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John Degen

John Degen

John Degen

Two ways to halt the decline of authorship in Canada Add to ...

John Degen, a novelist and poet, is executive director of The Writers’ Union of Canada.

Two recent articles in this newspaper (by novelist Camilla Gibb and columnist Elizabeth Renzetti) have referenced a finding by The Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC) that the average Canadian author makes only $12,000 from her writing. As executive director of TWUC, it pains me to say that figure already looks a little high, because the earnings landscape has changed drastically in the short time since we took that measure.

A traditional Canadian author’s living includes earnings from book sales (including foreign and subsidiary rights), prizes (for the lucky few), arts grants (see prizes), copyright licensing, and payments for library use. Many of these revenue streams face a mounting fiscal pressure that threatens to render them irrelevant. Ironically, that pressure stems directly from a measurable increase in the popularity and use of Canadian writing.

Canadians love Canadian writing. We read it, celebrate it with awards, recommend it, debate it online and in traditional media. Witness this paper’s hiring of Mark Medley, one of Canada’s most respected book critics, to edit the revitalized book section. Witness contrarian columnist (and celebrated novelist) Russell Smith taking shots at CanLit icon Rudy Wiebe. Smith’s column was shared widely all over my social media feeds – and before a packed house this past weekend at IFOA in Toronto, Rudy Wiebe gave back as good as he got.

And The Globe is just one channel. Blogs, book clubs, online platforms like 49th Shelf, and storefronts like All Lit Up – the popularity of Canadian writing has exploded. I’m closing in on three decades of professional work in the authorship game here in Canada, and I’ve never experienced a more vital, wide-ranging, diverse and exciting conversation about Canadian writing than the one going on today. So why can’t most of our writers earn a living? Well, more of them could with a few smart, strategic investments into the creative economy, and one very important regulatory change.

The Regulatory Change:

The educational copying market for Canadian writing is, frankly, a mess that requires an immediate fix. Changes to the Copyright Act, enacted in good faith after unprecedented public consultation by the Harper government in 2012, have since been broadly misinterpreted by Canada’s educational sector to mean payment for copying is often no longer required. As a result, Canada’s writing and publishing sector is in for an estimated $40-million annual decrease in revenues. That would be a killing loss. Already, this dispute is in the courts – a needless expense for both sides. Official clarification of the new law’s intent would bring everyone back to the negotiating table, and a fair price for large-scale educational copying would be reached.

The Strategic Investment:

Canadian culture is Canada’s brand. When Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize, we all won. Ms. Munro’s talent is all her own, of course, but it’s fair to say that this country’s cultural policies helped to grow and nourish that talent. We can do the same for the next generation of potential laureates by treating culture as the serious business it has become, and providing the same level of incentive and strategic investment we do elsewhere in the economy. The Writers’ Union of Canada’s submission to the federal budget consultation is publicly available here. It proposes a number of strategic incentives, like a capped tax deduction for copyright revenue, income averaging for workers (like authors) whose earnings can see wild fluctuations, and increased investment in traditional revenue tools not currently keeping pace.

For instance, the Public Lending Right program compensates authors for use of our work in Canada’s library system. The PLR budget has remained static for a decade while library use has skyrocketed. Similar pressures are building at Canada’s arts funding agencies, and for similar reasons. The federal government has increased some arts budgets but, clearly, demand has outpaced us all. If we are to answer the world’s call for ever more Canadian culture, greater investment is a must.

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