Saturday, 15 December 2012

Who pays the piper?

This post will make me unpopular. I await the brickbats.

Before we start, though, I would say that this post is in NO WAY critical of the friend whose remark sparked it. This has been my view for years, she just reminded me of it, and how it is a more important issue now with such massive public spending cuts.

I don't approve of Arts Council grants to writers. There. I've said it. The public purse should not - as a rule - fund the personal ambition of people who want to write fiction, poetry, or non-fiction.

I'm not against public funding of the arts - I see no problem in funding projects where the intended beneficiary is the public - but I don't see a grant to finish a novel as benefiting the public. The public doesn't need another novel, there are already plenty. A community might need a theatre, or an art gallery, or subsidised tickets to performances, but arts funding should be targeted at the general good and not at individual authors in need of money. Notice I say 'as a rule' - there will always be a few exceptions. But this is about the majority of cases.

A couple of weeks ago, I was having coffee with a very good friend, an award-winning writer in an area that generates virtually no income, who is now writing in a different genre. Let's call her Kate. She had been advised to apply for an Arts Council grant and we were talking about whether or not she should do so. She asked if I'd ever applied and if I ever would, and I'd said 'no' to both questions.

'But it's different for you,' she said. 'You get paid for what you write.' I accepted that and we moved on.

But that came back to me later. I do get paid for what I write. Or, rather, I write what I get paid for. I talk to publishers and my agent about what publishers want. I take almost any commission that comes my way (these days - in the past there were often too many and I turned away those I liked less). When there is not enough writing to be paid for I build websites, make book trailer videos, teach creative writing... do other things that pay.

I will write on subjects I'm not hugely attracted to and for markets I'm not keen on, because I have to put food on the table and writing is my job. If I were a doctor who specialised in fractures, I couldn't say 'I won't do broken arms, they're boring. Bring me only broken legs.' If you have a job, you have to do the less interesting bits as well as the exciting bits. That's how you earn enough to live on. If you want to be precious about your writing, that's fine, but don't expect the rest of us to pay to keep you pure.

Why, at a time when there are people without enough to live on, should the public purse fund someone who wants to write a book? It's not as though there is a world shortage of books. This is not a case of people who can't find a job asking for unemployment benefit. It's a case of people who will probably write a book anyway, though possibly more slowly without the funding, asking for public money to write it now.

I know Kate's book will take a lot of research. I know it will probably win awards when it is published. That's not the case for all books funded by Arts Council grants - some won't even find a publisher.  I don't see why my friend working in Waitrose and doing a degree while building his band in his free time, or his friend in Waitrose who is establishing himself as an illustrator, should subsidise people who want to short-circuit the struggle and be paid from the public purse to write.

This year, I've been writing a couple of books for which I have no contract. I write them when I have time, and they would go a lot better and more quickly if I didn't have to keep earning money at the same time. That's why it's a good idea to get a contract and advance. These are in short supply - I know, that's why I haven't got one. (Or maybe because the books aren't good enough, or because I haven't approached any publishers yet with these half-baked ideas.)

If a writer produces books that sell, the publishing industry should work in such a way that the writer is adequately paid for their work. That's not always the case - but that's a problem we have to tackle within the industry. In times of plenty, society can perhaps afford to subsidise writers - but not now. Not when benefits are being cut to the bone, when more than 100,000 people in the UK rely on food banks, libraries are closing and schools can't afford books or teachers. Yes, if we collected the taxes we are rightly owed, we wouldn't need cuts. But now - right NOW - the money isn't there. So let's spend what there is on things that really matter. And that isn't one more untried novel.

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For the record, I have no problem with charities supporting writers (the people who give to or endow those charities have chosen to spend their money in that way). And I don't think my view automatically extends to all forms of art. A cellist, for example, needs to keep practising at a high level to secure their skill for the future. A writer can take a break or work slowly with no real detriment. And anyone - really, anyone - can find some time to write if they really want to. But time and writers is another rant, for another day.

STOP PRESS: catdownunder has carried the debate to Australia on her own blog so please do take a look at her points and commenters. 


  1. No brickbats coming from me. I think you make a lot of good points. Interesting and honest post which I agree with, thank you.

  2. Perhaps what is needed is not funds for writing the book but funds for publishing it - if it is up to standard. The other art forms get more assistance in that respect, theatre grants, exhibition venues etc.

    1. I don't agree with that either, catdownunder. Publishing is a business and it should pay its way. Each community has very few venues that might need support - a town might have one theatre or gallery - and losing one will have an impact on the whole community (or the portion of it who would have used it). The non-publication of a few books impacts on no-one except the writer. We can all go to the library and borrow a different book. If your local museum closes, there is not an alternative and there will be an educational and cultural impact on the people in that area.

      And I don't think there is a fairness issue - other art forms get more assistance because they need it and are of more communal benefit. But I'm interested to hear and consider arguments from the other side!

  3. Brickbat here. Scrap all arts funding then. Why fund that cellist if they are good enough they'll find a job. Art should be funded entirely by the market or charity, hurrah!

    No difficult plays or films, no music that isn't Classic FM and no books that aren't spies or supernatural or self published. I know we're heading this way and the AC can't possibly turn back the tide so yes why bother.

    Anne I do think a writer needs to develop, how can a first novel be anywhere near as good as a tenth and no publisher allows a writer to develop these days. And only a tiny proportion of writers are paid enough to make a living at it. How can anyone who doesn't have
    subsidised housing or private income a working (and well paid) partner possibly do this job?
    Of course we do everything we can to get by, and as someone who has written with two kids, and a part time job of course you can find time. It's not that you need. It's the confidence of being taken seriously by a someone. I have never sold well. I have been on award lists, had nice reviews but my PLR is pitiful. I agree it's a vicious circle but the RLF only give you a year and how do you feed your kids your mortgage? I agree publishers should pay writers properly but there is no chance of that happening now. That's why I do other stuff and always have.
    I pay tax, more than Amazon and Google and I think my books which a lot of publishers aren't interested in promoting do a good job for their readers. If I had taken a break I doubt if I would have been able to make a career out of writing. It would have been one or two novels eked out over years. I have had Arts Council help, and those books have been published by big publishers who should have paid me more - but didn't.
    I do believe that writing is destined to go back to being the preserve of the well off. Which I suppose is as it ever was. And you're right, in the great scheme of things who cares.
    an arts council funded writer xx

  4. I think there's a difference between 'should these grants exist?' and 'granted that they exist, should we take advantage of them?'

    Answering 'no' to the first question doesn't preclude answering 'yes' to the second one, and I don't think Anne is condemning people who do apply for these grants. Indeed, if they're available, it seems silly not to.

    Also, the good thing about such grants is that the fact that they exist show that the state does care about arts and culture. They might not put the money exactly in the right subcorners, but at least they value the field.

    But I agree with Anne that, as she puts it bluntly, 'we don't need more (albeit excellent) novels', which I'd nuance by 'there will be lots of excellent novels anyway'. Which is not necessarily the case for cellists and for theatre companies, which require such basic and expensive things as equipment, getting people together, and specific venues.

    I'm curious to know, in response to Catherine, whether the publisher knowing that the book is funded contributes to a degree to a lack of publicity/ interest/ proper fee on their side.

    Finally, maybe the myth of the full-time writer, which seems to be everyone's dream, is the biggest problem here: people who absolutely want to be professional writers but only write what they want and stay 'pure', as Anne puts it. Being funded by the state perhaps contributes to this illusion. But it's true that any job will have aspects that you like and others that you don't. One reason why I don't want to be a full-time, professional writer is that I don't want (too much of) the bad bits.

  5. No, the idea that we can go and read another book is not good enough. I am very conscious of this because I have seen how decisions have been made in the past with respect to reading material for the blind - a process which many would find appalling. Publishers choose what they believe will sell, will bring in a profit - and then throw in some of the (as an eminent writer once said) "navel-gazing tripe by the big names" (he was one of them!).
    When you think that The Hobbit only got published because one of the Unwin children liked it (after the readers had rejected it) and that the first Harry Potter got published in much the same way it is clear that being published is as much a matter of luck, being in the right place at the right time, knowing someone etc as it is about writing the right book. It has to be - it is the only way some of the appalling rubbish on our local library shelves gets published.
    Don't mind me too much though - although I doubt I would feel any differently if I had a contract in my paw!

    1. But... those books WERE published! It's not luck that someone sees a quality in something. And everything falls into that category. You only meet the person you fall in love with because you were lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time; you only get the perfect job if you see the advertisement and no one better than you happens to apply. Of course there will be good books that are missed. There always will be, and we'd need a massive input of funds to find and nurture them all. (And I think a lot of tripe is published because publishers think it will sell rather than because the author knows someone in publishing. Never underestimate the poor taste of the public...)

      I suppose what it boils down to is whether we want to further the individual good or the social good. I don't personally think subsidising a particular book is sufficient of a public good to warrant the funding, however much of an individual good it may be. And I personally feel the funding should be used for the public good in the current economic climate (but not necessarily always).

      Perhaps we will return to a model of private patronage and subscription publishing (we're already seeing the latter online). I would have a different view of Arts Council grants to writers if they came entirely from lottery funding - so that people have a choice about contributing. But not general taxation.

      I certainly didn't suggest, and don't support, cutting all arts funding.

    2. Anne, I agree with you. Completely.

  6. Sorry about the rant, no breakfast and no swim. But those books (the AC subbed me for three books altogether one of which was never published) would never have been written without the handouts from the AC, Anne. I know there are too many books, and cellists, and orchestras. All I am saying is the AC has supported books which publishers wouldn't. And that will stop, and there will still be books. I wish I could agree with you, but I suppose I can't afford to be truly professional.

    1. Catherine, this is rant-central and you are always welcome to come here and rant! We are all big grown-ups who recognise that others hold different views and that as long as they are informed views, thoughtfully held views, they are all equally valid. Argument is the way we edge towards truth, and I will always welcome people to express different - even polar opposite - views.

      I would never in a million years suggest that you are not truly professional - and I am very glad that your books saw the light of day. It is just a shame that there are such huge flaws in the publishing industry that brilliant books don't always get the support they deserve.

    2. PS - I hope you get some lunch, at least! And maybe a swim this afternoon?

  7. Controversial! Great articla, and it's inspired a really interesting discussion here in the comments

  8. I agree with Anne. Yes of course it's tough trying to earn a living from writing, or maybe even worse, earning a living by some other means and writing in one's spare time. But it's possible (I wrote my first three books whilst teaching full time and bringing up three children alone) and always has been. Why should public money fund the pursuit of a private dream?

  9. I have no sympathy with writers who want hand-outs. Writing is something that requires virtually no outlay, merely determination. It can easily be fitted into your spare time, if you have the will.

    I also don't see why the taxpayer should compensate writers for the truly appalling terms publishers offer these days. The solution is for writers to stop meekly signing abusive contracts - if enough writers refused to hand over the rights in their work for a pittance, better terms would be offered. The publishing industry is entirely dependent on writers, and should pay them a less measly share of the profits. We are fortunate these days to have the alternative of self-publishing.

    1. Lexi I don't want your sympathy, and I don't want to publish my own books. I don't have the time or the marketing skills. I also have no 'spare time' or many useful skills apart from writing. School visit money has dried up, advances have gone down. If you are worried about who gets these grants you can ask the AC for a list - it might be on line I have seen it, it details who and how much. I might be on it but it was over three/four years ago that I had my last grant. There you can see who gets this free money. It tends to be for books that aren't the most commercial. That is - of course - the point. If I was clever enough to write books that sell shedloads then that is all I would do. What you get from the AC tends to be half or a third of what you'd get from the RLF. Still not enough for a family or a mortgage or a car. Of course I realise I am lucky, I don't do a proper 9-5 but actually, these days, not many people do.
      My first ever publisher was supported by AC money. It would not have published any books otherwise. They didn't pay advances at all. But they developed me in loads of ways I am eternally grateful for. Publishers can offer tiny advances because there are so many writers and so many books and not enough readers. We need more young readers or we are all doomed.

    2. I think the real problem is that publishers pay too little, because they can get away with it. Everyone working in publishing gets a living wage, except writers (with the odd exception).

      The desperation and naivety of the unpublished writer plays right into their hands. When two big publishers recently bought vanity presses they demonstrated the respect they have for authors.

  10. I am very suspicious in general of the Arts Council and the way grants are handed out. But then again, I know that some very good writers struggle to produce their best work due to lack of funds and personal circumstances. The problem is that what makes money and what is of artistic value don't often coincide.

    Too many books? Maybe - but who's to say? Are there too many paintings hanging on gallery walls, too sculpture parks, too many actors, opera directors, singers and stage designers? Wouldn't money be better spent on new hospitals, provision for the mentally ill, the elderly and infirm or children's nurseries? I don't think it's quite as simple as you say.

    Having said that, I would never apply for any sort of grant - whoever funds it - because I know that other better writers need it far more than I ever would.

    1. But Sally, I didn't at any point say there were too many books - and I don't think anyone here has said so. I said there were enough already that the world won't miss another if someone doesn't write it because they don't have an Arts Council grant. That's not the same thing at all as 'too many'.

      I agree that the way the Arts Council hands out grants is suspicious and favours people who are good at writing grant applications. There is probably a middle-class bias in receipients, too (partly because that's who knows about them).

      As for spending the money on healthcare and education, etc - I think a rich cultural life available to all contributes to preventative care and education. When I was depressed, I gained more from going to the opera than from the so-called mental health care provision. So I agree it's not simple. I wasn't aiming to tackle all arts spending, just saying I don't approve of grants for individual writers.

  11. All most interesting. I once attended an Arts Council seminar about how to apply for literature funding. The message I picked up was that if you were struggling with an existing idea, the wording of the ACE application wouldn't work. If however, you could devise an appropriate angle - learning about a new form of writing, developing a different writing skill, wanting time or funding for research trip & time, all was fine. As was community involvement in some way. (you did also have to put in "funding" of your own, I recall.)

    I felt uncomfortable about twisting where I was, writing wise, into one of categories so never pursued it, despite it being a tough time. But I also feel such novels/authors/poets/poetry probably do get a publicity kick & kudos out of having been granted ACE funding.

    Lots to think about here, as ever. Glad that some of it went to Catherine, though!