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”?
Former full-time writer, now full-time feature writer, Qweekend