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Australia is on the brink of losing a generation of authors

After years of arts budget cuts as well as the impact of COVID-19, how many more talented authors, especially those from marginalised or financially precarious backgrounds, are we missing out on simply because they can’t afford to make a start?

In 2015, a Macquarie University study found the average annual income derived from practising as an author in Australia was just $12,900. A 2020 survey from the Australian Society of Authors reported that around half of respondents made less than $2000 per year – and 31 per cent of authors said their income had taken a hit due to the pandemic.

“I don’t represent anyone who doesn’t have a day job,” says literary agent Danielle Binks, who also works as an author and creative writing tutor.

“There’s no one on my books who is making enough money from their art to do this full-time. Realistically it’s only the Liane Moriartys and Andy Griffiths who are doing that.”

Australia is on the brink of losing a generation of authors says Binks, who started working as an agent in 2016, says she hears talk about “the golden days of liquid lunches and $100,000 contracts” but it feels pretty distant from what the vast majority of authors can expect today.

The price a publisher will pay for a book, she says, varies depending on all sorts of factors (the genre, quality, profile of the author and demand in the market), but can sit between $40,000 and $80,000 for adult fiction or non-fiction. Young adult novels go for less, often between $5000 and $10,000 (partially due to the fact they’re sold at a lower retail price).

This money can’t be relied on like a regular salary. It comes to authors in a few instalments through the publishing process – when signing the contract, when completing drafts, when the book is published – which can take a number of years. And it only rolls in when you have the green light on a new work. Any time spent researching or developing ideas before that point is unpaid.

Writer Brodie Lancaster was paid between $5000 and $7000 for her debut book, a memoir which was aimed at young women, released in 2017. With the amount being paid over the course of 18 months, she couldn’t afford to give up full-time work while writing.

“Looking back on it, I’m not really sure how I did it,” she says. “You have to really want to write the book.”

Though Lancaster – who is also a copywriter, journalist and critic – now really wants to write a novel, she’s having trouble making time. COVID, she says, has created even more of a “scarcity mindset”, where she feels she has to chase paid work in fear it might all drop away.

“I take freelance briefings [for corporate clients] and pitch stories before work, in my lunch break, after work and on weekends,” she says.

“To be able to dedicate your time to [writing a book], you need some way to pay to live. And that means that the people who are able to do it are the kinds of people who can afford to not work.”

To help offset the cost of writing a book authors often turn to grants to make up the shortfall between what they get paid for the book and the actual cost of living.

“Emerging writers used to be very reliant on the Australia Council to provide them grant funding,” Binks says. “But it just doesn’t exist [in the same way] anymore.”

In the past financial year, the Australia Council gave out $4.7 million in grant funding to literature. This is around half the amount it disbursed a decade ago.

Poet and writer Omar Sakr, who won the 2020 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Poetry, says he would not have been able to write his last two books without grant funding from bodies like the Australia Council, Create NSW and the Copyright Agency. But even then, things were tight.

“At times through that period I was without housing, couch-surfing or living with relatives to make do,” he says.

“Now that I’m older, married and starting a family, it’s increasingly difficult to sustain myself through my practice alone and I’m seriously considering getting a different job.”

So what exactly would it take to keep Australia’s best writers going? According to those interviewed for this story: more funding (for publishers, literary publications and authors), more prizes, more equitable prizes, and a lot of creative thinking.

Dr Jo Caust from the University of Melbourne’s school of culture and communication has recently advocated for a universal basic income (UBI) for artists: an ongoing base payment to cover some basic living expenses while they work on their craft.

“There are many communities around the world where artists are valued [in this way],” she says.

Ireland, for example, is instituting a scheme to support up to 2000 artists with €325 ($490) a week for three years. In announcing the program, Irish Arts Minister Catherine Martin says she “wants the arts to not just to recover [from the pandemic], but to flourish”.

And despite “America being the height of capitalism”, Caust says, “New York has been doing it in many different ways over the last year too.”

But in Australia “the whole area of arts and culture is not seen as important”, she says. “We’re one of the richest countries in the world. And we’re one of the lowest countries in terms of the amount of money we give to arts and culture in the OECD.

“It just makes you want to tear your hair out,” she says.

(Article courtesy of The Sydney Morning Herald -Meg Watson)

Paul Rushworth-Brown is the author of three published novels.

Picture of author Paul Rushworth-Brown signing a book
Author Paul Rushworth-Brown

He was born in Maidstone, Kent, England in 1962. He spent time in a foster home in Manchester before emigrating to Canada with his mother in 1972. He spent his teenage years living and attending school in Toronto, Ontario, where he played professional soccer in the Canadian National Soccer League. In 1982, he emigrated to Australia to spend time with his father, Jimmy Brown who had moved there from Yorkshire in the mid-fifties.

​Paul was educated at Charles Sturt University in New South Wales, Australia. He became a writer in 2015 when he embarked on a six-month project to produce a written family history for his children, Rachael, Christopher and Hayley.

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