There are several varieties of maples, and what I suspect is a Siberian elm, overhanging my small Toronto garden and they are currently dropping thousands of seed pods. As I sweep up pounds of whirligigs and confetti from the ground, the writer in me – or perhaps it is the parsimonious Presbyterian – wonders if I cannot turn this unlooked-for bounty into a metaphor for our culture.
It was a hard winter for some plants – the ivy, usually so hardy, has half died away. I've often heard that trees put out more seeds or cones when under stress, as though to ensure the survival of the next generation even as they are dying. How do you explain to consumers flooded with stuff that even as the digital miracle produces more images, more text and more music than they could ever possibly appreciate in a whole lifetime of looking and listening, our culture is actually suffering real distress?
Writers have long worried about the impact of e-books, online retailing, self-publishing and industry mergers on their livelihoods. I've speculated that internationally, we are heading toward a literary culture divided between self-published wannabes and mega-bestsellers, with less and less room for the mid-list.
That poses a particularly acute problem for Canada because this is already a smaller market and one that tends to produce literary novels rather than genre fiction. Increasingly the anecdotes have poured in about that respected Canadian novelist turning to teaching; this one trying her hand at screenwriting.
Now the Writers' Union of Canada (TWUC) is confirming what we've all suspected. It sent out a survey to its members (who have all published at least one book commercially) and almost half responded: Over all, the writers' incomes from writing have dropped 27 per cent since the last time they were surveyed, in 1998. Their average annual income from writing is now less than $13,000 and half report they are working harder than before to make the money. American and British surveys have reported similar drops.
The Canadian survey also revealed a surprising gender gap: For every dollar reported by male authors, female authors were only reporting 55 cents. It's a shocking difference in a field in which women are as prominent as men, in a country with a literary tradition in which the first names that spring to mind are female, including those of Margaret Laurence and Marian Engel, the pair who founded TWUC.
Although one person surveyed reported making more than $1-million a year, you have to remember that TWUC covers all sorts of workaday jobs writing school books, practical non-fiction titles and popular series, as well as the careers of the literary lights: Apparently the men are more successful at turning writing into a full-time job. (The income is highly concentrated among a small number of the writers, with about 6 per cent earning 80 per cent of the money.)
I suspect what we are seeing here is simply a truth in any beleaguered industry: It's the most vulnerable workers who suffer first, and the reality is that many writers are having more trouble getting paid a living wage.
In a world that produces more books than ever before, it's hard to persuade people they will miss a novel that never gets published or a biography that never gets written, but you get what you pay for – the quality and range of Canadian fiction and non-fiction will fall if writers are discouraged from pursuing their profession. There will be fewer Canadian titles available to children and students, and those available won't be as well researched or as well written; shoppers will find fewer Canadian non-fiction titles available in bookstores or online, while Canadian fiction will be truncated, littered with promising first novels by writers who never produce a second.
Meanwhile, the international success of Canadian literature, already threatened simply because pressured foreign publishers have become as tight-fisted and risk-averse as Canadian ones, will wither, thereby damaging Canada's global reputation as a pretty cool place.
TWUC has various suggestions on how to improve the situation. It wants to see increases to the static funding for the Canada Council program that compensates writers for the presence of their books in public libraries; it has floated the idea that a certain base amount of earnings from copyright be tax-exempt and has proposed, as many arts groups have done before, that creators be allowed to average their erratic incomes over several years for tax purposes.
I'd also suggest TWUC ask its members to start compiling a list of the books they couldn't write so that we can see the face of the crisis.
I'm not a member of the Writers' Union but I carefully monitor the income I make from publishing novels to ensure that my time is being compensated as a professional writer.
I was infuriated by a colleague who expressed surprise at my position and told me, "None of the people I know who write fiction do it for the money," as though fiction-writing was a ladylike alternative to golf. When I want a hobby, I look to the garden.