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November 9, 2022

Authors call for literature to be put back on the Arts agenda in wave of submissions to National Cultural Policy

The submissions to the National Cultural Policy consultation have been published, and the ASA has been struck by the unified, impassioned and clear call from authors to bring literature in from the sidelines and invest in sustainable writing and illustrating careers. 

Of the approximately 1,022 submissions made publicly available – over 200 private submissions are not included in this count – around 152 (approximately 14%) were from, or advocated for, the literary sector. 

From children’s book creators to academics, cartoonists to journalists, novelists to educational writers, authors came out in force. Almost 1 in 10 of the total submissions to the Cultural Policy were made by individual writers or illustrators. This demonstrates an overwhelming call from the primary producers of our sector: authors and illustrators. Their submissions are vehement: ‘No other developed country of which I am aware provides so little in the way of support or recognition or has a state that treats its writers as poorly as Australia,’ says Richard Flanagan.

The main theme of these submissions was the desperate situation of authors and illustrators in trying to establish sustainable careers. Literature, it is clear, has been underdone and overlooked in arts policy for too long, which has contributed to the worsening financial uncertainties for our creators.

Time and again in the submissions, we heard from authors on the stark realities of making a living in Australia as a writer or illustrator.

‘Many people believe writers are financially supported by their publishers, so it’s a surprise for them to learn that writers earn just 10 percent of the cover price of a book (around $2.50 per new book sold),’ Charlotte Wood said. ‘Experienced, prizewinning and highly respected writers are routinely paid advances of under $15,000 for a book that may have taken five years to write.’

Garth Nix noted, ‘It is often not realised that the vast majority of books including those published by the major multinationals are not profitable and many only break even. Publishing is a low profit, low margin business and is sustained by the very small percentage of books that do become big bestsellers and/or perennials.’

This became clear in the generous level of detail authors provided about their income.

‘My income has averaged $39,000 a year over the last five years. I earn this by working multiple jobs,’ Sophie Cunningham AM said. ‘I must stress here, that despite earning $28,000 less than the average Australian each year, I am earning substantially more than most writers.’

Jennifer Mills said, ‘In a ‘good year’ I earn around $30,000, which puts me on the Henderson poverty line. According to Macquarie University research, I am doing better than most of my colleagues.’

Phillipa McGuinness: ‘My income for what has been hundreds of hours of work is smack bang on the average for Australian writers: $11,000.’

Emma Young: ‘My first novel sold extremely well by all accounts and yet is nowhere near buying me more free time to develop my craft.’

Mark Brandi: ‘If I relied on royalties and advances alone, it would be difficult to cover living expenses.’

Anna Ciddor: ‘Despite having had nearly 60 books published, none of this success has amounted to even a living wage.’

We know that authors must either work a full-time job, or develop portfolio careers in order to make a living, but even these additional income streams are subject to increasing pressures. 

Freelance writing opportunities have significantly contracted and, where they are available, are paid below recommended minimum rates. As Ashley Hay pointed out, the pay rate of ‘$1 a word remains aspirational for many media and creative outlets. Rates are often a fraction of that figure; writers are often asked to write now for free, for ‘exposure’’. For context, Phillipa McGuinness noted that ‘if Hemingway were being paid now at his rate he got in his prime, he would get $21 a word.’

‘It goes without saying,’ Sophie Cunningham AM said, ‘that a freelance writer does not get overtime, superannuation or sick pay.’

‘With the exception of a few internationally successful authors, most writers in Australia are in the position of needing one, or sometimes several, additional jobs to sustain their income,’ Melanie Cheng said. ‘The problem with this model, in which writing is a luxury, is that the industry risks becoming dominated by artists from a particular educational background and economic class.’

This precarity is only amplified by the neglect of literature in Government arts policy. Literature is the only major artform not to have a national funding framework through Australia Council, and this shows in the minimal levels of support the sector receives. 

Many authors quoted statistics from Australia Council: funding for literature has declined by 40% over the last decade, with only 2.4% of the total 2020-21 Australia Council arts investment spent on literature – the lowest of the major artforms. 

Richard Flanagan said, ‘This is not to criticise the support other art forms get but to ask a necessary question: why is this unjustifiable situation with regard to writers allowed to continue?’

Dr Danielle Clode wrote, ‘Writers are primary producers in a creative economy that underpins entire industries of (better paid) jobs in film, publishing, education, libraries, television, printing, design, arts administration etc. Despite this, literature remains very much the poor cousin in the arts, with amongst the lowest median incomes and the lowest levels of funding support.’

Many writers highlighted that an investment in their work generates significant return on investment. Kate Grenville AO said, ‘Government support for writing is amplified many times in terms of job creation. Behind every published writers stands an army of others employed as a result of what they produce: publishers, editors, typesetters, printers, distributors, delivery truckies, warehouse landlords, journalists, festival staff, podcast creators, teachers and the actors and technicians who make audio books, and booksellers large and small.’ This is before factoring in employment generated in local film and TV industries by book adaptations. 

‘It is clear,’ Gail Jones said, ‘that writers are disproportionately disadvantaged. Although essential to the economic benefits of a healthy arts sector overall, writers are less supported by our institutions and infrastructure.’

What changes did authors and illustrators want to see?

The most resounding calls were for a new vision or plan for literature to embed better investment in creators: ‘Support for literature and writing needs to be embedded in longterm arts planning. It needs to be recognised as a stand alone funding priority,’ Tim Elliott said.

This national plan should include increased, targeted investment in writers and illustrators. Part of this targeted funding must ‘centre and celebrate First Nations literature,’ Grace Lucas-Pennington said, because ‘there is no substitute for allowing a writer’s voice to develop on their own terms.’

Additionally, there were multiple calls for the equitable spread of funding opportunities, especially, as Dr Roanna Gonsalves noted, ‘designated support for underrepresented communities.’

However, many authors discussed the time-consuming and often depressing process of preparing grant applications for funding they are highly unlikely to receive: ‘Writers all around the country waste an incalculable amount of time preparing submissions for grants’ programs that simply do not have enough funding to provide for anything like the number of applicants,’ Steven Lang said.

There were calls for the Government to think boldly in their approach to these issues. Richard Flanagan proposed that literature secede from Australia Council, and a dedicated Australian Book Commission be established. Multiple authors called for the Government to implement a ‘Living Wage’ scheme – like the Basic Income for the Arts scheme in Ireland – to tackle financial insecurity.

Authors also echoed the ASA’s call for increased support for the literary ecosystem, and, importantly, to ensure that public funding is contingent on authors and illustrators being paid minimum rates of pay.

Kirsty Murray said, ‘Artists and writers are too often required to subsidise arts organisations through offering their time and expertise for less than industry rates in the guise of promotion…Until everyone recognises the value of writers’ and artists’ time and pays them industry rates and superannuation for appearances, advice and other forms of engagement, Australian artists will struggle to sustain their careers.’

As one of the key, reliable forms of government investment in book creators, Lending Rights was also a prominent topic in the submissions. Authors called for an expansion of the Lending Rights schemes to include digital formats of books (Digital Lending Rights).

‘At present this mechanism that was invented to compensate writers for the use of their writing is not performing a significant part of its function. These payments often constitute a significant part of writers’ incomes,’ Dr Delia Falconer said.

Author, speaker and arts worker Carly Findlay OAM added to the call for Digital Lending Rights stating, ‘ebooks and audiobooks are accessible for many disabled people – and so as a disabled author, I am mindful my readership enjoys audio and ebooks.’

Some authors called for more Australian content to be taught in schools and universities, such as Gail Jones, who cited how embarrassing it was to discover that some European universities study more Australian literature than in our own country. 

Educational author and secondary school teacher Vanessa Dean said, ‘As a teacher, I want to use Australian content for my students, created by Australian writers and illustrators.’

Vanessa Dean also highlighted the importance of the educational statutory license and Copyright Agency payments, which entail a significant portion of her income. Vanessa argued for copyright protections, stating ‘[I] strongly disagree with any changes to copyright legislation that would allow people to use content without permission or payment.’

Cartoonist and writer, John Kolm, seconded this, lamenting a ‘cavalier attitude toward copyright’ and ‘a wide perception that artists’ work should be free’.

Authors and illustrators also strongly supported authors in schools programs, which offer them a significant avenue for earning income: ‘Many creators of picture books earn more of their income talking about their work in schools than in creating the work itself,’ said Ann James AM.

Andy Griffiths highlighted the importance of school visits to establishing his career as an author stating, ‘These programs made all the difference to me being able to hang in there as I slowly developed the skills and acquired the experience to learn to write books that connected powerfully with my readership.’

Other important suggestions included tax exemptions for literary prizes, grants and fellowships, and the establishment of an Australian Poet Laureate, ‘with the first Poet Laureate being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage,’ said Yvette Holt, Chair of the First Nations Australian Writers Network. 

Evelyn Araluen also suggested funding bodies consider removing ageist requirements for opportunities: ‘While I recognise the value of support schemes which specifically target young and emerging creatives, having won a young Indigenous writing prize myself, I am also painfully aware of how many older emerging First Nations storytellers are out there in our communities, safeguarding knowledge.’

Overall, the message from authors was clear: ‘The ability of all Australians to know and see themselves on the page is not one that our government can continue to pour hope into – and little else – and keep expecting healthy returns,’ said Danielle Binks.

‘A nation that values its stories supports its storytellers,’ Nick Earls said in his submission.

Jennifer Rowe AC (pen name Emily Rodda), said, ‘For a long time, we’ve taken our literature for granted. To a certain extent, we’ve taken a literate population for granted. But if we value literacy, imagination, logical thinking and empathy – if we believe these things don’t just enrich individual lives but enrich every human pursuit from science to social work, and promote a tolerant, caring, inventive society – then for the sake of the future we’ll urgently put literature – books and reading – back on the agenda.’

We would like to thank all of the authors and illustrators who made a submission to the National Cultural Policy consultation, and for speaking out on behalf of our sector. We will not let up the pressure on Government to address the sidelining of literature and are excited about this rare opportunity for reinvigoration.

The Minister for the Arts, the Hon Tony Burke MP, will discuss The National Cultural Policy and Literature at the Colin Simpson Memorial Keynote in Sydney on Tuesday 15 November. The ASA will report on the Keynote and make a recording available to members in the coming weeks.

The ASA calls for:

  1. A national plan and funding framework for literature, embedding direct investment in authors and support for the literary ecosystem 
  2. A funded expansion of Lending Rights to include digital formats
  3. Legislative (including tax) reform which supports creators
  4. A minimum threshold of Australian authored content in schools



Author submissions

Brief submissions

  • Lucy Alexander
  • Tony Bernard
  • Sara Dowse
  • T Reid
  • EJ Rider
  • 2 x Anonymous submissions
Publisher, agent and industry professional submissions

Brief submissions

  • Cardinia Ranges Publishing House
  • 1 x Anonymous submission
Literary arts organisations’ submissions
Literary journal submissions
Literary festival submissions
Academic submissions