In a few months, when my latest effort has been published, I’ll have written 3 books in two years. Four in three if you count the unpublished novel that kickstarted the whole she-bang.
For my entire journey, writing has only ever been a full-time occupation for a short few months. And that wasn’t by choice. Not by a long shot. It was simply a result of there being a shortage of supplementary paid work for me to do. Thankfully I have a wife who works. Thankfully too I eventually fluked a bit of fill in radio broadcasting and the odd freelance gig here and there. Without them I’d be stuffed. It never ceases to amaze me how many people automatically grant writers a status far loftier than our bank accounts will ever show. There’s an instant respect borne of people amazed you can do something that they never could. Writing requires patience and effort. Lots of both, in fact. But it just don’t pay.
It is here that I hand over to Germaine Greer to explain the rest.
From today’s Sydney Morning Herald:
(Full link below)
Writers ponder whether it’s worth putting pen to paper
by Germaine Greer
AN AUSTRALIAN publisher told me recently that in four years there had been ”great changes in the publishing environment”. As far as I was concerned she was the publishing environment; she, not some vague external agency, was the one offering me $10,000 for a full-length book. When you consider that the headmistress of an Australian girls’ school can expect to earn rather more than a half a million dollars a year plus perks, $10,000 for six years’ work – that is, 1/300th of that rate – seems a differential too far.
Australia’s is a boom economy; in theory there is money sloshing everywhere. There is certainly enough money to keep a large number of publishing houses in business, with all their employees earning a far better hourly rate than the writers who supply them with their product. The writers are supposed to be paid an advance against royalties. The contract will usually specify that this is paid in three tranches, one on signature, another on submission and/or acceptance of the ”manuscript”, and the last on publication.
In one of my recent encounters with an Australian publisher, the tranche payable on publication was not paid, so the publisher was technically in breach of contract. No statement of account was sent to my agents for four years – again a breach of contract. When a statement did appear the part of the advance that was not earned out had been subtracted from the full advance, so it was never paid. That is not how the system is meant to work.
What should happen is that as long as the advance has not been covered, the yearly statement simply shows a minus. Obviously, if the publisher does not keep the book in print, so there is no possibility of the author’s earning royalties, it would be unjust and unfair to penalise the author. The advance system exists precisely because it is not the writer’s job to sell the book but the publisher’s; if the publisher fails to sell sufficient copies, the publisher must bear the loss. The fact the price of milk has fallen below the level at which he can make a profit does not give a dairy farmer the right to starve his cows.
The same publisher then issued my book as part of a collection, in a paperback version that certainly looked and felt cheap, but was priced at $30. This publication was never discussed, no terms were ever agreed, and no royalty whatsoever would appear to be payable. This is not just no way to treat an author; it’s no way to run a business.
Australian publishers are not doing their job, which is to manage the market. Their most obvious failure is in organising the merchandising of electronic texts. Online publishing is the most exciting development since the invention of printing. Properly orchestrated, it would make possible the publication of all kinds of books in all kinds of formats at reduced cost and hence with higher profit margins.
Australians have always paid over the odds for books and they have bought as many books per capita as any other English-speaking nation, so it is not readers’ fault Australian writers cannot make a living. And it’s not the writers’ fault, either. Even the best Australian writers find that, given the escalating cost of living typical of a mining boom, they cannot keep up their mortgage payments unless they work their ticket around the literary festivals, teaching creative writing or even how to be a professional author.
Each of the 40 or so people who come to the ”masterclass” will pay something like $120 for a half-day, of which the writer’s share is the smallest. Good writers should be writing, getting better at what they’re good at. When they’re not producing at their best level, everyone is poorer.
Because writers are by far the cheapest labour in the system, they are left with the task of selling their books on behalf of booksellers who command a far higher share of the book price.
Writers are vulnerable to such exploitation because they care about their books and want to do their best for them. Their position at the bottom of the pecking order has knock-on effects. Having been shown to be fool enough to work for years for nothing, the writer has no way of compelling respect from editors who can demand more than $60 an hour.