A Dirty Little Secret: Can Writers Remain Silent?
December 11th, 2007
In a manifesto to fellow writers published a few years ago, symptoms Doris Lessing wrote: “Without me the literary industry would not exist; the publishers, the agents, the sub-agents, the accountants, the libel lawyers, the department of literature, the professors, the theses, the books of criticism, the reviewers, the book pages—all this vast and proliferating edifice is because of this small, patronized, put down, and underpaid person.”
That writers are essential yet undervalued is no secret. It’s the extent to which writers support this “vast and proliferating edifice” through the subsidizing of their own books that may surprise readers.
As in many countries, our publishers are eligible for financial support in the form of grants from various national and provincial government agencies such as the Canada Council for the Arts, whose mandate is to develop Canadian writing and publishing.
Canada Council guidelines clearly state that titles not eligible for support include “publications for which the author receives no royalties, and books to which the author has contributed financially toward the publication costs (this includes an author’s obligation to purchase a given number of copies of his or her book as a condition of publication).” In addition, the publisher is expected to use “appropriate and effective means to market, distribute and create public awareness of its publications, and to issue clear royalty statements” on a regular basis. Finally, “no grants will be issued to publishers who owe outstanding payments to writers as of the application deadline.” Sounds pretty straightforward, no?
And yet, grants are issued, year after year, to publishers who ignore some or all of these requirements. Why? Because Canada Council will not withdraw support from a publishing house without a formal complaint and proof of unfair publishing practices. Reluctant to jeopardize their own slim opportunities for publication or draw government attention to the misuse of public funds, writers remain silent—and become unwitting collaborators in fraud.
Authors grumble about “sweetheart deals” wherein it’s understood they’ll have to pay in order to see their book published, but rarely do they stop to consider the ethical implications involved when a grant-funded publisher asks them to “assist” with the production costs or purchase large quantities of their own books—or neglects to pay royalties year after year, much less issue a royalty statement.
In extreme cases, being dependent on government money has led to the growth of “welfare” publishers who churn out season after season of new titles for the sole purpose of meeting their grant quota. These books, often poorly edited and cheaply produced, languish in the publisher’s basement or are sold back to the author to duck the costs of marketing, promotion and distribution. In effect, the books are printed but are not made readily available to the public. I suspect public money dedicated for the publication of books constitutes the primary source of income for a handful of publishers across the country. Adding insult to injury, these rogue publishers “top up” their grant-funded publishing program with financial resources donated by writers they only pretend to serve.
How do we ensure that books of merit are being produced if the man—or woman—with the fattest wallet wins out? And faced with a book which must then be promoted, marketed and distributed again, in some cases, on the writer’s dime, who really wins? Authors find themselves not only in the position of sustaining the press at the expense of their own financial viability, but also risking their reputation in the process.
Unfair publishing practices and the unprincipled manipulation of a grant system that was designed to create and promote Canadian literary culture and the development of an audience ultimately weakens our publishing industry and hurts every writer. There are nearly three times as many government-supported publishers now as there were thirty years ago and they are all fighting for a piece of the ever-shrinking funding pie. Eliminate these rogue presses and everyone benefits: reputable publishers receive larger grants which in turn allow them to serve the writing—and reading—community in a responsible manner.
As tax-paying Canadian citizens who contribute to an estimated $400 million cultural industry, writers are invaluable creators, not frivolous hobbyists or self-sacrificing bankrollers. They should inform themselves about questionable practices and suppress any hesitation in registering legitimate complaints because of a misplaced desire to protect a publisher—or publication.
As Lessing implies, writers, “small, patronized, put down, and underpaid,” are deserving of respect, not least from those whose very livelihood depends on their sustained output. Writers, all too ready to adopt the humble gratitude the industry wishes upon them for the most fleeting of recognition, maintain a code of silence that keeps the Gingerbread Man running. Maybe it’s time for the fox to open its jaws.
Fernanda Viveiros is the executive director for the Federation of BC Writers, a non-profit organization working on behalf of B.C. writers.
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