Knickers hanging on a washing line, lemon tree in background. Knickers have been coloured in light pink.
(Design: Archi Banal)

Our writers are being hung out to dry

The president of the New Zealand Society of Authors wants very much to talk about money. 

It’s six years since I last bought new knickers. I know this because it’s six years since I earned enough to replace the old ones I’d nursed along for the previous decade. This is the reality for many writers like me (and others who pursue the arts), despite the fact I’ve been writing for over 25 years and have been lucky enough to win several awards. And it doesn’t stop at underwear! My clothes and shoes are swaps or op shop finds, my hair gets trimmed infrequently at Just Cuts in the mall, I rarely eat out, don’t go on holidays, avoid the doctor and the dentist unless it’s urgent, swap homemade gifts for birthdays and Christmas, and dread unexpected bills. In fact, my only discretionary spending relates to writing or news subscriptions and buying books, either for research or trying to keep up with what my peers are writing. Most writing festivals, too, are off the menu, unless they’re close and modestly priced. That said, I’m one of the lucky ones: I own a house, don’t have a student loan, have a partner who has been incredibly supportive (though he also works in film, so his earnings are boom or bust), and have been employed part-time for at least half of those 25 years. Many younger writers I know are doing it twice as hard. 

Most years, the income I make from my writing is cancelled out by what I have to spend to keep on working, such as computer consumables, home office expenses, ACC, book promotions, travel, phone and internet. However, I’m not alone, not by a long shot. The latest figures from a Horizon survey (surveying all writers from NZSA and the Writers Guild) show that the average annual income for writers is only $15,800. Only a little of this comes directly from book sales (many local publishers print just 500 books), with a small percentage paid in royalties; the rest comes from scraps such as speaking fees, running workshops or other writing-related gigs.

A Colmar Brunton survey carried out for Creative New Zealand and NZ On Air in 2019 found that, overall, creative professionals earn a median of $35,800 per annum after expenses, considerably less than the median income for New Zealanders earning a wage or salary ($51,800). They cite that those in the writing/literary arts sector earn on average $32,500 – this works out to be marginally under the Living Wage – however, this is from all forms of income, including other paid work, which may be outside the sector.

Why bother, I hear you ask. It’s a good question, and one I ask myself with unfailing regularity. I guess the answer is I have to; it’s the only way I can process the concerns for the world that keep me awake at night. I strongly believe the exchange between a writer and reader is psychic-like and that, therefore, the fusion of story, ideas and emotion has the power to open hearts and minds, building empathy and compassion, helping us see ourselves and others in a new light.

Instead of financial security, then, I’ve had to find other measures of success that are much more significant to me. Like the letter from the young Australian woman who said my book Dear Vincent had stopped her suicidal spiral. The young man who suddenly turned back on to reading when told to read Singing Home the Whale by his English teacher. Or another young woman who took my book Smashed to her foster mother and asked her to read it, opening up about her past for the first time, saying, “this is my life”. Every book has earned me at least one interaction that proves I’ve touched another life in a positive way – and every book has expressed something I care about so deeply I’m willing to forfeit holidays, new knickers, and other consumer trappings. But it doesn’t make it fair, when our government forks out tens of millions for elitist yacht races and enormous salaries for consultants. And here’s the thing: it doesn’t have to be this way. There are some simple fixes that would make a world of difference to Aotearoa’s writers.

The one payment I can rely on is the Public Lending Right. This is compensation for my books being borrowed from libraries (rather than being sold and royalties received), and I’m very grateful for it. It’s not huge, a small per book rate if libraries hold more than 50 copies of a title, but it does help tide us over at Christmas. The New Zealand Society of Authors Te Puni Kaituhi o Aotearoa (PEN NZ) Inc. (aka NZSA), fought for over 30 years before this compensation was finally put in place. But although it was cheering to receive a small top-up to the fund last year (for which, again, I’m grateful), the per book rate has remained virtually unchanged, with no mechanism to adjust for inflation. Currently a review of this system is underway, but it’s crawling along. Writers are hoping that those who make the final decisions – all on generous salaries, no doubt – take the needs of our community into account and acknowledge the technological shift that has taken place since this payment was introduced. 

E-books are not included in the PLR count, despite the fact that their lending rose by 30% over (and after) the 2020 lockdown. That figure’s from a newsletter sent by Auckland Libraries in January, which also notes that in 2020 total e-issues nudged 3.3 million, a 26% increase on 2019. The PLR also excludes audio books, another growing trend in lending – although those involved in the production of audio books get paid, so it’s only the writers missing out. 

Those of us who write for young people are further cut out, with school libraries not included in the count. That means much-loved writers and illustrators such as Lynley Dodd, Gavin Bishop, and Joy Cowley, whose books often form the backbone of school libraries, aren’t compensated for that at all (beyond their modest one-off royalty advance). And libraries themselves don’t support our writers: they source the bulk of their new books from Australian library suppliers, which means the authors receive a lower export royalty – it’s the difference between $3 locally per $30 book or 90c if purchased offshore. These are such easy things to fix, but we’re lagging. Australia and Canada have had an Educational Lending Right for 20 years, and the UK, Europe and Denmark also have an electronic lending right.

There are other very concrete, practical steps our government could take to improve local writers’ wellbeing. At NZSA we have identified 25 “tweaks” across seven government departments that would make a significant difference to the incomes of our members. But we need support from others who believe that our stories and ideas make an important contribution to New Zealanders’ everyday lives and culture. And it needs people prepared to challenge the status quo. Imagine a country, for instance, where half of all sports and recreation reporting on TV and radio was instead devoted to the arts! It would send positive ripples right through our society over time. 

For evidence of how the arts enrich us all, read this, which shows how the arts contribute to the economy, improve educational outcomes, create a more highly skilled workforce, improve health outcomes and personal well-being, rejuvenate cities, support democracy, create social inclusion and are demonstrably important to the lives of New Zealanders. 

So here’s my dream: a country where writers and other creatives are recognised for the wellbeing they generate in society and paid accordingly; where our state broadcaster has a quota for locally-written books to review, rather than promoting overseas bestsellers that don’t require the airtime (the NZ music quota made a HUGE difference); where writers are fairly and properly compensated for all copyright exceptions and our government actively works to protect our rights, rather than give them away for free; where our Ministry of Education insists that at least 50% of English texts are authored by NZ writers (building a local readership that will continue into their adult years) and pay every school’s copyright licence so the authors of the work teachers use in lessons actually get paid; and, finally, where those of us who write here don’t always have to make do with scraps and saggy knickers. 

Mandy Hager’s latest book, Protest! Shaping Aotearoa (OneTree House, $40) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington




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