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.”