The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Romei

Mark Twain, writ­ing in The Gal­axy il­lus­trated mag­a­zine in Novem­ber 1870, of­fered “a gen­eral re­ply” to as­pir­ing au­thors seek­ing his ad­vice. On the mat­ter of be­ing paid for their writ­ing, he said this would take care of it­self, be­cause any­one who pro­duced lit­er­ary work of real value would “re­quire more hands than you have now, and more brains that you prob­a­bly ever will have, to do even half the work that will be of­fered you’’. Yet how to know if your work has worth? Twain con­tin­ued: “... one needs only to adopt a very sim­ple and cer­tainly very sure process; and that is, to write with­out pay un­til some­body of­fers pay. If no­body of­fers pay within three years, the can­di­date may look upon this cir­cum­stance with the most im­plicit con­fi­dence as the sign that saw­ing wood is what he was in­tended for. If he has any wis­dom at all, then, he will re­tire with dig­nity and as­sume his heaven-ap­pointed vo­ca­tion.”

Twain’s words came to mind as I read a Mac­quarie Univer­sity re­port on Aus­tralian au­thors’ in­come, part of an on­go­ing study ti­tled The Aus­tralian Book Industry: Au­thors, Pub­lish­ers and Read­ers in a Time of Change. The re­port, based on an on­line sur­vey of more than 1000 au­thors, sug­gests any­one em­bark­ing on the writ­ing game would be well ad­vised to learn how to saw wood. The head­line num­ber is $12,900 — the av­er­age gross in­come for au­thors in 2013-14. That num­ber is for in­come de­rived solely from be­ing an author. When in­come from other sources is taken into ac­count, the pay packet swells to $62,000, which is bang on the Aus­tralian av­er­age.

By far the two most sig­nif­i­cant com­po­nents of the other in­come stream are “a job un­re­lated to be­ing an author” and “the in­come of your part­ner”. Nearly half of all writ­ers made ends meet by do­ing non-writerly work — in­deed this made up the bulk of their in­come — while al­most 40 per cent re­ceived financial as­sis­tance from their part­ners. As award-win­ning writer Steven Her­rick put it in an ar­ti­cle for Aus­tralian Author mag­a­zine, “It’s not the Aus­tralia Coun­cil that is the pa­tron of lit­er­a­ture, but the hard­work­ing hus­bands and wives of writ­ers.’’

In­deed. We hear a lot about writ­ers on the pub­lic teat. The re­port in­di­cates grants made up $600 of that av­er­age in­come of $12,900.

A breakdown of the in­come statis­tics makes for in­ter­est­ing read­ing. Con­sid­er­ing only in­come earned as an author, the best re­mu­ner­ated field is ed­u­ca­tion books ($16,300 a year), fol­lowed by genre fic­tion ($15,200), chil­dren’s books ($14,700) and lit­er­ary fic­tion ($13,400). At the bot­tom of the scale is po­etry at just $4000 a year. The av­er­age ad­vance re­ceived by po­ets is $100, com­pared with $5300 for genre fic­tion, $3900 for lit­er­ary fic­tion and $3800 for chil­dren’s books. The re­port dryly notes the “mod­est size of com­mer­cial mar­kets for sales of po­etry’’. Cue Robert Frost: “There is no money in po­etry, but then there’s no po­etry in money either.’’ Even so, how any­one can ad­vo­cate the abo­li­tion of lit­er­ary prizes eludes me. For the poet who wins a Prime Min­is­ter’s Lit­er­ary Award, worth $80,000, it is 20 Christ­mases come at once. Still no word on this year's PM’s prizes as this col­umn went to print, by the way.

Twain con­cluded his ad­vice with a re­minder of the power of lit­er­a­ture. He ad­mon­ished “lit­er­ary as­pi­rants” who thought they could walk into the job with­out un­der­go­ing a long and ill-paid initiation. “The poor fel­low would not in­trude upon the tin shop with­out an ap­pren­tice­ship, but is will­ing to seize and wield with un­prac­tised hand an in­stru­ment which is able to over­throw dy­nas­ties, change re­li­gions, and de­cree the weal or woe of na­tions.’’

Of course some writ­ers do make se­ri­ous money, and with that in mind we turn to an­other Amer­i­can hu­morist, Robert Bench­ley, for our quote of the week, which is an oldie but a goodie: “It took me 15 years to dis­cover I had no tal­ent for writ­ing, but I couldn’t give it up be­cause by that time I was too fa­mous.”

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