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Letter of Frustration from an Academic Author

The text below is from a letter sent by an author to his publisher, names being withheld. It expresses the genuine sense of frustration that many academics feel towards publishers.

Dear ,

Re: Handbook

I have already signed the Memorandum of Agreement for this work (`the Handbook’), but before sending it I began to reflect – with some dismay – on the way in which authors and editors are treated by the great publishing houses of the world. I published my first three books more than 35 years ago; and I have served on many editorial boards during that time (including those for John Wiley publications such as International Journal of Quantum Chemistry and Advances in Quantum Chemistry), so I can speak with some experience. And as we have a good personal relationship I think I can say the things that are felt by many of us (but seldom expressed) without causing offence.

Let me first say that I have no interest in either financial reward or ‘fame’. As an author my main concern has always been to create something worthwhile, that would serve the scientific community for a good number of years, and when I have succeeded that has been sufficient reward in itself.

On the other hand, I am interested in principles, justice and `common decency’, like most of us; and when I see a contract that offers one half of one percent of Publisher’s Net Receipts for the hundreds of hours of work needed to bring into existence a Handbook that will be a milestone in its field, then I am bound to consider the proposal indecent and offensive. Not many years ago, it was customary to offer an author at least ten percent of Published Price on his book (indeed I still receive that rate on a book published 20 years ago, which is still ‘alive’); but now, many Publishers use the Net Receipts formula to cover a large part of the expenses that most of us would consider ‘internal’ (promotion, marketing, distribution, various taxes, duties etc. — and generous discounts to booksellers), all at the expense of their authors and editors! To use a Civil Service expression, the ‘claw back’ has increased to a quite outrageous level. Very often we are even expected to do our own type-setting, providing diskettes and camera-ready copy; and the Copyright of the work produced is to be handed over without question to the Publisher.

Please reflect on these comments and you will appreciate the difficulty we have in finding authors and editors. You will no doubt explain how publishing costs have have risen to unbelievable levels over the years; and this is surely true. I am not concerned, however, with total costs but rather with percentages — which should not change. Why should an editor’s work be priced at one half of one percent, while the services of the bookseller (who merely keeps the books on his shelves) are commonly valued at around 30 percent? After all, we are the people who create the books — and without us there would be no Publishing Houses! As you well know, ELIZABETH and I will have a fiendishly difficult task to find contributors of real quality; and some of the reasons are obvious.

In spite of these difficulties, I am genuinely enthusiastic about bringing the Handbook into existence. But before establishing a legally binding commitment I would very much appreciate your views on the points I have raised. And in case you might feel I am simply trying to ‘drive a hard bargain’ I should perhaps assure you that any royalties I receive will go immediately to OXFAM.

Forgive me for letting off steam in this way, but is it not time that publishers became a little bit more generous to the people who actually produce the goods they put on the market? And does not YOUR COMPANY have the international stature to take a lead in that direction?

I look forward to hearing from you — and, of course, to our future collaboration.

Yours sincerely,