Thursday, October 25, 2007

Australian publishing and decreasing opportunities for authors

There are some worrying trends in the sales of books in Australia. Sales of books declined by 19% after the introduction of the goods and sales tax (GST) in 2000, but GST cannot be regarded as the only as sales also fluctuated downwards by 20 million or 15% in 1997-98. They surged back in 2001-02, but operating profit for publishers continued to decline, particularly for the top 20, and sales again declined in 2002-03. The value of sales, however, has increased year by year, except in 2000-01 when GST was introduced, until 2003-04. The proportion of Australian books making up these sales has also increased to 64% in 2002-03, a proportion much the same for consumer books as education books (the figure is about 1% lower for educational books), but the figure dropped in 2003-04 to 60%. Sales of educational books also declined and sales of Australian fiction plummeted.
There are some in the publishing industry who look at these figures with alarm and argue that publishing is in decline, under threat from electronic competition from DVDs and computer games. But it should be remembered that the number of books published in Australia plummeted 20% in 1981, with consequent loss of sales, and the market recovered, even under the threat of videos. Books have shown remarkable resilience, even as the level of readership appears to be decreasing. What is remarkable is that readership levels maintain a relatively high standing despite the increased demands on leisure time provided by electronic alternatives.
Even so, there is plenty to be concerned about regarding the publishing of books relevant to Australia’s literary culture. The sale of Australian-originated books declined by $50 million in 2003-04 after healthy increases in previous years. The industry has only been subject to this degree of analysis since 2000, but the ABS does not propose to continue to survey the industry in such detail any longer, so this snapshot, inconclusive as it is, may be the only information retrievable on the state of Australian-originated publishing. The Australian Publishers’ Association, whose membership is dominated by large, overseas-owned corporations, interprets this information differently in the September 2005 APA Update. The APA records “the news is pretty good” and so it is for overseas-owned publishers. Profitability increased in 2003-04, a result of lower costs, even though sales dropped $18 million on those in 2002-03 and the hardest hit part of the market was Australian-produced books.
The publishing of Australian originated fiction publishing appears to have reached a peak of $125.2 million in 2001-02 when the category outsold imported fiction ($102.5 million) and is declining. Only $73.1 million in sales of Australian fiction were achieved in 2003-04 compared to $116.6 million for imported fiction. Generally, figures show mass market paperbacks have the highest sales value compared to trade paperbacks and hardbacks. Because the unit price of mass market paperbacks is much lower, however, the return to an author per copy is much less, assuming that all authors receive a royalty of 10% of recommended retail price (and publishers like Penguin are trying to drive the royalty rate even lower).
The decline in sales of Australian-originated books is reflected in the fact that royalties and fees paid by publishers in 2003-04 declined 11% on the previous year.
Sales of the nonfiction category, which covers cookbooks, self-help, and a diverse range of other subjects, is increasing. This is supported by data from Nielsen Bookscan which shows that nonfiction titles make up 53% of the market for books while fiction makes up 28% and children’s book make up 18%. ABS data show non-fiction books, both Australian and imported, were worth 59% of general content sales in 2003-04.
Sales of Australian originated childrens’ books increased in 2003-04, but this market segment is still dominated by imported books.
Of concern to all authors is the fact that the average selling price of Australian titles dropped from $11.36 to $9.10 (a 20% decrease) between 2002-03 and 2003-04. For royalties calculated on the selling price, this represents a drop in income for authors. In contrast, the average salary of a publishing company employee rose 9% to $52,300. Editors also had an award increase.
The market share of imported books is also a threat to Australian authors. The increase in non-fiction is not compensating for the drop in sales of fiction.
While the number of new titles in 2003-04 is marginally greater than the previous year, these titles appear on the face of the sales information to have lost market share.
More information is available in my publication Current Publishing Practice.

Literature in Australian Education

The ASA's activism in favour of the teaching of Australian literature is paying off. Western Australia has announced it is introducing a new course (Compelling Course in Aussie Literature) and the NSW Minister for Education, the Hon. John Della Bosca, has announced he is asking the NSW Board of Studies to review the study of Australian literature in NSW schools (Della wants more Australian Literature in the curriculum).
This is good news for Australian literature and Australian authors.
The news has been welcomed by the ASA and Chair of the Literature Board of the Australia Council, Dr Imre Salusinszky.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Australian Literature in the NSW English Curriculum

The Hon. John Della Bosca, Minister for Education in NSW, has called for the Board of Studies to review the amount of Australian literature in the NSW English curriculum (see article in the Daily Telegraph by clicking on headline above).
This is a sensible move, even if it seems odd. Think of any state in the USA and the English curriculum in that state -- it would be unthinkable for that curriculum to contain works which were not American. Yet here in Australia there is argument about whether or not Australian literature is good enough or even interesting enough to find a place in NSW schools.
The Australian Society of Authors (ASA) welcomes moves to strengthen the study of Australian literature in NSW classrooms.
The ASA has long advocated the study of Australian literature as a means of providing a sense of cultural identity, insight into our diversity and knowledge of our unique place in the world. Without our literature, we have no stories of our own. We cannot then make film, television and other narratives.
Also, our authors are world class. We have nothing to be ashamed of in teaching our literature. Our children’s writers and illustrators are already being exported and widely translated. Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks’ Fox won the German Children’s Literature Prize in 2004. Shaun Tan’s The Arrival is currently a bestseller in France and Germany. Contemporary adult authors like Michelle de Kretser, Kate Grenville, David Malouf and Peter Carey regularly win prestigious international prizes. Les Murray was in the running for this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Australian Publishing: Don't forget the authors

Australian publishing industry exports have increased markedly in the past few years. In 2003-4, the export of Australian books, titles and rights was worth more than $195 million.
This fact alone makes the publishing industry Australia's leading creative industry. But, like almost all creative industries, it is the creators themselves who are least likely to benefit from the success of the industry.
Some Australian authors certainly do well, but publishers do better. It is important for authors that publishers makes profits so they can pay royalties, but surely it ought to be as important to publishers to ensure authors share in their success.
Apparently not.
Publishers like to place clauses in their contract that reduce royalties for reprints of 1000 copies or less, even though they will have made back their investment on the first print run. Another trick is to reduce royalties rates for other than the initial version of the work, say a mas-market edition, again flying in the face of publishing economics in that further editions maximise the earning for the publisher. That's the way publishing works, after all. And I say that with over 30 years experience in the Australian publishing industry as a publisher.
In the success of the Australian publishing industry, there seems to be some darkness for authors.
But we have to remember our past and learn from it and seek opportunities where we can.
The years 1940 and 1941 were dark indeed for Australia. Japanese forces moved steadily southwards, Darwin was bombed, the Brisbane line was drawn.
But in this darkness a benefit emerged for Australian writers. The Australian government, needing to maintain capital reserves, imposed an embargo on American imports, including books and paper. Suddenly, Australian writers were being sought to produce detective fiction, Westerns and other novelettes published to meet public demand. Writers no longer had to hawk their wares to London publishers. One of the writers who found his detective books being published locally was Alan Yates (“Carter Brown”), who later became a member of the ASA’s Committee of Management at its second meeting in September 1963.
Jon Cleary, who is still an ASA member, began to be published in Australia in the early forties, along with other early ASA members such as Morris West. The restrictions on imported books remained until 1959. A book bounty was introduced in 1969 to encourage printing in Australia, but by that time a pattern of reading Australian writers had been established.
Still, Australians’ literary diet today is spiced with writers in English from India, Canada, the UK, the US, and occasionally New Zealand, as well as Australia. Unfortunately, that means the competition for Australian writers in their own market is actually greater than that for American writers in theirs.
Australian writers are further disadvantaged by the fact that most of the 20 largest book publishers in Australia are divisions of multinational corporations whose accountants are based in New York, Paris, London or Berlin. The corporate eye is on return on investment, not, as in the days of Brian Johns at Penguin, the development of a thriving Australian publishing industry. A new author now is required to be instantly successful, able to sell the same number of books as an author who has crafted a reputation over a significant period of time. Authors whose books fail to meet these sales expectations are brutally dispensed with.
But sometimes we can spend too much time lamenting what’s wrong, and miss opportunities to improve our situation. Again, we can turn to history for guidance.
In 1905, the United States was in a similar situation to that which it is in today in that it had a Republican President (Theodore Roosevelt) who intervened in foreign countries (Panama) for American benefit.
Australia was quietly developing its newly won nationhood. Secure within their newly-federated island country, the citizens throughout Australia were placing plaques in churches and town halls to commemorate those who had served in the Boer Wars. Ten years later, the same people were counting more war dead, a count that would continue until late in 1918. Hugo (Jim) Throssell, husband of Katharine Susannah Prichard (a member of the ASA from 1964), was one of the lucky survivors of World War I, but survival did not ensure happiness. In 1933, he took his own life while his wife was travelling overseas.
Well before this, towards the end of 1905, Miles Franklin began planning a trip to London, of two minds about the success of My Brilliant Career. It had sold well, but most royalties were on “colonial sales” (copies sold in Australia) and earned only half the rate of those sold in the UK.
Nearly 60 years later, colonial rates was one of the issues that led to the formation of the ASA in 1963. The first Australian writer to have this anachronism removed from her contracts was Dymphna Cusack, an inaugural member of the Council of the ASA. The first issue of Broadside, the ASA’s first newsletter, reported that at least six British publishers had agreed to negotiate colonial rights, and, thanks to the ASA’s work, these unfair royalties have disappeared.
Regardless of the political situation in Australia or internationally, regardless of the waxing and waning of literary fashion, the ASA continues to stand for increased returns for writers and to argue for more channels of remuneration. There will always be some sad circumstance for us to lament—that is perhaps why some of us write—but nothing should stand in the way of writers achieving the right to maintain a living.
The ASA has achieved a great amount over the past 40 years. It also won Public Lending Right and achieved success with Educational Lending Right. The ASA was also instrumental in the establishment of the Copyright Agency Ltd (CAL), which now provides another income stream for writers, especially those in the education sector, for the photocopying of their work. It has also established minimum standards for book contracts.
But despite all this work there is still much to be done. In my office I have in front of me a contract from a publisher that asks the author to assign copyright to the publisher, which would spell the end to any additional remuneration -- such as a CAL payment -- for the author. As well, the contract offers a flat fee upfront and royalties only after the sale of 3200 copies, which may have an impact on the author’s right to Educational Lending Right (ELR).
These are issues of core interest to writers. The everyday task of improving the ability of writers to be able to make a living remains central to the ASA.
The publishing industry might be successful but the fight for authors to make a living from their writing continues.
Some of this material has previously appeared in Australian Author. Copyright © 2007 Australian Society of Authors/Jeremy Fisher

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Arts Funding: Creators second fiddle

Arts commentator Marcus Westbury had an interesting article in the Sydney Morning Herald of 18 October 2007 (the link to it is above).
His article made me think about how we fund creativity in Australia. Like Marcus says, we actually give more to "cover bands" than we do to original artists.
Let me give you some facts. When we start comparing contributions from different creators to Australia’s cultural life and development we can see creators, and authors in particular, are undervalued. We can see this through government funding.
In Australia, the Australia Council for the Arts funds artists and creators with grants and operational money. For instance, the Major Performing Arts Board of the Australia Council dispensed $78,182,476 to the performing arts in the period 2005-06.
Opera does especially well from Major Performing Arts Board funding. Opera Australia and the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra received over $14.5 million dollars between them.
If you like opera, that’s terrific! If you don’t, you might wonder why anyone would spend $14.5 million on an artform that engages with very few people, either as performers and audiences. It’s not as if the funding supports Australian composers and librettists writing operas. The works performed in Opera Australia’s October 2006 season were from the composers Gilbert and Sullivan, Verdi, Janacek, and Handel. Dead European composers.
Of course the Major Performing Arts Board’s funding of opera also supports Australian singers and musicians and that is undeniably a good thing. The funds made available to Opera Australia provide living wages for musicians and singers, in fact around 1300 of them.
There is no way I would take funding away from these dedicated performers. Yet I can’t help but dwell on the fact that in the same period Opera Australia and the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra received their $14.5 million, the Literature Board of the Australia Council for the Arts dispensed a mere $4,526,308 in grants and funding to writers and organisations supporting writers. While this included seven fellowships of $40,000 and one Emeritus Fellowship of $50,000, it wasn’t exactly employment for authors. The allocation of funding in this way forces me to ask why is it that singers and musicians can receive a living wage from government funding yet the same is not true for authors. What I can’t understand is what makes the performance of a Verdi or Handel opera worth more than the writing of a book. That’s the logical conclusion you must reach regarding the funding of arts in Australia. Through the allocation of money in this way, the performance of opera works by dead European composers is valued more than the authorship of original Australian books.
This sounds like a whinge, but my argument is based on sound free-market facts. Despite its reputation as an artform appreciated by the high and mighty, opera is not a popular artform. In fact, very few people at all go to opera performances – only 294,000 in 2004. That’s a little more than 0.01% of the Australian population. It isn’t what I’d call successful market penetration by a vibrant, living cultural form.
And does opera make money? Not at all. It is highly subsidised. It doesn’t even make money on the recordings or televised broadcasts of performances.
Australian literature on the other hand earns around $100 million a year in Australian sales, even when it is claimed to be “in decline”. Why? Because Australians continue to read Australian books in significant numbers. According to BookData figures released through Books Alive, 35,230,246 trade books were sold in Australia in the first nine months of 2006 (that’s about 1.75 books for every Australian). Over 65% of those books are produced in Australia by Australians. That’s much greater economic success and market penetration than opera can claim. At the same time the ABS reports that there were 556,000 Australians who were involved in writing. That’s almost double the number of punters who rock up to the Opera House to sip champagne between arias.
So why is it then that 1300 performers and musicians can be paid a living wage and yet so few authors receive such compensation? Because we are not assessing government support for the arts in free market terms, that’s why. Why do we have this aberration in government policy? Surely not because MPs and Ministers like to hang out at “first” nights of an artform that reached its use-by date in the nineteenth century?
Regrettably, that may be exactly the reason, given the massive corporate sponsorship for opera from the likes of Exxon Mobil, IBM, Australia Post, Qantas and the Commonwealth Bank. But with this sort of corporate support, why does opera need government funding at all? If corporate Australia is so desperate to see another soprano warbling Wagner while mingling with Ministers, surely they can pay totally for the privilege.
Of course the soprano should still be paid a living wage. I’m not belittling the artistry involved in performing opera. I’m simply trying to value it in terms of its place in Australian culture.
I believe a strong argument can be mounted that only art forms that lead to the creation of new Australian works should be funded by the taxpayer.
All opera can claim in recent years is the creation of the Lindy Chamberlain opera and Batavia neither of which were mainstream successes as, say, Kate Grenville’s book The Secret River has been. On this basis, opera would be a big loser.
If opera’s funding was assessed according to this criterion, it would probably be about equal to its market size and its cultural significance; this is, not very much. The funding for literature on the other hand would be altered considerably, and more authors would be able to be paid a living wage.
So why isn’t literature getting this sort of funding? Is the truth that, as a nation, we believe dead European composers are more deserving of the money we allocate for the arts than living Australian authors? Are we still accepting a cultural cringe where we cannot accept living Australian creators are as good as if not better than dead European ones?
Or is our arts funding simply fundamentally flawed because it doesn’t follow free market principles?
Whatever, we undervalue authors.
Much of this material appeared in Australian Author, December 2006. Copyright © 2006 Australian Society of Authors/Jeremy Fisher.

Friday, October 12, 2007

ELR funding confirmed

The Minister for the Arts, Senator George Brandis SC, confirmed that funding for Educational Lending Rights (ELR) had been confirmed past 2008 on 8 August 2007 (see his press release here).

The Australian Society of Authors was instrumental in establishing ELR. The ELR program provides payments to eligible Australian creators and publishers on the basis that they are missing out on potential royalty payments when their books are borrowed from educational libraries rather than purchased. The Public Lending Right program (PLR) provides the same support for works held in public libraries.

ELR was established in 2000–01 as an element of the Book Industry Assistance Plan, offering compensation for the imposition of the goods and services tax (GST). It received funding of $35 million for the period 2000–01 to 2003–04. Following a review of the programme in 2003, $44 million was provided in the 2004–05 Budget to continue the scheme for the next four years. Further funding has now been confirmed. The Australian Labor Party has also made a commitment to further funding for ELR in its Arts statement.

The ASA calls for the capital pool for ELR to be increased to at least $16 million to allow for increases in the number of books to which it applies as well as to compensate for the static level of funding for the previous four years. The ELR pool should also be subject to the same indexation applying to the PLR pool (the ASA also calls for an increase of the PLR pool to $10 million).

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

2007 Federal Election

When this entry was created, the the 2007 Federal election was yet to be called.

On 8 October, the Government announced it had committed to funding for Educational lending Right (ELR) past 2008, although there was no mention of the level of funding or whether the ELR pool would be indexed.

This may have resulted from the fact that, in August, the ASA put three key positions to all parties standing for the Federal election. The first related to a recommendation to fund class sets of Australian literature (where in line with curricular practice) for the teaching of Australian literature in secondary schools. The second called for a tax-free awards and grants (including those from the Australia Council) to authors. The third related to continued and increased funding for Lending Rights. To date we have received the following replies:

The Greens
Class Sets
The Australian Greens support a very significant increase in funding to public schools to enable improved resourcing of all areas of the curriculum including English.

The Greens believe curricula decisions are best made by experts including teachers and not politicians. The provision of class sets of Australian literature in schools would receive in principle support from The Australian Greens if such a decision was made in the context of an overall resource funding increase, and that relevant curricula decisions made by boards of education or a national curricula body, if one comes into existence, informed such a decision.

Tax liability of prizes
Removal of tax liability for literary prizes is one way of improving the level of financial support to Australian writers. The Greens support the principle although the scope and extent of such an exemption would need to be examined. Grants from the Australia Council would obviously be prime candidates for such an exemption.

Educational Lending Right
The Greens believe the existing public lending right and the new Educational Lending Right scheme is crucial to maintaining a viable Australian literary industry. We support additional funds directed towards the schemes and the placing of ELR on a permanent footing with guaranteed increases to funding in line with CPI.

The Australian Democrats have responded to the ASA and their position is available here.

ALP’s arts policy released
The ALP’s Shadow Minister for the Arts, Peter Garrett, released the party’s policy paper on the arts in September. While the document is short on detail, it does commit the party to retaining Educational lending Right (ELR), though there is no indication of increased funding or indexation.