Lobbying to improve writers’ incomes

Mandy Hager, the newly elected head of the New Zealand Society of Authors, is lobbying the government to improve the lot of writers - so far to no avail, despite the Prime Minister's championing of the arts.

As arts minister, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern positions herself as an advocate for New Zealand’s creative sector. She’s on record as saying, “We can’t say we value our art if we don’t value our artists," and describes herself as “someone who is passionate about the arts and the role they play in our communities.”

After the Key years, it’s refreshing to hear a Prime Minister championing the arts. But New Zealand writers are grappling with several serious issues that may have gained a sympathetic ear, but little traction.

These issues very much affect our wellbeing as well as our ability to achieve a sustainable career. In fact, I’d go as far as to say they currently breach our human rights under the Berne Convention and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. New Zealand is a signatory to both.

Our sister organisation, Copyright Licensing NZ (CLNZ), recently conducted a survey of writers that discovered, on average, writers earn around $15,200 per annum from their writing — below the minimum wage for a 40 hour week (approx $20,000) and substantially less than a living wage (approx.$44,000). Just over half cited the need for further support from partners and/or relied on other employment to pay the bills (42 percent in jobs unrelated to writing.)

This information comes at a time when failing youth and adult literacy is a hot topic — and funding for literature through Creative New Zealand appears to be falling. The 2020-2022 CNZ investment client funding for literature equals 2.09 percent of the total funding pool compared to 4.83 percent in 2019. The visual arts received 5.57 percent.

The NZSA and CLNZ, with support from the Publishers' Association of NZ (PANZ), are currently advocating on behalf of all writers, whether members of NZSA or not, to protect their creative copyright and their right to receive fair payment for their creative outputs. A key issue at stake is the urgent need for an increase in the Public Lending Rights (PLR).

The PLR compensates authors for people being able to read their books for free through public libraries. The fund hasn’t been increased for over a decade - and doesn’t include digital or audio book borrowing. It’s stagnation, and it means the real-life value of these payments has reduced over time.

Dame Fiona Kidman has done some excellent analysis on this and notes in New Zealand Author, “As a personal example . . . I received nearly 25 percent more in actual dollars 20 years ago than I do now, even though I have written 10 more books.’”

The PLR was introduced after lobbying by NZSA in 2008, and evolved from the previous Authors’ Fund. The fund is divided among registered authors, and based on how many copies of their works are estimated to be held by public libraries. The book rate was $3.61 in 2018. If the amount in the fund had kept pace with inflation, rather than being held static at $2m, there would have been a further $300,000 in the fund by the end of 2017 - and the most recent book rate would have risen to $4.57 per book per year. For authors with several titles in circulation, this would make a big difference.

Other changes are also necessary to the PLR. Currently, the law does not allow for a PLR payment for the use of digital and audio books in public libraries (now 30 percent of lending), nor does it require private libraries such as the Blind Foundation (which lends 560,000 books per year) to be included in the figures. The fund has not kept up with technological advances and readers’ new preferences. It also excludes many who now self-publish.

NZSA has a current membership approaching 1600, up from 1300 a couple of years ago. Our furious lobbying has included writing to every MP (including Jacinda Ardern), and speaking three times with Kris Faafoi, as well as Tracey Martin and Chloe Swarbrick. We’ve submitted to the select committee, prepared media releases, engaged with local Auckland politicians, and have two permanent representatives on the PLR advisory committee — all, so far, to no avail.

We’ll continue to lobby at the highest levels to improve the earning potential of all New Zealand writers and protect their content, whether members of NZSA or not. But the more members we have, the more lobbying power we bring to the table. For the price of less than half a cup of coffee a week, increased support of the NZSA could help us break down the barriers to a sustainable writing career.

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