Tag Archives: Australian Society of Authors

What do writers earn?

After half a century of outstanding literary achievement, a venerable Australian author has declared himself almost penniless. Approaching his 79th birthday, Frank Moorhouse AM, winner of numerous prizes for his work in several genres including the Miles Franklin award, ruefully divulges in a recent journal article that despite plenty of reputational success he has no financial security to show for it all.

Most authors learn to live with the fact that our writing is never likely to bring in big dollars from any source. A large 2015 survey of author income in Australia indicates that, even when the sample is confined to people with at least one book-length publication to their name, the average annual income derived from practising as an author is $12,900.

No doubt earnings vary a lot according to genre; poets, for instance, generally don’t expect to earn as much as someone who writes books for children. Of course there are superstar writers with handsome incomes, but very few. Hardly anyone in Australia makes a living out of creative literary activities.

The weight of numbers is against us. Although it’s hard to find reliable trend data, there’s no doubt that the book market is extremely crowded, as I mentioned in a recent post. More and more books are getting published (about 55 per day in Australia), but with shorter and shorter shelf lives, while fewer and fewer people seem to be buying what we produce. So we jostle one another aside, unavoidably, in a struggle for attention. The increased number of contenders for literary prizes is a reflection of this. In 1973 only six books were entered for the Miles Franklin Award, and the judges deemed none of them good enough to merit it, whereas there were 64 submissions for the 2017 award – still only a selection of the Australian novels published during the eligible period.

A 2016 Roy Morgan study of Australia’s reading habits found that the proportion of all Australians who read either fiction or non-fiction declined over the previous five years in every age group from 14 upwards, except for women over 65. Correspondingly the percentage of the population buying books these days is also on the wane.

A consequence for authors is that the unofficial benchmark for a satisfactory cumulative sales result is lower than it used to be. According to the grapevine, the average number of copies sold for a work of literary fiction by a first-time Australian author is now a bit under 1000. Based on average retail pricing and royalty percentages, this would usually yield little more than $2000 in royalties.

Average figures don’t convey the full story because royalty returns can swing wildly up and down from year to year, depending on whether we’ve just had a new book released. Anyhow, like most authors, I get only a small proportion of my writing income from royalties. We supplement those meagre direct profits with whatever we can get from indirect sources – a range of writing-related activities such as paid talks and teaching writing, plus fees for copyright (threatened by a Productivity Commission report currently under government consideration) and for public lending right and educational lending right. Perhaps, with better than average luck, there may also be occasional cash from residencies, festival appearances, fellowships, even prizes – all eked out, usually, with earnings from some unrelated day job.

Most authors daydream about the utterly remote possibility that our books will be snapped up by one of the giant publishers after a sensational bidding war for global or even galactic rights, and will then be vigorously marketed, distributed, translated into many languages and turned into a blockbuster movie and a Broadway musical. Unless that fantasy turns into reality for some wonderfully fortunate writer amongst us, we’ll just have to make do with scratching along, cobbling together bits and pieces of income from whatever comes to hand. That’s where the question of pay rates for authors becomes important.

The Australian Society of Authors, as part of its mission to provide members with Advocacy, Support and Advice) recommends benchmark rates of pay for various kinds of writing-related activities. These recommended rates help us to negotiate fair remuneration.

But market conditions keep changing, and the current rates are outdated. Many haven’t been revised for five or six years. Getting the right balance between realistic and aspirational rates is difficult. So the ASA has surveyed writers and illustrators on this topic. The process of compiling and analysing all the data isn’t yet complete. When it is, the ASA will go back to all participant organisations (e.g. writers’ centres) with a draft of proposed new rates. Once there is a consensus, new rates will be published.

If you’re not already an ASA member, joining now would be timely! There’s plenty of information about the benefits of doing so on its website: www.asauthors.org


[This is a much-abbreviated version of a talk I gave, in my capacity as a Director of the ASA, at a WritingWA Forum on 1st August, where I was able to reveal preliminary findings from the ASA survey.]

Help to repel an assault on Australian writing

IMG_4888Since its inception more than half a century ago  the Australian Society of Authors (ASA) has gained very substantial benefits for this country’s writers, and so for readers of Australian literature as well. Right now its efforts are more crucially important than ever, because Australian writing is under heavy assault.

As its current slogan proclaims, the acronym ASA could just as well stand for the range of services that this organisation offers to literary practitioners: Advocacy/Support/Advice.

Fair copyright licence provisions and public lending right legislation are among its most impressive and tangible achievements.

I’ve written appreciatively about the ASA in a previous post. At this moment it’s in the spotlight as it valiantly fights the good fight against potentially disastrous measures proposed by the Productivity Commission, particularly a recommendation to remove existing restrictions on parallel importation of books. Anyone who cares about the future of Australian writing should take heed – and take action!

(In what follows I’ve abridged a statement sent recently to ASA members by its CEO, Juliet Rogers. I do so with her permission and in my capacity as an ASA Board Director.)

On Friday 23 September the Productivity Commission will deliver to the Commonwealth Government its final report on Intellectual Property Arrangements. It is unlikely to change the recommendations of its draft report, which would have these drastic effects:

The ASA is working with the Australian Publishers Association to submit to the government within the next few weeks a joint petition protesting against these changes . Although it already contains more than 16,000 signatures, there’s an urgent need to add as many signatories as possible so that politicians with the power to influence this decision receive a strong message.

Some loyal readers of Australian books are still not aware of what’s at stake. If you’re in that category, please go to the information links highlighted above – and then consider sending a letter to your Member of Parliament and a State Senator expressing your concerns.

Some Australian writers haven’t yet signed the ASA petition. If you’re in that category, please do so without delay by following this link. And if you’re not a member of the Australian Society of Authors, NOW is a very good time to join this vital organisation.

ASA colour logo

By the way, if you live in or near Perth you may like to attend an event on Thursday 15 September at the State Library of WA Theatre, 6-8 pm: Juliet Rogers, CEO of the ASA, will talk about ‘The Business of Writing.’ This overview of current challenges, hazards and opportunities for writers is sponsored by WritingWA – a great example of the kind of partnership in which both WritingWA and the ASA have excelled. It’s a free event, open to all, but registration is required.



Why Monsieur Parizot made a fuss

Victor Parizot was refusing to pay his bill.

He hadn’t intended, on that evening in 1849, to create a scene at his local Parisian restaurant; the meal and musical entertainment were enjoyable. But when, to his surprise, the small orchestra played a particular piece of music with which he was thoroughly familiar, he decided to stand up for his rights. It was one of his own compositions and he thought he should be recompensed for its use. ‘I’ll pay for my dinner,’ he told the waiter, ‘when I’m paid for my music.’

The ensuing dispute went to court, where the composer won his case, thus establishing that the creator of a work of art deserves remuneration when it’s publicly used. A further century would pass before the principle of performing rights became extended to lending rights for authors whose books are borrowed from public libraries, and in our country Public Lending Right legislation was not enacted until 1985, after many years of dogged campaigning by the Australian Society of Authors (ASA). It almost happened a decade earlier: Gough Whitlam’s bill to provide an administrative framework for PLR was scheduled for tabling in parliament on 11 November 1975 – the day of his government’s dismissal.

S&SThe scheme of PLR payment to authors, based on the number of library loans of their books, is just one of the great achievements by the ASA since its foundation more than half a century ago. I’ve recently been reading Status and Sugar: A History of the Australian Society of Authors 1963-2013, by Stephany Steggall, in which I read about Monsieur Parizot’s dispute and many other instructive episodes from the past. As one who has benefited materially from PLR, from fees for licensed copying, and from several other business arrangements designed to protect writers, I have good reason to be deeply grateful to this fine organisation.

Writers in Australia today face serious challenges, and need more than ever the advocacy and practical support provided by the ASA. Some of those challenges dominated discussion at the ASA’s Annual General Meeting held last weekend in Sydney, which I attended in my capacity as a newly appointed Director on its Board of Management. It was sobering to hear about the likely impact of recent developments such as the release of the Productivity Commission’s wrongheaded draft report on Australia’s intellectual property arrangements.

The so-called ‘Fair Use’ exception to existing copyright provisions, which the report recommends be introduced, would be culturally and economically damaging for Australia, and would rob individual authors of a legitimate source of income from copying fees. For a summary of problems that would ensue if this report were to be adopted by government, see what the Copyright Agency has to say.

The Commission also recommends the repeal of restrictions on the Parallel Importation on Books. This is a more complicated and contested topic. On the one hand it seems to some commentators that the current restrictions are anti-competitive, protecting local publishers at the expense of readers. But for a contrary view, see Thomas Keneally’s remarks in the Australian Financial Review.

You can expect vigorous public combat and private lobbying on these matters during the federal election campaign. And you can rely on the ASA to be in the thick of it. If you’re an established or aspiring writer but are not a member of the ASA, do consider joining so that you can contribute to and benefit from a vital organisation devoted to promoting and protecting the professional interests of literary creators. Its website  contains information about different categories of membership and the various services provided.