OPINION: News Weekly
How Australian authors fare in the free market
, August 22, 2009
We're being portrayed by some commentators as ''greedy'', ''narcissistic'', lazy cashed-up parasites preying on the poor oppressed Australian consumer, in cahoots with those wicked creatures, publishers.
So what if the Productivity Commission's recommendations of, on the one hand, ending parallel import restrictions on books, and on the other, giving government handouts to the then-decimated publishing industry, seem almost wilfully bizarre? So what if their attitude to literature seems to be a queasy mixture of cod-Marxist social engineering gobbledygook and rampant economic rationalism for the sake of it?
It's all about the free market, innit - the free market those chaps in think-tanks and boardrooms cheering on the report seem to think they inhabit.
Well, here's news for you, boys: authors live in the real free market. You know, that's the one without a reliable salary, superannuation, workers' comp, golden handshake, paid holidays, redundancy pay, work insurance, or anything else you care to name. The world where there is no guarantee from one year to the next - hell, sometimes one month
to the next - that the book you've slogged on for months or years will a) be taken by a publisher; b) sell; c) continue to sell. The world where you as creator get paid 10 per cent of the cover price of a book - if you're lucky - while the bookshops that display it will get 40 per cent or more - and that's just now, not even in the brave new world envisaged by the Commission, where you might end up with less than half of that, or even nothing.
This is a world where you've constantly got to live on your wits, come up with new ideas, be flexible and innovative and productive in a way the Productivity Commission or those chaps in boardrooms cannot even begin to imagine. The world where a good relationship with a committed local publisher who's prepared to put their money where their mouth is, is absolutely vital if you are to survive at all.
Contra the impression put about by some commentators, the vast majority of authors aren't wealthy - a very small number have done well, though rarely even then in the kind of league that chaps in boardrooms and think-tanks and on ex-politicians' benefits routinely aspire to.
Some make a living from their writing, even if often it doesn't even get to average wages; many do not, and must have other work as well. The statistics are pretty plain: only 15 per cent of writers in Australia earn more than $50,000 from their creative work, while 56 per cent earn less than $10,000 (quoted in Don't Give Up Your Day Job
, a survey published by the Australia Council in 2003).
In fact, there are only two ways to make any reasonable living in full-time writing. One is to write a best-seller (and wouldn't we all want that formula!); the other is to build up a good strong backlist of titles, so not only could you keep the work rolling on, but then you could also build up your Public Lending Right/Educational Lending Right income, the annually-paid schemes that are the only source of reliable income for the vast majority of writers (even if those sums aren't exactly big for many people). It means, of course, you have to write a lot of books - and you have to keep interesting publishers in them, what's more. And readers, too, of course.
Every book is a risk, but a risk you have to keep taking, if you want to keep eating and supporting your family and doing the job that you love and are best suited for. It's not in the least that the world owes us a living by virtue of our being authors - it's that like everyone else we have a right to do the job that best suits our talents and potential, without being spitefully dismissed as undeserving leeches sucking on the wallets of book-buyers. It's almost as if they think it's shameful to be paid for your work in writing a book - that it's not ''real'' work - like that of a think-tank, for example.
What is it really like, being an author who has taken the plunge into full-time writing? Not a celebrated or famous author, but an ordinary author beavering away at the coalface?
Well, at first, it's impossible. You start off with an income so derisively low that you hardly even dare to put "writer" on your tax form.
Through dint of constant, unrelenting work over years, blizzards of proposals, the coaxing of countless manuscripts into life, enforced frugality and the avoidance of such things as mortgages and other regularly-serviced debts, and an ability to brush off rejection and disappointment and to pick yourself up from reverses, eventually you might get to a stage where you no longer have to do all the other bits and pieces of work you had to do at first in order to survive.
You are no longer an emerging or even a developing writer but have arrived at that so-called exalted status, the "established writer".
But it's not over. It's not like in any other business where "established" means more than just brownie points or runs on the board, but financial security as well. Established you might be, and earn the envy of wannabes, the spite of those who tried and failed, the awe of those trying to get there, and respect from your peers, but it's no easier, in practice.
You still have to go through the same rigmarole, book after book, year after year. You have to constantly reinvent yourself, to keep a close eye on the Zeitgeist, to be at all times, in the words of fellow author Hazel Edwards, an "authorpreneur", with all the fierce focus, dedication, independence of spirit and innovative thinking that entails.
Surely, with all that, we should be the pin-up boys and girls of those doughty free-market warriors at the Productivity Commission, don't you think?
But no. All we deserve is a vague suggestion that after the vibrant industry in which we make our precarious living has been reduced to a shadow of its former self, we might be entitled to a handout, sit-down money, if you like.
And we're insulted by their cheer squad, the dignity of our hard work stripped away from us by people who would not survive even a year in the already hard-edged world authors live in.Novelist Sophie Masson lives at Invergowrie in northeastern NSW. Her most recent novel is The Madman of Venice (Hodder Children's Books).