(Painting by Stuart Pearson Wright
linked from UsableMarkets)
It's a funny thing being a writer at the moment. Writers are lauded and celebrated everywhere. Reading groups have sprung up like fungus; readings and book launches are packed; the radio waves are filled with writer interviews and book programmes; famous writers are consulted on non-writing matters; literary festivals proliferate like coat-hangers left in a cupboard; celebrities think it worth their while to pretend to be writers and pay ghosts to produce books with their name on; The Reading Organisation and The Reading Agency try to bring reading to a wider constituency and promote/exploit the therapeutic benefits of literature; creative writing courses are crammed with wannabe writers - everyone loves writers, suddenly.
But not books. Libraries close, or reduce their book stock in favour of space for computers, 'mediatheque' installations, or just empty space for readings and performance. (Oh, the irony - remove the books to make space for authors giving readings from, er, books.) Geeks and moneymakers shout loudly about e-books and the potential for replacing the active role of imagination in reading text with the passive and lazy consumption of multimedia. Authors are paid less and less - very few earn even the average wage, many earn below the minimum wage. Bookshops stock more copies of fewer titles, and shun anything not guaranteed to be a bestseller. Books are commoditized in supermarkets, sold for practically nothing by Amazon re-sellers (even books that have only just come out), stolen by pirates.
How has this dichotomy arisen and where will it lead? How can society on the one hand idolise writers and on the other hand despise books and their place in our lives? It's not even as though it is different people doing the two things. The same people who promote new trends in publishing before considering how to address the financial impact on professional writers are those who turn up at readings.
I would be the last to say that society owes writers a living. I have never applied for an Arts Council grant or any other source of support for my writing. But in a market that apparently wants writers, why does no-one want to pay a sustainable amount for our work? Why are they happy to let us talk on the radio for free or virtually nothing, but not happy to pay the going rate for a book in print? It looks as though we are returning to a world in which the only people who can afford to write are those with another source of income. Some people say that's fine, you can write in your free time. But that will exclude many people - single, working parents don't have free time; people on a low wage may be struggling with more than one job to make ends meet. And we need books written by people from all parts of society, so that all parts of society can find something they want to read, that they feel speaks to them, and so that we can all, as readers, enter different worlds unfamiliar to us.
It should NOT be necessary to subsidise writing by doing literary festivals, school visits and 'personal appearances'. Nothing wrong with these as extra sources of income for those who like doing them - but they are not and should not be, an essential part of the job of being a writer. They require a completely different skill set and THEY ARE NOT WRITING, they take time away from the job of being a writer. If I wanted to be a performer, I'd have gone to RADA instead of Cambridge (oh, hang on...) - I'd have been in Footlights instead of the library.
If society really values writers and reading, can they please stop treating books so badly? Fame is all very nice (perhaps) but food on the table is more sustaining. I don't want a free glass of warm Pinot Grigio in Heffers every other week - I want my books to be sold for a fair price and to be paid a fair price for writing them.