When she accepted the $60,000 Stella Prize last month, poet Evelyn Araluen was both excited and relieved.
“One year ago I was about as broke as I had ever been,” she said in her speech, referring to the period leading up to the release of her debut poetry collection.
The prize money attached to the Stella – a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” – would be used to pay down some HECS debt and subsidise her basic living costs, Araluen said. It meant she could work two jobs instead of three.
“Artists in this country are used to living one paycheque away from poverty.”
The comments were a sad indictment of the reality of modern Australian literature.
Araluen is one of the nation’s most exciting and celebrated writers. Her debut book, Dropbear, has received rave reviews and she’s appearing in a number of main stage events this week at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. How is it possible that she’s reliant on a prize to pay her rent?
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.”
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.
Sakr supports the idea of a UBI for everyone, not just artists. Though for authors, he says, it would be a particularly “welcome change, [offering] security instead of precarity”.
He’s also eager to point out this isn’t a matter of asking for more from the taxpayer; it’s about “prioritising our spending”.
Binks, who is regularly in contact with young writers in high schools and university, is fearful about the future of Australian literature if we don’t see a radical change.
“Kids are already hung up on how much money you can make and whether you can do this for a living … I tell them the reason I write – the reason we all engage in books, art, theatre, anything – is that art changes people and people change the world.
“But I’m convinced there’s a whole generation of artists, and writers in particular, who will not choose this path.”
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