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Why our authors live a paycheck away from poverty

“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 makes enough money from their art to do that full time. In reality, only Liane Moriartys and Andy Griffiths do that.


Binks, who started working as an agent in 2016, says she hears about “the golden age of liquid lunches and $100,000 contracts,” but that seems pretty far removed from what the vast majority expect. authors can expect today.

The price a publisher will pay for a book, she says, varies depending on all sorts of factors (genre, quality, author profile and market demand), but can be between 40 $000 and $80,000 for adult or non-adult fiction. fiction. Young adult novels cost less, often between $5,000 and $10,000 (partly because they are sold at a lower retail price).

This money cannot be relied upon as a regular salary. It happens to authors in a few installments throughout the publishing process – when signing the contract, when writing drafts, when the book is published – which can take several years. And that only happens when you have the green light for a new work. Any time spent researching or developing ideas before this point is unpaid.

Writer Brodie Lancaster was paid between $5,000 and $7,000 for her first book, a memoir aimed at young women, published in 2017. With the amount paid over an 18-month period, she couldn’t afford to give up full time. work by writing.

“Looking back, I don’t really know how I did,” she says. “You really have to want to write the book.”

Although Lancaster – who is also an editor, journalist and critic – now really wants to write a novel, she struggles to buy time. COVID, she says, has created even more of a “scarcity mindset,” where she feels she has to seek paid work lest it all go away.

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

“Being able to devote your time to [writing a book], you need a way to pay to live. And that means the people who can do it are the kind of people who can afford not to work.

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

Literary agent Danielle Binks fears for the next generation of Australian authors. Credit:Josh Robenstone

“Emerging writers were very dependent on the Australia Council to provide them with grants,” says Binks. “But it doesn’t exist [in the same way] more.”

In the last financial year, the Australian Council awarded $4.7 million in literature grants. That’s about half the amount he was paying ten years ago.

Poet and writer Omar Sakr, who won the 2020 Prime Minister’s Literary Prize for Poetry, says he could not have written his last two books without a grant from bodies such as the Australia Council, Create NSW and the Copyright Agency. But even then, things were tight.

Award-winning poet Omar Sakr.

Award-winning poet Omar Sakr.Credit:James Alcock

“Sometimes during this time I was homeless, couch surfing or living with relatives to get by,” he says.

“Now that I am older, married and starting a family, it is increasingly difficult to support myself through my practice alone and I am seriously considering changing jobs.”

So what exactly would it take to keep Australia’s top writers going? According to those interviewed for this report: more funding (for publishers, literary publications and authors), more prizes, more fair prizes and lots of creativity.

Dr Jo Caust of the University of Melbourne’s School of Culture and Communication recently argued for a Universal Basic Income (UBI) for artists: an ongoing basic payment to cover certain basic expenses during let them work on their craft.

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

Ireland, for example, is setting up a program to support up to 2,000 artists with €325 ($490) per week for three years. Announcing the programme, Irish Arts Minister Catherine Martin said she “wants the arts to not just reclaim [from the pandemic]but to flourish.

And while “America is the pinnacle of capitalism,” Caust says, “New York has done it in different ways over the past year as well.”

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

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


Sakr supports the idea of ​​a UBI for everyone, not just artists. Although for authors, he says, it would be a “welcome change, [offering] security instead of precariousness”.

He also wants to emphasize that this is not about asking more of the taxpayer; it’s about “prioritizing our spending”.

Binks, who is in regular contact with young writers in high schools and universities, fears for the future of Australian literature if we don’t see a sea change.

“Kids are already hooked on how much money you can make and if you can do it for a living… I tell them the reason I write – the reason we all engage in books, the art, theatre, anything – it’s that art changes people and people change the world.

“But I am convinced that there is a whole generation of artists, and writers in particular, who will not choose this path.”

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