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.]