16 December, 2014

The new national Book Council—get angry, get typing

Remember our Prime Minister being applauded for promising a new national Book Council at his Awards ceremony last week? Looks as if it’s going to be funded by a cut to the Australia Council of $2 million a year for three years. 
To make clear what this means: Ozco’s literature funding has been steady at around $4 million per annum for a ridiculous number of years, apart from a short-lived increase under the Rudd and Gillard governments. I was on the Literature Board for 3 years, helping spread the available funds as widely and wisely as possible among increasing numbers of grant applicants. $4 million sounds like a lot, but it’s bugger-all compared to what goes to other art forms, and it doesn’t go far. A lot of excellent work goes unfunded, which is why Ozco staff will always tell you to keep applying, because you never know what your chances might be next year.
And now FIFTY PER CENT of that money is being may be taken to fund a new industry body. And nobody knows anything about this new council yet, but it’s safe to say it’s probably not going to directly support individual writers and existing writers’ organisations. [UPDATE: It's not clear whether the $2m is coming just from literature or from the Australia Council overall—good question to ask in your email! Can't imagine visual arts or the opera handing over $6m of their allocation, though, can you? UPDATE 2: Now it has been made clear that the money will come from the Aus Council's new work and strategic projects money.]
Just in case anyone’s thinking (and a surprising number of people do) that writers are wealthy whingers, ’cause just look at JK Rowling and stuff: According to Ozco’s 2007-2008 economic study of professional artists - http://www.australiacouncil.gov.au/…/do_you_really_expect_t… - the 7,600 professional writers in Australia were the least well rewarded artistic occupation for their creative work. Their mean annual income from writing was $11,100. Even their total incomes (from all work including non-arts work) were lower than all occupational groups, including blue-collar occupations. Between 2001 and 2008, writers’ mean incomes from writing fell by 52%. A fresh study is expected in 2016, but no one expects things to have improved.
If you’ve ever received, applied for or considered applying for an Arts Council literature grant, I suggest you go to the Attorney-General's department's feedback page and ask for details about this new body (who will be responsible for it, what it will be charged with doing, where the money will come from and how and where it will be spent), and express whatever concern/outrage/disgust you feel at the idea of already meagre funds being taken from supporting artists to fund another layer of bureaucracy. Arts Minister Brandis needs to see that we are watching this and demanding some accountability.


Anonymous Patricia Genat said...

Dear Margo,
Let's be clear that the Book Council funding is SPECIFICALLY for supporting Australian authors and the Australian supply chain. Not supporting sales via overseas companies that neither support nor pay tax to local initiatives. I'd be more than happy to have your obvious expertise and experience on the BCA, but not at the expense of losing sales through legitimate Australian retailers. I'd be delighted to catch you for a coffee and to discuss the best options for Australian writers. Yours Patricia Genat. President of the Australian Booksellers Association, Small Publisher, Library Supplier and reader.

16 December, 2014 11:07  
Blogger Among Amid While said...

Hi Patricia, I've no problems with supporting the local industry, but supporting the industry doesn't always mean supporting authors. Precious few Australian authors can live on their royalties.

The Lit Board and Australia Council literature funding has generally been concerned with providing direct funding for authors to produce literary works, a certain percentage of which are never going to be championed by the industry because they're not commercial propositions, but which are nonetheless of great literary excellence, winning awards here and overseas and becoming part of the national literary canon.

That these efforts would be curtailed because of the need to fund this industry body - that's the thing that's bothering me. Putting the most optimistic light on the PM's announcement, one would have assumed that the promise of the new body entailed the promise of fresh funding input to pay for it. Instead, it looks as if it means the paring back of already tight funding, and the redirection of money from actual authors (for food and rent) to bureaucratic expenses. It's another reason for authors to despair about the future.

16 December, 2014 12:52  
Anonymous Nathan Curnow said...

Thanks for this post Margo. I've sent off an email to Georgia this morning and will be keenly following the development of the new Book Council. Cheers.

16 December, 2014 13:44  
Blogger Among Amid While said...

Thanks for doing that, Nathan!

16 December, 2014 15:15  
Anonymous Nike Sulway said...

I'm not at all convinced that the Book Council's remit will be focused specifically, or exclusively, on supporting the Australian supply chain. Particularly as the announcement refers to "promote Australian writing ... internationally". Though I'd be happy to hear otherwise.

According to one article I've read, the remit of the Book Council will include: "collecting data, understanding readers, exploring the use of new technologies, and expanding the effectiveness of literary awards." Directing funding towards this kind of industry research, though no doubt important, will be coming at the expense of funding writers to write. It will clearly be a shift away from funding writers (the least financially rewarded people in the writing and publishing industry) to funding researchers, policy wonks and bureaucrats. On top of this 'increasing the effective of literary awards' reads to me like there'll be a distinct possiblity that some of those writers receive the most benefit from the Book Council's activities will be those who least need it (award winners with books in print and 'visible' in the marketplace, as opposed to writers struggling to reach their readers, or to survive while they write their next book).

It's hard to see this as a move that will be good FOR WRITERS, as opposed to being a move that will most benefit publishers, researchers and bureaucrats. Instead, I believe the shifting of such a significant chunk of funding away from OzCo to this new body demonstrates a commitment to the support of the publishing industry as a business, rather than a continued focus on supporting writing as an artform.

Writers may be part of the publishing 'business/industry', but this move looks like it will reinforce the ways in which writers are too often the least empowered and financially rewarded sub-sector of that industry.

Long comment. Ooops! Rant = officially ended now.

16 December, 2014 15:27  
Blogger Among Amid While said...

No need to apologise, Nike—it all needs to be said.

17 December, 2014 17:52  
Blogger Among Amid While said...

Received this response today:

Dear Ms Lanagan

Thank you for your enquiry about the new Book Council of Australia.

The Australian Government has a strong commitment to Australian literature, supporting it through:

. a range of programs which support individual writers to write more books – the Public and Educational Lending Right programs, the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards and grants though the Australia Council; and
. the new initiative of the Book Council of Australia, which will support the book sector more broadly.

The Government recognises the unique role that literature and books play in communicating Australian stories and contributing to a rich and rewarding culture. In a challenging 21st century market place it is important to make sure that the means to connect writers to readers remain strong and adaptable. Though its engagement with the broader book sector, the Book Council of Australia will augment and complement the particular role the Australia Council has in supporting individual artists.

The Government has decided to reallocate arts portfolio funding to the Book Council of Australia as part of its overall support for the Australian literature. The Australia Council has advised that it will apply the budget reduction across its new grants program and strategic projects to reduce the impact in any one area.

Further details regarding the structure and work program of the Book Council of Australia will be made available in coming months.

Thank you again for your enquiry.

Yours sincerely

Susan Rogers
Director,Literature and Lending Rights
Creative Industries Branch, Ministry for the Arts
Attorney-General’s Department

18 December, 2014 20:05  
Anonymous Nike Sulway said...

I *love* that their response states that they have a 'range of programs that support individual writers to write new books', but PLR/ELR and the PM's Literary awards (which the letter lists as examples) are clearly NOT those things: they are reward and recognition programs for writers who have already produced work.

21 December, 2014 14:56  
Blogger Kevin Murray said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

22 December, 2014 16:45  
Blogger Kevin Murray said...

Thanks for raising this issue. It's important not only for writers but all those involved in the arts: it sets a precedent. There could just as easily be an Australian Galleries Council, or Australian Cinemas Council. These will involve re-directing money away from creative production to consumption.

This has two short-term advantages for government. First it supports business over artists, who are naturally more sympathetic to their broader agenda. And second, it promotes government to audiences, who will always outnumber producers.

But in the long term it will diminish our creative life. This will only compound the loss of manufacturing as a emptying of our productive capacity as a nation.

22 December, 2014 16:46  
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