Should Writers Get a Little Help from Their Governments?

[posted by Alice]

Earlier this year more than 9,000 writers took part in the 2014 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey. Results were reported at, among other places, Publishers Weekly (“DBW 2014: Survey Finds Most Authors Want to Earn More“) and the Guardian (“Most writers earn less than £600 a year, survey reveals.”) According to the survey, 54% of traditionally-published authors and almost 80% of self-published writers are making less than £600 or $1,000 a year. Only a tiny number — 0.7% of self-published, 1.3% of traditionally-published — are making more than $100,000 a year from their writing. Most of the writers told the survey-takers that getting their work out there was more important than making money, but living the writing life isn’t sustainable if there isn’t any financial reward. How can a writer keep going if she can’t sell her books?

A few days ago I read an article that showed that not all writers have to rely on making money from book sales. Edward Nawotka in Publishing Pespectives (“German Writers Rely on Readings, Fellowships for Income“) reported that many young and aspiring German writers, like those interviewed for the above-cited survey, make money from bookstore and event readings and from fellowships. In Germany people pay to hear writers read; cities have writers-in-residence programs; and there’s something called The Artists Social Program which offers writers discounts on their health insurance.

That sounded remarkably good to me until I found an article called “The Norwegian Government Keeps Book Publishers Alive And other reasons it’s the best place in the world to be a writer,” and I learned that Norway has the best of both worlds. Just an example: “So long as a new Norwegian book passes quality control, Arts Council Norway purchases 1,000 copies of it to distribute to libraries — or 1550 copies if it’s a children’s book.” So writers are guaranteed to sell many copies of their books, and the country also lends other kinds of support to writers. Well-known artists receive a guaranteed income, usually until retirement, and others are eligible for 1-5-year work grants.

So what does all this mean? Does it mean that the United States and Britain don’t value literature as much as Germany and Norway do? Or does it just mean that small rich countries with languages that are not widely spoken (like Norway) have governments that are more willing to subsidize the nation’s literature? Obviously, I don’t have the answers, but it does seem that the U.S. and Britain have more of a market-oriented approach, forcing writers to depend on how many books they can sell, and Germany and Norway give writers a wider range of ways to make an income (and help popularize their work). And it isn’t a simple matter that rich countries can afford to subsidize writers. Norway does have a higher per capita GDP than the United States, but the United States has a higher per capita GDP than Germany does. In any case I think that forcing writers to depend on book sales might not be the best way to insure that we in the U.S. have the thriving literary culture we deserve.

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