Just show me the money

A body that collects authors’ revenues is going off-book and asking about their gender


This article is taken from the June 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Q: What does the average freelance writer like most, apart from large advances, titanic sales, appreciative reviews and peer esteem?

The answer is “free money”, here defined as sources of income that are all the more gratifying for being unexpected. Those Bulgarian translation rights? Your annual PLR statement? The US digital deal your agent fixed for some old, out-of-print novels back in 2015 that you forgot about? The amount may be trifling — nobody ever made very much out of East European translation rights — but the pleasure rests in the fact that you didn’t have to lift a finger to earn it.

Here in the Valley of the Shadow of Books, one of the most reliable sources of free money is an organisation called the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS). These wonderful people specialise in what might be called secondary sources of literary revenue.

Has a short story you wrote for the BBC in 2009 been re-broadcast on Dutch radio? Has some university English department been mass-photocopying the book you wrote in the last century? Well, ALCS will be on the case, and sooner or later the recyclers of your work will have to settle up.

There is, God knows, little enough money available to the 21st century scrivener — the median income is now put at around £7,000 — and ALCS’s efforts to redistribute some of it deserve nothing but praise.

Just lately, though, a shiny black corvid has poked its beak through the roof of this seemly dovecote and started croaking loudly. I refer to a survey, despatched by Alison Baxter, the organisation’s Head of Communications, the other month with the aim of better understanding “the demographics and perspectives of our members”.

It is always a bad sign when venerable institutions start sending out surveys to the membership, for what lies behind them is generally a desire — disguised by a lot of fine talk about “participation” and “consultation” — to impose a particular worldview, or play a particular mental confidence trick on the people they serve.

Here Ms Baxter assures her constituency that their feedback will “help to shape our future policies and membership initiatives”. We are also informed that whilst “change doesn’t happen overnight”, ALCS is “committed to ensuring that we continue to serve our evolving membership as best we can”.

What gender are you (six possible options, including opting out)?

All this encouraged the Secret Author to formulate a few first principles. After all, the “demographic” which makes up the ALCS membership surely consists of published authors? Their “perspective” is that they would like to make as much money from their work as possible. So the best way in which the organisation can continue to serve its evolving membership is to hone its collecting and redistributive techniques to their highest point.

But of course, the survey — which turns out to be conducted by a body called Impact Culture, described as “a social justice-led EDI consultancy” — isn’t like that at all. In fact, none of the questions have anything to do with money; you could read them without gaining the slightest sense of any organisational remit.

The survey begins with some bland and entirely reasonable enquiries. How did you become a member? Would you recommend it to others? There are questions about whether one feels one’s voice is being heard, provision for the disabled and a demand to know whether, if you raised a point about diversity, you thought ALCS would listen to what you had to say.

After which, of course, the really modish stuff kicks in. What gender are you (six possible options, including opting out)? Are you trans? What is your sexual orientation (another six possible options)? Then there are questions about socioeconomic placement. When you were 14, what occupation did the head of your household pursue? If you were educated in the period after 1980, were you eligible for free school meals? At which point, the Secret Author gave up even attempting to supply reasoned answers and logged off.

It is not that these questions aren’t worth pursuing, or that the socioeconomic basis of the nation’s literary community isn’t due serious study. It is merely that all this has nothing to do with ALCS, which exists to collect money and divide it up amongst its members, and has now spent a fair amount of this year’s proceeds enabling the directors of Impact Culture to subsidise their summer holidays. The survey may well be anonymised, but what the Secret Author’s father did for a living is not the ALCS’s business.

Once he had calmed down, the Secret Author conceded that this waste of valuable funds was not really ALCS’s fault. Fashionable activism is everywhere, and the Royal Society of Literature, the Society of Authors and half-a-dozen of our leading publishing houses are always sending out this kind of thing. As for ALCS’s “future policies”, there should be only one: license, collect and make sure your members get the results.

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