Like hundreds of thousands of other Australians, Heather Rose — the author of the Stella Prize-winning Museum of Modern Love — spent two and a half hours on hold to Centrelink on Tuesday.
The Tasmanian writer counts herself lucky though, with a relatively short wait time compared to others who called up, tried to use the Centrelink website, or waited in line to begin the process of claiming welfare payments.
Rose had given up her usual teaching jobs to embark on a national and international tour to promote her latest novel, Bruny (Allen and Unwin) — but all those paid festival appearances and books events have now been cancelled as a result of coronavirus.
“This is my cash flow, this the income I was relying on,” Rose says.
That leaves her, a single mother with a dependent child, without income for the next few months.
While many industries, particularly those with a casualised or self-employed workforce, are suffering, writers’ lives are already precarious.
“This is a fairly long-suffering group in the arts generally, where incomes have been falling for years,” says Olivia Lanchester, the CEO of the Australian Society of Authors.
A 2015 Macquarie University study found that Australian writers earn on average $12,900 a year from their craft.
“This crisis has helped to expose maybe just how little generally writers earn,” says Lanchester.
‘An unprecedented and damaging time’
Dozens of writers told RN’s The Book Show about how their book events had been cancelled as a result of coronavirus, including Sydney-based novelist and freelance writer Liam Pieper.
“This is a really unprecedented and damaging time for everyone in the arts. It feels like we’re mid-apocalypse,” says Pieper.
Liam Pieper has had to cancel the tour for his newest book, Sweetness and Light. (Suppled: Penguin Random House/Matt Collins)
Pieper was meant to be launching his latest book Sweetness and Light in Melbourne last week before going on a national book tour, but that won’t be happening now.
“It’s a little cataclysmic from a personal point of view, because you spend three or four years working on a book and then you get a very brief window to bid them bon voyage into the world,” he says.
The first few weeks after a book is published are key to a book reaching an audience.
“The book tour is really an indispensable part of publishing a book, it’s a rare chance to meet readers and touch base with bookstores and shore up those relationships,” says Pieper.
Like most other writers and artists, he has other part-time jobs — but he says dozens of his freelance writing gigs have disappeared as a result of COVID-19, which means he will be mostly living off savings, while he can.
“I’m not sure what I’ll do, but I will survive … at least I have the option of the little work I still have, I can do from home. So I am aware of my blessings,” says Pieper.
‘It’s all fallen to pieces’
The same week that Omar Sakr‘s poetry collection The Lost Arabs (University of Queensland Press) was shortlisted for a NSW Premier’s Literary Award, his upcoming readings, panels, and writers festival appearances were all cancelled as a result of coronavirus.
But what hurt him the most was the cancellation of a multi-city US book tour to promote the US edition of his collection.
“It’s rare and difficult to get an international book deal as a poet, let alone an Australian poet, let alone a tour. I’d been working really hard to get to this point — and it’s all fallen to pieces,” Sakr says.
Poet Omar Sakr says “a full-time writer’s income is fluid and precarious”. (Supplied: Tyler Aves)
The Lost Arabs was published in Australia in May 2019.
“The first year or two after the book comes up you’re typically heavily involved in literary festivals and things like that, and half of my income — if not more — has been coming from festivals and these kinds of events,” says the poet.
Sakr says that writers’ incomes in the year that they sign book deals, or the year they release a book, might paint a pretty, but unrepresentative, picture — and render them ineligible for Centrelink.
“It might feel like you’re doing OK [if you’re at that point in the book cycle] but the next few years are typically abysmal,” says Sakr.
The ‘cancellation apocalypse’
Claire G. Coleman was meant to be promoting The Old Lie (Hachette Australia), the follow-up to her Stella Prize-shortlisted novel Terra Nullius, at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in May — but that’s now been cancelled, along with a number of other appearances and artistic developments.
She described what’s been happening as a “cancellation apocalypse”.
“It felt apocalyptic because all of us writers require these events to make a bit of money, but also to promote our books.”
Coleman is particularly concerned for how First Nations writers will fare during the pandemic. (Supplied: Jen Dainer )
As with Rose, Pieper and Sakr, Coleman has now lost income from event payments as well as the book sales that would have been boosted by those events.
“[And] for freelancers, our margins are quite small — so losing any money at all is really dramatic,” Coleman says.
Coleman counts herself lucky, as she’s still got royalties and commissions and she wasn’t trying to promote a newly released book, but she’s worried about lost momentum.
“Every event you do, every project you do, builds interest in the next project you do … to someone who is relatively early in their career that could mean a loss of future income greater than what I’ve lost already.”
Coleman, a Wirlomin Noongar woman, says she is particularly concerned for First Nations writers.
“We’re only a very small segment of the industry, and except for the few big names, everyone is very new … and we’ve already had it difficult, so that means the loss of momentum will hit us harder,” she explains.
Claire G Coleman tweet
Playwright and filmmaker John Harding is a founding member of Ilbijerri Theatre Company and a board member of the First Nations Australia Writers Network.
He’s concerned about the potential impact of COVID-19 on elders.
“You’re looking at possible devastation for remote and regional communities and we have just a handful of elders left that are the custodians and keepers of knowledge … and these people are writers too,” Harding says.
Harding asks: “Who is protecting these communities?”
Short and long-term impacts
The Australian Society of Authors is a professional association of Australian authors and illustrators with over 3,000 members.
CEO Olivia Lanchester agrees that authors who have had to cancel appearances and launches will be most directly impacted by COVID-19, but says other writers will feel impacts further down the track.
Lanchester says that “we really don’t know yet the effect on royalties,” because royalties are paid to authors biannually, in March and August: “We won’t see the impact on authors for six months at least.”
There’ll be a knock-on effect for writers once bookstores close. (Supplied: Renee Fisher/Unsplash)
And she says that while booksellers have reported strong sales as readers rush to stock up for quarantine, it’s likely that bookstores will be forced to close at some point.
Publishers, particularly the smaller independent presses, will also be vulnerable.
Heather Rose, who is still completing the process of applying for government support, describes herself as a “job waiter, not a job seeker. I’m waiting for my industry to pick up again, I’m waiting for future royalties, to do my job out there in the world again.”
“The latest government stimulus is welcome and does assist in protecting the most vulnerable writers, which is great, but I think it would be good to have sector-specific funding now,” Lanchester says.
Lanchester and many other stakeholders would like to see an increase in funding for the Australia Council of the Arts, the federal government’s arts funding body.
Government per capita spending on the arts and culture has been in decline, and writing and literature has been neglected by the Australia Council, with only 2.7% of its total funding going to this area.
The Australia Council has recently announced a COVID-19 response package that includes $5 million of the council’s own “uncommitted funds from this financial year”, now directed towards immediate relief for Australian artists, arts workers and arts organisations.
Lanchester also suggests that the government bring forward the annual payments for PLR (Public Lending Right) and ELR (Educational Lending Right) — the royalties that the government pays to writers for their works held in libraries and schools.
She’s also recommending that the government extend PLR and ELR to cover digital versions of books, as readers in social isolation will be primarily accessing books digitally.
Australian author Carly Findlay has many tips for those interested in supporting writers. (Supplied: Camille Condon)
How to support writers
“This is a really scary time, right now, for writers,” says Carly Findlay, author of the memoir Say Hello (HarperCollins, 2019) and the editor of upcoming anthology Growing Up Disabled in Australia (2021, Black Inc. Books).
“It’s really important to help writers at this time, and help the writing industry too,” says Findlay.
Findlay told RN’s The Book Show that there are a number of ways that people, while in social isolation and depending on their financial circumstances, can support writers and the industry.
Ways to support writers and writing
- Buy books
- Give or lend books to friends
- Share what you’re reading on social media
- Review books on social media and other websites
- Contact writers and tell them you love their work
- Pledge to a writer’s Patreon or Ko-fi or donate to them in other ways
- Listen to book-related podcasts
- Download eBooks and Audiobooks
- Buy a friend or yourself a subscription to a writers’ centre or pass to a future festival
- Build a street library
“Tell a writer that you’re thinking of us. It’s a really scary time, but I think that reading and writing will get us through this,” Findlay says.
Heather Rose says quarantine or isolation “is a beautiful time to get to know our country better, our history better, your local place better, and get to know Australian writers better.”
While libraries are closed, you can still access ebooks and audiobooks from home. And bookshops are still operating at time of writing, with many offering free delivery.
“If you can do it, our message is please buy our books,” Omar Sakr says.
Coleman urges readers to buy books from local independent bookstores in particular: “Otherwise they won’t be there at the end of this.”
Harding asks those who are concerned about Indigenous writers to consider donating to the First Nations Australia Writers Network, as they’ll be finding ways to support their writers through the pandemic.
If you’d like to support a particular author, many writers have details of ways to directly donate on their social media or websites — for example, you can follow #coughupforafreelancer on Twitter and you’ll find writers seeking support.
Sakr has started posting videos of himself reading his poetry on Twitter under the #InternationalPoetryCircle, as a way to find an audience for the US edition of The Lost Arabs.
“Reading my poems out loud is a joy, and I think we’re going to need as much of that as possible,” says Sakr.
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Some bookstores are moving their writers’ events online — including Brisbane’s Avid Reader bookstore, which will host a virtual book launch for Liam Pieper’s Sweetness and Light on March 30.
“It’s heartening to see the arts community scramble to find ways to stay vital and provide entertainment to people who need it more now than ever,” says Pieper.
Sweetness and the Light by Liam Pieper is out now through Penguin Random House