printed in the United States, due to lack of a trained workforce and capacity.”

Mark Schoenwold, president and c.e.o, of HarperCollins Christian Publishing, and ECPA president Stan Jantz also gave evidence.

Further testimony is due from speakers including Madeline McIntosh, c.e.o. of Penguin Random House US.