Editorial — Issue 37

Peons in the literary plantations

Philip Temple

The Literature section of  “Employment in the Cultural Sector”, published last year by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs and Statistics New Zealand, tells us that full-time authors are earning an average of almost $34,000 a year.  The figure was arrived at by matching everyone who described themselves as authors in the last census with their total income, regardless of whether this came from writing or not.  There was no attempt in this document to define how many books by all these relatively well-heeled authors (the salary for a university lecturer, for instance, starts at $45,000) could be described as  “literature” in the finer sense. The Ministry’s appreciation of  “culture” seems to be in the best traditions of Te Papa Millennial, where a Frigidaire equals a McCahon. On that basis, the Ministry’s document well serves its current political masters, who bestow high honours on those who understand what works well culturally with those who have just enough bread to enjoy the circus.  And they can also say – aren’t authors doing well in the free-market wonderland?

If we narrow our definitions a little to look at authors who can be said to contribute to New Zealand Literature – those who (mostly) got to be included in the recent Oxford Companion – and also examine what those authors actually earn from writing books then, of course, we come up with a completely different picture.  A NZ Society of Authors survey a couple of years ago revealed that only a handful of authors made a living solely from writing and the highest gross income reported was $30,000.  While acknowledging that there is a small group of authors – especially those in the children’s and educational fields – who make handsome incomes, these are exceptions to the rule that most literary authors would be better off on the dole.

The best way to appreciate what a “literary author” earns is to break down the income fractions in the retail price of a book. From a standard New Zealand novel priced at $24.95, the Government takes $2.77 in GST. From the nett balance, the bookseller will receive anything from $7.76 to $11.09, depending on what wholesale percentage they can screw out of the publisher – let’s say an average of  $9.42; leaving $10.54 for the publisher and just $2.22 for the author. In other words, the IRD passively receives some 20% more than the creator.

Good novels usually sell from 1500 to 5000 copies in the limited New Zealand market. Given the time it takes to write a novel, this is clearly not a profit-making exercise.  Literary authors have to seek other work; depend on a spouse’s support; hope for Creative NZ support through grants or university fellowships; and use sparingly the low rewards from Authors Fund compensation for the free use of their books in libraries.

As a supportive publisher of New Zealand fiction put it to me years ago, authors are the peons of the literary plantations.  The plantation owners, or publishers (small ones excepted), and the distributors/retailers make the most profit from the bananas.  As another (small) publisher said to me more recently, only chain booksellers get to drive the BMWs.   Authors are at the apex of the pyramid – an inverted one, supporting all those who produce and sell their work. The semi-monopoly of one chain bookseller and the introduction of parallel importing squeeze publishers further who, in turn, squeeze authors with lower advances, and an increasing tendency to offer a percentage of gross receipts on sales rather than a percentage of RRP.  In the mindless and relentless pursuit of market efficiencies, of providing better prices to the customer, the producer misses out. So what’s new?  Authors have always been the victims of the Employment Contracts Act, long before it was even thought of.

What’s to be done?  Since the present Government appears to have no effective interest in these matters, literary authors must hope that a future administration will (a) boost Creative New Zealand’s funding to better support the writing and local publishing of literature; (b) reform the Authors Fund so that compensation better reflects the free use of their books; (c) raise the profile of authors and other artists – through such innovations as a New Zealand Academy – to give them the mana they deserve for the vast contribution they make to this country’s development and well-being and to the nation’s imagination of itself. In the market-place, authors and publishers should attempt to co-operate rather better in order to achieve better deals from chain booksellers, and to develop alternative sales and marketing methods that bring both of them better returns.

Philip Temple is President of the NZ Society of Authors (PEN NZ Inc).

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