The president of the New Zealand Society of Authors wants to talk a lot about money.
It has been six years since I bought new panties. I know this because it has been six years since I earned enough to replace the old ones I had cared for during the previous decade. This is the reality for many writers like me (and others who pursue the arts), despite the fact that I have been writing for over 25 years and have been fortunate enough to win several awards. And it doesn’t stop at the underwear! My clothes and shoes are op store trades or finds, my hair is rarely cut at Just Cuts in the mall, I rarely eat out, don’t go on vacation, avoid the doctor and dentist unless it is. are urgent, swap homemade gifts for birthdays and Christmases, and dread unexpected bills. In fact, my only discretionary expenses are on writing or subscribing to news and buying books, whether it’s for research or trying to keep up with what my peers write. Most writing festivals aren’t on the menu either, unless they’re close and low cost. That said, I am one of the lucky ones: I own a house, I don’t have a student loan, I have a partner who has supported me enormously (although he also works in the cinema, so his incomes are increasing or decreasing), and have been employed part-time for at least half of those 25 years. A lot of young writers I know do it twice as hard.
Most years the income I earn from my writing is offset by what I have to spend to keep working, such as computer consumables, home office expenses, ACC, book promotions, travel, etc. telephone and Internet. However, I am not alone, not from afar. The latest figures from a Horizon survey (a survey of all NZSA and Writers Guild writers) show that the average annual income for writers is only $ 15,800. Only a small portion of this comes directly from book sales (many local publishers print only 500 books), with a small percentage paid in royalties; the rest comes from leftovers such as speaking expenses, facilitating workshops or other writing-related concerts.
A 2019 Colmar Brunton survey for Creative New Zealand and NZ On Air found that, overall, creative professionals earn an average of $ 35,800 per year after spending, considerably less than the median income of New Zealanders. Zealander who earn a salary ($ 51,800). They cite that those in the writing / literary arts industry earn an average of $ 32,500 – this turns out to be slightly below the living wage – however, these are all forms of income, including other paid work, which may be outside the sector.
Why bother, I hear you ask. That’s a good question, and I ask myself it with unfailing regularity. I guess the answer is I have to do it; it’s the only way for me to deal with the worries of the world that keep me awake at night. I firmly believe that the exchange between a writer and a reader is of a psychic type and that, therefore, the fusion of history, ideas and emotions has the power to open hearts and minds, to develop l empathy and compassion, to help us see ourselves and others in a new light.
So instead of financial security, I had to find other measures of success that are much more important to me. Like the letter from the young Australian who said that my book Dear Vincent had stopped its suicidal spiral. The young man who suddenly started reading again when his English teacher told him to read Singing Home the Whale. Or another young lady who brought my Smashed book to her foster mother and asked her to read it, opening up on her past for the first time, saying, “This is my life.” Every book has earned me at least one interaction that proves I’ve touched another life in a positive way – and every book has expressed something that is so close to my heart that I’m willing to forgo the holidays, the news. panties and other consumer traps. But that doesn’t make it fair, when our government is spending tens of millions on elite yacht races and huge salaries for consultants. And here’s the thing: it doesn’t have to be that way. There are simple solutions that would make all the difference for Aotearoa writers.
The only payment I can count on is the public lending right. It is compensation for my books borrowed from libraries (rather than being sold and royalties received), and I am very grateful for it. It’s not huge, a small fee per book if libraries have more than 50 copies of a title, but it helps calm us down over Christmas. The New Zealand Society of Authors Te Puni Kaituhi o Aotearoa (PEN NZ) Inc. (aka NZSA), fought for more than 30 years before this compensation was finally implemented. But while it was encouraging to receive a small top-up to the fund last year (for which, again, I’m grateful), the rate per pound has remained virtually unchanged, with no adjustment mechanism for inflation. . Currently, a review of this system is underway, but it is making great strides. The writers hope those who make the final decisions – all on generous salaries, no doubt – take into account the needs of our community and recognize the technological change that has occurred since the introduction of this payment.
EBooks are not included in the PLR’s tally, despite their lending increased by 30% from (and after) the 2020 foreclosure. This figure comes from a newsletter sent out by Auckland Libraries in January, which also indicates that in 2020 the total number of electronic issues increased by 3.3 million, an increase of 26% compared to 2019. The PLR also excludes audiobooks, another growing trend in lending – although those involved in the production of audiobooks get paid, only writers lack them.
Those of us who write for young people are even poorer, as school libraries are not included in the tally. This means that highly regarded writers and illustrators such as Lynley Dodd, Gavin Bishop, and Joy Cowley, whose books often form the backbone of school libraries, are not paid for it at all (beyond their modest advance of single fee). And the libraries themselves don’t support our writers: they buy the bulk of their new books from Australian library suppliers, which means authors get a lower export royalty: that’s the difference between 3 $ locally per book $ 30 or 90c if purchased overseas. These are things that are so easy to fix, but we are lagging behind. Australia and Canada have had educational lending rights for 20 years, and the UK, Europe and Denmark have electronic lending rights as well.
There are other very concrete and practical steps our government could take to improve the welfare of local writers. At NZSA, we have identified 25 “tweaks” in seven departments that would make a significant difference to our members’ income. But we need the support of those who believe that our stories and ideas make an important contribution to the daily life and culture of New Zealanders. And you need people willing to challenge the status quo. Imagine a country, for example, where half of all sports and recreation coverage on television and radio was more about the arts! It would send positive ripples through our society over time.
For proof of how the arts enrich us all, read this, which shows how the arts contribute to the economy, improve educational outcomes, create a more skilled workforce, improve health outcomes and personal well-being, rejuvenate cities, support democracy, create social inclusion and are clearly important to the lives of New Zealanders.
So here is my dream: a country where writers and other creatives are recognized for the well-being they generate in society and paid accordingly; where our state broadcaster has a quota of locally written books to criticize, rather than promoting foreign bestsellers that don’t require airtime (New Zealand’s music quota has made a huge difference); where writers are fairly and fairly compensated for all exceptions to copyright and where our government is actively working to protect our rights, rather than giving them away for free; where our Department of Education insists that at least 50% of English texts are written by New Zealand writers (creating a local readership that will continue into adulthood) and pay the license to copyright of each school so that authors of work that teachers use in lessons actually get paid; and, finally, where those of us writing here don’t always have to settle for leftovers and sagging panties.
Mandy Hager’s latest book, Protest! Shaping Aotearoa (OneTree House, $ 40) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.
Subscribe to Rec Room, a weekly newsletter bringing the latest videos, podcasts, and other recommendations from The Spinoff straight to your inbox.