Why Writers are Poor (2.0)

We’ve noted before the dismal earnings of Canadian authors: $9,380 in 2017, down from $12,879 in 2014. Things appear to be almost as bad in the UK, where the average author pulled in £10,497 in 2018, down 42% from 2006. These numbers are going to look much worse by the end of 2020, given the pandemic, bookstore lockdowns, and the cancellations of literary festivals and in-person events.

The UK Society of Authors has polled its members three times and learned that almost 60% have seen their incomes decline, more than 80% have had events canceled, and 70% will not be covered by their government’s coronavirus relief programs. (To give you an idea of how important appearances, readings, panel discussions, and book signings are to the life a writer these days, 40% of UK authors report that events make up 75% to 100% of their income.)

The Writers’ Union of Canada has also surveyed its members. It learned that those who responded were expecting losses of about $10,000 in the near term, an amount slightly more than the average author’s reported annual income.

What’s interesting is the different defeatist approaches the two unions have taken to this predicament. (I’m leaving aside the US Author’s Guild because it’s largely sitting out the pandemic, asking for a few tweaks to short-term coronavirus relief programsand nothing else).

The Society of Authors is lobbying its government to increase funding of the Public Lending Right to alleviate the impact of Covid-19 on creators.

Many countries have Public Lending Right programs (not the U.S., but it should have one). No two are the same but all are designed, as one of them says, “to balance the social need for free public access to books against an author's right to be renumerated for the use of their work."

All of them involve national governments (not local libraries) making payments to authors whose works are available for public borrowing. In the UK, the program pays authors about 9 pence, or about 15 cents, each time one of their books is signed out of a public library. Total payout in the UK is £6 million pounds or $12 million (Can). The society would like to see the fund increased to £11.2 million, which would put it on par with Germany’s. Even with that increase, three-quarters of UK writers will wind up getting less than $300 (Can) a year from the fund, and 90% will get less than $800 (Can). In short, the Society of Authors wants its dues-paying members to starve a little slower.

The Canadian writers’ union is not asking for a top-up of Canada’s Public Lending Right, probably because the Trudeau government recently threw a couple million more in the kitty, bringing it to $15 million. That’s a respectable fund by global standards but pathetic given that it amounts to $800 annually per author. Canada spends about $2 billion a year on its public libraries, the lifeblood of which is Canadian-authored literature. You’d think we could manage to direct more than .75 per cent of that amount to the creators. (Our views on the injustices to authors of the library system are here and here.)

(An interesting difference between the UK and Canadian funds is that the latter pays you regardless of whether anyone borrows your book. If your book is on the shelf, you’ll get a share of the money. Also, the Canadian fund tops out at $4,500 (Can) per author, while the UK gives its few-hundred most-borrowed authors as much as $11,000 (Can) per year. It is not uncommon for Canadian arts support programs to offer no incentives for authors to seek audiences for their work.)

Instead of asking for a meaningful Public Lending Right, the Canadian union pinned its hopes to a longshot. It wrote a letter last July to Justin Trudeau and members of his cabinet asking for the establishment of a Universal Basic Income that would permit all Canadians, including authors, to live in dignity.

The letter is short on details on how the program would work, and long on the glories of the New Jerusalem expected in its wake. Several dubious assumptions are made: for instance, that the basic income would supplement rather than replace current arts, culture, and social programs.

I don’t necessarily object to a Universal Basic Income. There was a certain logic to it when Nixon proposed it in the early seventies, and there’s a certain logic to it now. But the idea that it would float on top of current levels of spending, rather than replacing existing programs on something close to a dollar-for-dollar basis, is improbable.

In any event, the Universal Basic Income proposal, after generating some discussion over the summer, is already dead. If a left-leaning Trudeau minority government dependent for its survival on the further-left New Democrats couldn’t chin itself to that bar amid a generational crisis, it’s never going to happen. Last week’s speech from the throne, setting out the government’s legislative priorities, ghosted UBI.

Leaving aside the merits of a basic income, I was disappointed that the writer’s union could come up with nothing better (not that I’m a member). It opted for a form of welfare over fair compensation for its members’ output. It’s true that the cheques would come from Ottawa regardless, but there is a world of difference between selling to government at fair value the rights to lend one’s work, and accepting a dole. The union is arguing that a writer is worth no more than his or her pulse.

What is fair value for literary output? I don’t know. But the publishing world pays authors royalties of eight to ten per cent on gross revenue. Why shouldn’t Ottawa pay a similar percentage on total library operating budgets? That would bring the Public Lending Right up to at least $160 million. Add in some incentives for authors to build their audiences, and a reasonable number of them will have a reasonable shot at making a living.