What if the government paid our authors? One literary foundation has a proposal

Would a guaranteed income for Maltese writers enrich the nation and propel the creative industry to new heights? One literary foundation has a proposal

Few Maltese authors can make a claim to recognition within the European literary context and none has yet reached the celebrity status to be able to live off their talent.  

It seems reassuring to know that authors all over the world are struggling to make ends meet – it’s not just a Maltese problem; but it’s equally upsetting for writers who can be the moral backbone and the eyes and ears of a cultured society.

The fairytale story of a bestselling Irish author ends quite tragically: Donal Ryan was rejected 47 times before publishing his novel The Spinning Heart, winning a number of prizes, including being longlisted for the coveted Booker. He went on to sell thousands of copies of his books, but had to return to his civil service day job. He told Irish newspapers two years ago that he makes 40c per book and approximately £500 a year.

The situation is similar in most European countries with very few exceptions. United Kingdom authors perform poorly when it comes to their collective bargaining. Average income for British writers is around £12,500, less than the legal minimum wage.

According to a 2016 survey, Italian authors declare an average net earning of less than €15,000, with a robust percentage which is lower than the poverty threshold.

The current Maltese household literary names are quite prolific and they enjoy a degree of modest success within the context of tiny Malta. Yet one literary foundation believes it’s time to further recompense their talent.

The Hub for Excellence in the Literary Arts (HELA) submitted five proposals for the 2020 Budget for the government to recognise the writing profession and with the aim of strengthening local culture.

One of these proposals includes incentives for start-ups whose main business is the selling and distribution of books. HELA also proposed a writers’ stipend through which writers can get a reasonable sum of money with which they can practise their profession full-time, and fiscal exemptions for publishing.

The National Book Council’s (NBC) chairman Mark Camilleri told MaltaToday that HELA’s proposal is not a new one. At the National Congress for Writers hosted by the council, it was suggested that every author must be paid no less than 10% royalties of net sales from books. “We have somewhat already made sure of pay increases for authors by increasing earnings for Public Lending Rights, through the creation of films and audio-visual productions. We’ve also increased the monetary reward for the National Book Prize, which currently stands at €4,000,” Camilleri said.

“We are doing many things with which we are improving writers’ incomes, but to grant a fixed pay to all authors is a little far-fetched. The most important thing right now is to address the fundamental problems in this sector and to provide authors with better opportunities to earn more money.”

Norway is perhaps every writer’s dream, not just because the country is 100% literate (Malta’s literacy rate is 92.5%). Karl Ove Knausgaard sold just half a million copies of his books, but he is guaranteed to live off as a writer until his retirement. Arts Council Norway purchases 1,000 copies of any book to distribute it to libraries – or 1,550 if it’s a children’s book – and writers still get royalties off those governmental purchases, in fact, at a better royalty rate than the contractual standard.

Books are also exempted from Norway’s value-added tax (Malta too). But renowned artists receive a guaranteed income, generally until retirement, and other burgeoning writers are eligible for one-to-five-year work grants.

And it is guaranteed because Norway’s population is actually into books and reading.

In 2018, the number of books and periodicals received by the National Library of Malta under legal deposit reached 1,741, an increase of 29.9% when compared to 2017 according to the National Statistics Office.

The number of books borrowed from public libraries increased by 12.2% in 2018 when compared to the previous year.

“The most important thing is that the market remains alive and sustainable. If we don’t have a sustainable market, we don’t sell books – this is the most important thing we need to ensure, and this is what we’re working on,” Mark Camilleri said.

Books and the smartphone

Studies show that the global creative industry was and is very much booming. The United Kingdom’s creative industry is valued at £101.5 billion according to an ALCS survey, yet UK writers’ earnings have fallen by 42% since 2005.

The United States reports a similar situation. An Authors Guild survey concluded that full-time authors have seen a 30% decrease in income, with only 39% of authors able to support themselves through writing-related work.

This wasn’t always the situation when, back before the rise of the smartphone, writers were often more financially stable and able to modestly live off their earnings. Though books have been sidelined for screens and gaming platforms in the new millennium, what we see on Netflix, the big screen and even on our mobile devices is usually because a big budget production house bought the rights of a written piece of work.

Currently, Netflix is working on at least producing 17 big-budget adaptations that were originally books, including The Witcher book series which has been adapted into a succession of bestselling games and which will be a high-production film in the coming year.

Despite these very successful projects, based on a standard 35-hour week, the average British full-time writer earns only £5.73 per hour, £2 less than the UK minimum wage for those over 25.

A number of bestselling authors in the UK called for a fairer share of profits in 2018, laying the blame at the door of publishers and online booksellers: it’s not that there’s no money in the business, but that the money isn’t getting to them.

So what if aspiring writers had to be funded by the State: would they actually prove successful? After all, even with lack of support or opportunity, some Maltese writers have had a degree of earned success abroad.

HELA has proposed a holistic budget strategy to make this more likely for Maltese authors as they urge for funds to be allocated for prospective and established journalists to be trained in the writing of book reviews. Their aim is to create a literary local culture that rewards writers. “Funds should be allocated for the book to be given the importance it deserves, first and foremost through libraries, one of the main public spaces books inhabit. We propose that funds be provided for libraries to become cultural spaces that provide more local books and an excellent cultural programme throughout the year.”

While Mark Camilleri thinks it is too early to talk about state-funding authors, the National Book Council has been promoting local books and writers over the years, culminating in the National Congress for Writers, an unprecedented move that saw many local authors gather in voicing their desires and fears within the industry.

The NBC has called for a 10% minimum royalty earning for each author as is the current situation in France. The Directorate of Social Security in France is also working towards establishing measures to simplify tax and social security services for the particular needs of authors.

Malta is on par with most countries in the EU in terms of authors’ rights, but not so on income due to the small reading population. For a country that is technically eligible to win at least six major literary prizes in Europe, including the most distinguished Man Booker Prize, Malta’s literary opportunities are vast, though the support for such fantastic golden tickets is hard to come by.