Dear Mr Newman or Why Books Matter

Dear Mr Newman,

You probably won’t know me because I am a writer. I am not a swimmer or a footballer or even an unsung hard-working nurse. But publishers know me and literary festival organizers know me and my friends and family know me and, hey, sometimes even readers know me.
I’ve been writing a long time – nine books since 1987 – but I had to give up writing books full time and I’d like to explain why. I’d like to explain to you why books are not expendable. This is not about one individual literary career but about all of us.
I can probably count myself as a “successful” writer (even though you have never heard of me) because I receive decent advances – about $AUD80,000 – for each of my books. Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? But the researching and writing of a novel and the actual publishing process itself means that the $AUD80,000 is spread over two, three and sometimes even four years. Doesn’t sound so much then.
Most writers like me never earn out their advance. Let me give you the maths: a book retails for, say, $AUD30 and the author’s chunk of each book sale is ten per cent. Yes, three dollars! The publisher and the book seller get the largest amount and an author receiving an advance of $AUD80,000 needs to sell nearly 27,000 books to start earning above that advance. (In the eyes of a lot of people this actually makes me a “failure” as a writer because I write books that do not sell in their millions or indeed in their hundreds of thousands. This is the argument that says the market decides – but until the publishers decide not to publish me I guess I am still in the game. Sadly, in this current economic climate, some of my writer friends can’t even get published).
To you, 27,000 books probably doesn’t sound like many books to sell. But the most I’ve ever sold, for a book that got short-listed and long-listed for almost every literary award going (including the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award which at one million euros is the world’s richest literary prize) is about 20,000. Word-of-mouth has it that Booker Prize winner Peter Carey’s last book sold even less than that in Australia.
But who cares? The publisher and booksellers don’t care because they are making the money. The children and spouse of the author might care (my ex-husband cared so much we ended up getting divorced) and the poor little author might care but why should anyone else? How important are books when there are more important things to be getting on with, such as schooling the children and nursing the sick and minding the pennies so that the pounds look after themselves.
Here’s why. First I’ll talk money, Mr Newman, because quite rightly the good management of the people’s money is what good government is about. If you don’t understand anything else about the value of books you might understand their monetary value, so here goes.
In the Great Depression, when there was even less public money and private money around than there is now, President Roosevelt started something called the New Deal. It was a stimulus package aimed at providing work for millions of unemployed, mainly in the building of public works. But critical to the plan was the WPA (Works Progress Administration) with its arts, drama, media and literacy projects attached, which provided work to the artists and writers who would come later come to play a pivotal role in the flourishing of post-world war America. Saul Bellow, John Steinbeck, Walker Evans, Jackson Pollock, Joseph Cotton and numerous others worked on it.
You know what? Today American books and television and cinema rule the world. American’s non-profit arts and culture industry generate $166.2 billion dollars in economic activity annually, generating $29.6 billion in government revenue. When Obama did his stimulus package in 2009 he included $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts because as the co-chairman of the Congressional Arts Caucus said at the time: “If we’re trying to stimulate the economy, and get money into the Treasury, nothing does that better than art.”
In the UK, where I lived from 2000 until 2010, the creative industries employs some two million people, contributing 60 billion pounds to the economy annually, which is about seven per cent of GDP, similar to mining and manufacturing.
In Australia, according to the latest ABS figures, in 2006-7 Australian production of cultural goods and services totaled $AUD45,890 million. Want to save some pennies Mr Campbell? Stimulate Queensland’s flagging movie industry. Start making television mini-series in Queensland. I don’t suppose that many people out there who, like you, share a disdain for writers remember that all those movies and television shows they watch originate with writers too. Writers don’t just write books, they write screenplays and drama and television sit-coms and songs.
But I’d like to leave money aside for a moment. I’d like to talk about the value of the work of a writer compared to the value of the work of a nurse. As it happened I’ve had a bit of experience with both: after the birth of my two children I spent many years in and out of hospital and, boy, is there a difference between a bad nurse and a good one. I bow down to each and every nurse and doctor, every ambulance driver, every cleaner in the ward, every working person who spared the time to remember that we were not simply bodies being healed but living beings.
And that is where the real work of the writer comes in. The nurse has his or her job but so does the writer. The writer’s job is to report the intimate news, the news you don’t read in the newspaper, to bring to life the world we carry in our heads. The writer’s job is to tend to the heart, mind and soul.
You might not have heard the inspirational speech that Karl Paulnack, head of music at Boston Conservatory of Music gave to his new students and their parents a few years back. He said that even his own parents, who deeply loved music, weren’t exactly sure what the value of music was. He wanted to reassure the parents in the room that being a musician mattered, that it wasn’t a waste of an education and, indeed, it was just a critical job as being a doctor or a nurse.
He spoke about how music and stories were part of being human, that ever since man could speak he had been making music and telling stories. Even in the concentration camps art survived, in stories and music and song, and Paulnack told the story of wandering around the morning after 9/11, grief-struck, dumb, and how people everywhere spontaneously gathered into little groups to sing.
Then he said: “If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life.
“Well, my friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft.”
Mr Newman, writers take their craft seriously. In cancelling the Queensland Premier’s Prize for Literature you have sent every writer and every Queenslander a clear message that writers taking that craft seriously does not matter and, moreover, that the books they write do not matter either. Now, would you like me to explain the meaning of the word “philistine”?

Yours sincerely
Susan Johnson
Former full-time writer, now full-time feature writer, Qweekend
Twitter: @sjreaders

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26 Responses to Dear Mr Newman or Why Books Matter

  1. Charmaine Peters says:

    Please excuse me as I wipe a sly tear from the corner of my eye. I could not have said this better. Thank you.

  2. Lisa Hill says:

    You sock it to him, Susan!

    • Susan says:

      Thanks Lisa….not that I think he is taking any notice! Like the charming comments on the Courier-Mail blog suggest, people like me squeal a lot and make a lot of noise but we aren’t the ones with the power.
      Except when it comes to voting next time…
      (Oh, and I do know how to spell Obama….sorry)

  3. Good one, Susan! I’m a Queensland writer too and fear for arts funding in this state. But I don’t believe in giving up the fight and we won’t.
    I’ve blogged on the matter as well – here it is if you’d like to read it. :)
    Best wishes

    • Susan says:

      Thanks Sheryl….and am off to read yours now! If you are living in BrizVegas, there is a meeting today (Tuesday April 10) at Avid Reader Bookshop, Boundary Street, West End…

      Ah, brings back memories of Brisbane and meetings, right to march, right to choose….now, where are we? Right to read??? Yes, we’ve got that, I remember now!

      Thanks again —- and best of luck with YOUR writing!

  4. susan reid says:

    Beautifully written. While ever arts funding decisions are filtered through Dpts of Finance and Treasury, the long term results will be communities in creative deficit: bereft of cultural entertainment, without expression or unique character, and unattractive to visit . There is likely to be a prevalence of beige. After all, the decision about where to visit as a tourist or stay as a resident is not clinched by the quality of the roads.

    The more reason for commentary such as this – to equip politicians and bureaucrats with tools to understand and advocate concepts of ‘public good’ beyond civic infrastructure. To understand, for example, the very sound rationale for cultivating individual and collective well-being through creative expression. Creative writing is surely one of the finest ways to reach into the imagination of a place and tell its story. Who does this when it is gone? Grrr.

    • Susan says:

      It’s a really tricky one re funding….we just discussed this at a meeting in Brisbane re getting alternative funding for the Qld Literary Premier’s Prize. If we do, does it prove that government money is not needed? Well, yes, technically it does — plenty of money out there for business and philanthropic individuals to dole out — but should governments show support through the arts by funding? Some thought not — best to be totally hands off — but others argue otherwise.

      Personally, I believe governments should fund hospitals, schools, roads AND the arts. In that old heirarachy of needs, souls need fixing too!

      Thanks for your comments Susan — much appreciated

  5. Terrific, Susan. This is just the sort of argument that I was suggesting Angelo Loukakis at the Australian Society of Authors should take up with Premier Newman – that he’s not saving money, but wasting it.


    • Susan says:

      Thanks Rhyll…yes, have already been speaking to Angelo….will keep you posted!

      And congratulations on your new one!

  6. Anita Heiss says:

    Thank you Susan. I care, and so do your readers, and readers of Australian literature generally. Sometimes we feel as writers we are the only ones who understand the work involved in researching, writing then selling books. And often that is why it’s easy for others like politicians on big salaries to dismiss what we do and how what do actually contributes to Australian education and culture every day. I wonder if Mr Newman uses a library ever? Or did as a child. Where does he think those books come from?
    Anyways, I need to get back to writing my next book which now won’t be eligible for nomination to the QLD Premier’s Literary Awards but will make a mark in terms of Australian culture!
    In solidarity!
    Anita Heiss

    • Susan says:

      Yes, exactly Anita — every book counts. And yours in particular in many important ways — not least because they are smashing stereotypes (Koori girls shop!). More seriously, the one I’m reading now AM I BLACK ENOUGH FOR YOU raises good, hard questions about identity, and what it means to be an Australian — a black Australian or a white Australian or an everything-in-between Australian. We are a race of many, or many people, of many cultures, of many stories — everyone’s story deserves to be respected, and told. In solidarity, respect and frienship, Susan

  7. Fat Andy says:

    Join the dots…Gina Rhinehart writes the most crapulent attempt at poetry of the 21st Century, for which she is ridiculed by those with even the vaguest respect for literature.

    She is allied to fellow megalomaniac, Clive Palmer who now owns the Queensland government. In one of his first actions as head of that government, Campbell Newman shafts literary folks with the purely punitive measure of demolishing important and respected literary awards.

    …But here is the rub…within days of Newman’s artist bashing, that vile, malformed creation of Rhinehart’s, Andrew Bolt writes a gloating, moronic article in praise of the action. Join the fucking dots.

    • Susan says:

      Really? A Bolt wrote a column on it? I missed it….will google…

      Oh, you should have cut and pasted a stanza or two of Gina’s poems! Off to google those too…

  8. Angela K says:

    You are sensational. It’s been a long journey, but my manuscript is now only days from being ready to enter into the non-existent awards. Crushed.

    • Susan says:

      Angela! Lovely to hear from you – and bravo! Congratulations on finishing your ms!! No, they are NOT non-existent, here we are working towards a Not The Premier’s Prize…

      Sorry all if Ihaven’t been clear about this….too tired now but will post again in the morning with all the details…..

      Get that ms in Ms K! NOW!! That’s an order……

      Good luck! x

  9. Susan says:

    Angela, further to my last…there IS a prize for unpublished ms, emerging Qld writer. Here is a link to the entry form:

    good luck!

  10. Helen Howard says:

    Dear Susan,
    Thanks for the well-honed argument in your letter, which speaks for so many of us. I know that if we cease to support and encourage our state’s literary culture we will insidiously undermine every other form of endeavour. Often, we are unaware of how deeply we are touched by art until it is taken away; and when we start to feel empty, unstimulated, depressed and worse… we look to our diets or pollutants or family members to unearth what’s wrong with us! Books have turned my life around; music has changed my mind; plays have enlightened me. The effects of a lack of art will be too subtle to shock until it’s too late. I am so grateful that art under attack will not be met with silence, but with articulate voices like yours.

    • Susan says:

      Thank you so much Helen for taking the time to leave a remark. It’s so true what you say about music turning one’s life around, or a play, or a moment in the dark of a cinema, when somehow life stops and the briefest sense of meaning or understanding or suddenly knowing our commonality renders the world wonderous again. I can’t tell you the number of times a piece of music has done that for me — and how many times I have witnessed the common sharing of art move and change lives. Have you by chance seen that documentary on taking music to the slums of Rio? Art is borderless and so, so central to what it means to be human. This is my life, and I have sacrificed an awful lot to keep writing, so you can see it is very, very dear to my heart! Thank you!

  11. Ailsa says:

    Dear Susan,
    One of the beautiful ironies of having spent a whole (happy) life working in the arts is that my ideas about money and income are so skewed. $30k or $40k per annum actually sounds to me like a fantastic amount! I know this is ignorance, but it is also a way of coping with a life where work is regularly expected to be given for free. The silent, unpaid contributions to the economy are myriad. Artists are a silent volunteer army! How would Mr Newman factor that in I wonder.
    But of course the argument is NOT about the wage. I chose this life and I have never regretted it no matter what kind of car I don’t drive, or what type of roof shelters me. I still choose it. I’m glad and grateful for those who choose other lives, like the teachers and nurses and road-builders. But as you so eloquently point out, why is the spirit not worth nurturing, particularly when to do that the state can generate big bucks.
    Preaching to the converted.
    But as a mate of mine insists, sometimes the converted need to hear it over and overin order to continue the fight.
    Thanks for keeping the cudgels flying.
    And bring on your book with the beautiful cover and the more beautiful interior.

    • Susan says:

      Yes, yes, yes….we need to keep reminding ourselves, us poor artists who have CHOSEN this life, of its many rewards: I don’t own a big house and I have no superannuation to speak of, I live month to month, but I wouldn’t swap the life I have lived for the biggest house in Clayfield or New Farm or Potts Point or Hawthorn. I was walking along just yesterday, my head turned to the sky, thinking about the value of immeasurable things. We are so used to measuring things ONLY through money…..I was thinking specifically about some oysters I once ate, fresh from the sea, in a stone house near Fitou. It was springtime, and everything was in bud, and the wine in our glasses was icey cold and delicious. Even while I was living the moment I knew its worth, its value, and I know it now. I have loved my life, really loved it, and do so now….(even when I no longer have my “freedom” and an now an indentured worker like everyone else!) BUT — gee I got away with it for a long time!! Gee I was lucky!! Je ne regrette rien…thank you Lord!
      Here endeth the rave — and thanks for your kind words about the beautiful cover…..hard to find beautiful words to match that one!

  12. Trinity & Dean Rotumah says:

    Susan! You are writing HERstory! My partner, Dean Rotumah (BUNDJALUNGNation Artist) & I are sitting reading (an old) newspaper thismorning. We came across your recent article in Q Weekend. It’sbrilliant. You see through from the eyes of your heart. It’s a gift.Thank you. xxx

    • Susan says:

      Hi Trinity — what a joy to think that the journalism I’m doing is being read and understood — it’s all any writer wants, journalist or author, to meet another human heart and mind. Thank you so much for bothering to track me down!

  13. Helen says:

    Bravo, that’s wonderful Susan! But would anyone in the LNP read it? I fear you’re in for a period of philistinism such as the one the Go Betweens and Laughing Clowns fled back in the day.

    • Susan says:

      Thanks Helen! Actually, now you’ve got me thinking — think of all the great stuff that came out of Queensland during its darkest days. Maybe a good hearty kicking from the state is EXACTLY what we need!! Keep it comin’ Can Do!!

  14. Sonja Torode says:

    Brilliant. Thanks.