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How Ireland’s treatment of writers is fuelling a literary boom Britain may never see

The British actress Audrey Hepburn acting along American actor George Peppard in the film 'Breakfast at Tiffany's'. USA, 1960 (Photo by Mondadori via Getty Images) - Credit: Mondadori via Getty Images

CHARLIE CONNELLY warns that writing may become the preserve of the elite if Britain doesn’t value and support its authors in an ever more precarious trade.

Ireland has always had a more enlightened attitude to its writers and artists than the UK and this was emphasised last week by the announcement from the Irish minister for employment affairs and social protection Regina Doherty and Josepha Madigan, the minister for culture, heritage and the Gaeltacht, giving the go-ahead to a scheme offering state support for writers and artists.

Following the success of a pilot,the ministers confirmed writers and artists who qualify will from September be entitled to a year of jobseekers’ payments and benefits without the requirement to be actively seeking other work, enabling them to concentrate on their artistic projects without fear of penalty.

“In Ireland, we hold a very special place for the arts and I hope that through this initiative we can create some breathing space for creative people to flourish,” said Doherty.

Applicants for the scheme will have to demonstrate professional credentials including proving a certain amount of their income has been accrued from artistic pursuits in the past, and the government is consulting with representative bodies from the arts before confirming what the validation process will involve. Whatever the outcome this still represents a bold and forward-thinking move.

The trade union SIPTU, the closest Irish equivalent to Unite in the UK, supported the announcement.

“This is a positive step forward on the path to recognition of the professional status and value of performing artists in Ireland,” said Karen O’Loughlin, the union’s arts and culture sector organiser, before adding that the scheme should also be the jumping off point for a wider debate.

“We also need a broader discussion about the working lives of artists and their capacity to have longevity and dignity in their careers.

The way to truly value artists is to ensure they can make a secure living from their work and that means the development of a basic income scheme for them.”

Ireland already has in place a scheme running since 1997 through which writers and artists can claim exemption from income tax if their work is deemed by the Revenue Commissioners, the Irish equivalent of HMRC, to be of significant cultural value.

Even in the depths of the financial crisis of the late 2000s, which hit Ireland harder than most European countries, the scheme survived amid swingeing cuts to public funding and services, the only change being a cap of 40,000 euros per year placed on applicable earnings.

This is farsighted stuff from Ireland, recognising the value to a nation of its cultural output and the ability of that output to enhance the image of a country on the world stage in a way that has incalculable value. Would the Republic of Ireland have the same global profile without the likes of Joyce, Wilde, Swift and Yeats?

How does Ireland’s new scheme relate to writers’ lives in Britain? When I heard the news from Ireland I immediately thought of the recent report into writers’ earnings in the UK, published at the 
end of last month by the Authors’ Licencing and Collection Society which distributes payments to authors for their published material photocopied and broadcast.

According to the report – whose methodology has been criticised in some quarters but seems to be supported by anecdotal evidence – writers’ income in the UK in 2018 had fallen by 15% over five years and by a whopping 42% since a similar survey was conducted by the ALCS in 2005.

The median annual income for a professional author, the report says, is £10,250, a little over half the £17,900 minimum income UK living wage laid down by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2017.

At the time of the 2005 survey 40% of authors were earning a living solely from writing; that figure has since fallen to 13.7%. On a wider level, the average earnings of professional women authors stand at only 75% of their male equivalents, down 3% on the equivalent figure 14 years ago, at a time when women writers have never had a higher profile as well as a much stronger focus on the gender pay gap across the country as a whole.

Meanwhile the UK publishing industry in 2018 was worth £6 billion, with increased sales on 2017 in all sectors except for a slight drop in physical books on the previous year, a hefty contribution to the British economy especially on top of the previous five years of continuous growth and the industry’s Gross Value Added to the UK economy rising by almost 8% every year since 2010.

Despite this, authors’ incomes haven’t so much been squeezed as steamrollered. The ALCS report places authors’ earnings in a wider cultural context. “While the incomes of all writers continue to fall, the creative industries in the UK – now valued at £92 billion – are growing at twice the rate of the UK economy as a whole,” it points out, “calling urgently into question the 
extent to which writers’ significant contribution to those industries is properly valued.”

It’s a murky debate which essentially boils down to the fact that nobody is owed a living simply because of their chosen profession and no writer should claim they are an exception on that score.

As these figures show, however, it’s harder now to make a living from writing than it’s ever been and that’s before even considering the potential impact of Brexit on authors’ earnings (if authors lose their EU copyright, as seems almost certain, it will trim their income even further for a start, let alone the withdrawal of access to EU grants and bursaries and the knock-on effects on publishing of the inevitable economic hit to come).

The way authors are paid is ancient, imperfect, precarious for both sides but broadly accepted. It’s a question of calculated risk on the part of publisher and writer requiring confidence on both sides that a good book is going to appear, one that people are going to buy in sufficient numbers for a professional author to make a living and for the publishers to finance their continuing business.

It’s a gruelling process financially for the writer: when I tell most people how much I earn from the cover price of my books they’re astounded.

It’s a natural assumption that given it’s my name on the front in big letters and my words on the pages, most of what the reader pays goes into my pocket. Oof, no. Far from it.

I’m lucky if I see 10%, which is why it’s important to secure as large an advance as possible, because until the publisher has made back those percentages from each copy and recovered the money they advanced you the author doesn’t see another bean. Hence, for a professional author, the advance has to cover expenses as well as provide you with enough income to live on while you’re writing the book and until it’s sold enough to prompt further payment. An author is, incidentally, paid twice a year and doesn’t know how much it’ll be until it arrives.

The most valuable commodity you can have as an author, just the same as in any other branch of the arts, is time. Money may not buy you happiness but it does buy you time, making both items important to any creative art. It’s rare these days, particularly for a new author, for publishers to pay out a substantial advance, and even established authors are generally only as valuable as the sales of their last book indicate. It takes considerable and consistent career momentum for an author to make a good living from their books: as the median earnings figure shows that’s not happening for many.

It used to be that an inadvertent side-effect of the benefits system was that it supported the arts, allowing claimants to work on their projects while ostensibly looking for work. It’s feasible that some of the great books, albums and works of art of the last half century wouldn’t have appeared if it wasn’t for the benefits system.

Many would call that an abuse of the system and they’d be fundamentally correct, but unemployment undeniably feeds creativity and nobody, despite what the qualification criteria for universal credit might say, can spend every waking hour looking for work.

Look at the explosion of great literature that has come out of Ireland in recent years: It’s no coincidence that it follows an intense period of economic hardship and high unemployment in the Republic.

The politicisation of the benefits system by the right here in recent years has forced claimants into deeper hardship, coupled with a distasteful rise in social vilification. It’s an ancient and easy political trope, getting people to punch down, but where people claiming benefits were once regarded as a bit down on their luck supported by a benevolent safety net until things picked up, today the claiming of benefits has been stigmatised to such an extent that just about anyone claiming welfare from the state is viewed as some kind of scrounger or swindler.

Such attitudes make it impossible for the UK to introduce a similar scheme to Ireland even if there was the remotest political will to do so, but there is still a conversation to be had about where this country stands with regard to its creative people and how they can make a living.

There is more to that £10,250 figure than meets the eye: many authors are fortunate enough to have independent means or a partner/spouse earning enough to buy the time they need to sit and write for several hours a day. Many authors don’t have to worry about their yearly income or hourly rate: not every professional writer is starving among the eaves of the archetypal garret.

As authors’ earnings continue to fall, however, there’s a danger that authorship will become an elitist occupation open only to those who can already afford to write. Ireland has recognised what a negative cultural impact that would have for the nation as a whole and has acted in a commendable manner, the right approach for the right country.

But what can Britain do? Does it value its writers and artists enough? Are we still a cultured nation confident in continuing our established cultural legacy? Is the financial drawbridge being pulled up and are we going to see a narrowing of viewpoints in the stories and kinds of books appearing in our bookshops?

Whose responsibility is it to ensure authors are making a decent income from their work? Not the government, especially one that shows an increasing disinclination towards culture in general. The publishers? Their argument is that the financial risk in publishing a book is all theirs and, all things considered, they give authors a reasonable slice of the action. There will never come a day when an author is taken on as a regular employee on a wage with gym membership, healthcare and two quid a week into the office lottery syndicate.

Ultimately the responsibility lies with the author. All they can do is keep plugging away in the hope that the next book is their best work yet, sells by the warehouse-load and vindicates all the years of struggle. Ultimately, authorship runs on dreams and sometimes, just sometimes, those dreams can even pay the bills.

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