The price of literature: writers take on Government over fair pay

Writers fear their ability to earn will be further eroded as the results of reviews affecting their revenue streams near completion.

Maurice Gee at home in Nelson in 1987.

ROBERT CROSS/STUFF-CO-NZ Maurice Gee at home in Nelson in 1987


Maurice Gee recalls it wasn’t until he was mid-career that he and his wife felt financially comfortable enough for him to commit to his writing full-time. By that stage his first novel The Big Season had already been published, in 1962, and he’d gained critical acclaim for his 1979 fiction Plumb.“But that depended absolutely on my wife being able to go back to work after our children were born. Certainly you needed a partner in full-time work.”

He reflected this week that his work as a teacher added to the family kitty. His income, as most authors’ are, was cobbled together from various work.

The 88-year-old has been called “one of the finest writers in the English-speaking world” (London’s Sunday Times) and “our greatest living writer” by local author Paula Morris, but even now Gee says it’s a hard slog financially.

“I don’t recall that I was making any sort of living before the Public Lending Right (PLR) kicked in. There was the odd windfall, for example, if a novel was picked up by a film company – once or twice in my case (Fracture, and In My Father’s Den) – so (PLR) was an important part of my annual earnings.

“And I call it earnings, not a handout.”

In 2019 the average earnings of a writer was reportedly about $15,000. About half of those surveyed said they relied on a partner’s income, or a separate job.

For some authors, a yearly boon can be found in the PLR fund, a government payment to compensate them for library lending. The PLR is an invisible issue to most. You go to a library, loan a book, and you return it. Libraries enrich communities by providing access to information, history, literature and entertainment.

But the pot of money that pays authors for the public’s privilege, administered by the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA), has been stuck at $2m annually for more than a decade. It’s divided up by nearly 2000 authors, and doled out according to the number of books those authors have in libraries. The rate for 2019 was about $3.39 per book.

Here’s the catch. Authors aren’t paid for works that are turned into e-books or audiobooks, and the more authors that register, the more the pool of money gets squeezed. For years the New Zealand Society of Authors has been campaigning to increase the fund. It hasn’t been adjusted for inflation, and they think it should at least be closer to the $2.7m mark.

CALEB CARNIE/STUFF The PLR gives Gee about a third of his annual income.


“It’s very important for young writers, to allow them at least become semi-professional. In my experience, there’s not a lot of money to be made from fiction.”

The DIA agreed to review the fund, and while authors await the results – it’s been held up by the coronavirus lockdowns – they are also concerned about the direction of another piece of legislation that affects their livelihood: the Copyright Act, which has been under official scrutiny for years, culminating in over 100 competing submissions from Big Tech and authors, creatives, and publishers.

The latter are concerned that changes to the act could further erode their ability to earn from their works, as an increasing number of people are able to access New Zealand literature for free. New Zealand recently became a signatory to the Marrakesh Treaty, which means Kiwis with a disability – about 25 per cent of the population – can access writers’ work for free, without needing copyright permission.

While authors make no bones of increasing access to literature, with the margins already tight under the PLR, they’re left wondering: where is their compensation? This month the New Zealand Society of Authors wrote to Education Minister Chris Hipkins, saying education and library policy needed to be addressed in order for the survival of creative industries. They suggested having a centralised copyright licence for all schools, and including school libraries in the PLR.

Copyright Licensing NZ is also planning to meet with the Human Rights Commission, over its “abject horror” at the direction the Copyright Act review, overseen by the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE).

Chief executive Paula Browning says the review overlooks how writers will earn from their work. International lessons show copyright legislation can take away from an author’s right to earn, with copyright exceptions – such as the Marrakesh Treaty – seeing more and more people accessing works for free, with no compensation to the author. Big Tech has a stake too – it needs content to monetise.

“You know, when you pick up a report like (MBIE’s copyright review document) and it is government writing about what it is that you do every day and you can’t see yourself in it, or worse you see something in it that says you want to stop me from doing what I want to do,” Browning says.

“There’s so much our creative industries add to the country, cultural social and economic value. It’s important they’re better understood across government agency, and it’s not always the case.

“We’re not oil companies, or things that could be seen to be being negative for the country, we’re talking about our writers and our publishers. They add value, they don’t extract value, and the concern that they have, it’s not saying too much to say they feel like they’re being put out of business.”

One section of the MBIE review document particularly chafes. While noting it wouldn’t be fair to only be concerned with material interests so far as it induced creativity, it says creators appear to accept incomes below an adequate standard of living because of the satisfaction they derive from their work.

Novelist Dame Fiona Kidman was part of the group that lobbied the government to introduce a public lending right, in the 1970s.

ROBERT KITCHIN/STUFF Novelist Dame Fiona Kidman was part of the group that lobbied the government to introduce a public lending right, in the 1970s.

“This proposition that writers just do their work for love is a scurrilous attack on the integrity of all authors,” says Dame Fiona Kidman.

It’s been nearly 50 years since novelist Kidman, with PEN International, negotiated the former iteration of the PLR — the New Zealand Authors’ Fund —  with then Prime Minister Norman Kirk, in the 1970s.

Kidman recalls that Kirk was an avid reader “and proud of it”. “It was a case of ‘come in a for a chat’ and ‘what a great idea’. That it was a fair and just concept. It was all on and writers were thrilled.”

But at some point the fact that writers earn less has become accepted.

“Most of us do love our work,” Kidman says. “We would have to, to receive so little compensation for our labours. But I know people who love their work in all walks of life, their chosen profession, or trade, and some of their choices would not be yours or mine.” (Gee agrees. “It’s one of those myths that needs to be shot down.”)

One of New Zealand’s most successful authors, Kidman says her income is “very modest”. She recalls her first PLR payments were a lifeline.

“It wasn’t ever a special treat. Writers hang out for their cheque in December, wondering whether they can get through Christmas or not… the pickings were often lean in our household.”

New Zealand Society of Authors chief executive Jenny Nagle says while more people access literature for free, it's the authors who end up paying.

JASON DORDAY/STUFF New Zealand Society of Authors chief executive Jenny Nagle says while more people access literature for free, it’s the authors who end up paying.

New Zealand Society of Authors chief executive Jenny Nagle says the PLR is unfit for purpose in the digital age, brought home by the Covid-19 lockdowns where people were being encouraged to download e-books while they couldn’t get a hard copy.

 “There is no other product the government would requisition without compensating the producer,” Nagle says. “It sticks in the craw.”

“It’s become all about access. Access improves people’s life experience and academic opportunities, and we have no problem with that. The problem is that it’s uncompensated. The only person who is being asked to pay for that, is writers.”

MBIE’s approach to copyright was concerning. “They still don’t get the ecosystem for publishing and writing, and how that sort of works. It infantilises writers (by saying) ‘writers are motivated by more than money to write’.”

Nagle recounts a story about the late beloved children’s author Margaret Mahy, discussing her next project with an editor at Gecko Press, who was apologising for raising the issue of money. “And Margaret Mahy said, ‘what do you mean? I love talking about money.”

Margaret Mahy, pictured with her grandchildren Julia, Alice, and Bridget.

STACY SQUIRES/STUFF Margaret Mahy, pictured with her grandchildren Julia, Alice, and Bridget.

Late last year award-winning novelist Paula Morris gave a keynote speech at a Wellington hotel on the subject of copyright, innovation and creativity. She opened by introducing herself as an artist and inventor. “It also means I’m a business,” she told the audience. “A small one, but give me time. I’m an opportunist, a strategist, an entrepreneur. I’m not a charity, and I’m not a hobbyist. I create things, and some of those things I sell.”

Her biggest-selling book, young adult fiction Ruined, has sold more than 300,000 copies, but her calling card, historical fiction Rangatira, was taught at universities around the world and has earned her speaking gigs at international festivals. Radio New Zealand adapted it for broadcast. Every year, for Rangatira, she receives about $600 from the PLR.

“It’s outrageous that so many people expect to make money out of creative content, but don’t believe the creators should be paid,” Morris said this week, “or that what we do is essentially a passion, hobby or vocation that renders us nun-like in our desire to be poor and selfless. Basically they don’t want to pay for the thing we have to sell, but they want to sell it on and earn money from it. That, I believe, is the slavery model of economics.”

Children’s author Tessa Duder echoes Morris’ point about business sense. She says career writers have to be versatile. They might earn a buck from public speaking, teacher, writing screenplays, or writing novels or short stories or essays. And she quotes Gee when highlighting that working partners of writers tend to be the unsung champions of the literary world..

Tessa Duder says people would be astonished if they knew what she was really making off her successful writing career.

LAWRENCE SMITH/STUFF Tessa Duder says people would be astonished if they knew what she was really making off her successful writing career.

Duder, who at 79 is still writing, says the public would be astonished to know she might only earn $20,000 a year from her works. A significant portion of that is from the PLR. The most she was ever paid was $10,000, but that was in 2009 and it’s decreased every year since.

Book royalties aren’t exactly a boon, unless you’re selling to an international market. An author might only make a few thousand in royalties, for years of work. It’s not like you’re writing a book every six months, she says. She once spent four years on one project, only for a publisher to tell her to rework it, which she hasn’t had the stomach to do. “That was such a blow. It was four years down the drain.”

She’d like to see the fund doubled. “People think that if you’re a well-known writer and you’ve earned a few awards, you must be on the pig’s back.”

A Department of Internal Affairs spokesperson said no date had been confirmed for the release of its full report back to the Minister, Tracey Martin. Once the analysis was completed, it would be made publicly available.

“Many authors, including through the New Zealand Society of Authors, have regularly communicated to the Department and the Internal Affairs Minister that they consider that the level Public Lending Right funding needs to be reviewed, as it has not increased since 2008.”

MBIE general manager commerce consumers and communications James Hartley, said it was important to note no policy decision had been made yet, and another consultation period was planned. Of the 148 submissions there were many more from the creative sector, than tech, Hartley said.

“We wanted to ensure that copyright law expressly recognises the creative sector’s rights and interests. So we added an objective to “support creators to obtain fair recognition for their creative effort, exercise a reasonable degree of control over the integrity of their work, and obtain a fair proportion of any revenue attributable to their creative effort”.

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