Well established but not well-off: Canada's authors struggle to make ends meet, says study

In the midst of literary award season, a new report says Canada's authors are struggling more than ever before. Fewer publishing houses, reduced income from educational copying, and publishers' focus on bestsellers are some of the reasons even award winners have to get day jobs.

Writers' Union of Canada survey says its members' incomes down by 27% from just 3 years ago

Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize winner Kathy Page has been writing professionally for over 30 years and she still struggles with the low pay writers receive. (Billie Woods)

It's a story as old as the craft itself: an impoverished author, serving coffee or scrubbing floors while writing what would become a seminal novel.

Except in Canada today, tales of financial hardship extend to writers who are established, have published several books and even those who have won major prizes.

When the Writers' Union of Canada recently surveyed its members about their incomes, the results were sobering: an average writer made $9,380 a year from his or her writing. That's 27 per cent less than what writers made three years ago, and a whopping 78 per cent less than they made in 1998. 

The report comes in stark contrast to the glossy literary awards season, where champagne flows and prizes that sound lucrative are given out, culminating with the $100,000 Giller Prize, which is handed out this Monday.

Even for established authors, tales of financial hardship are increasingly common.

"As it happens, my husband has to give up work for health reasons, so it would save me from a financial emergency," said Kathy Page of her nomination for the $50,000 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. Fortunately for Page, she won that award for Dear Evelyn, a novel inspired by her parents' long-distance courtship during the Second World War.

Well regarded but not wealthy

Page's comment echoes what many celebrated authors have been saying.

Last year's Giller winner Michael Redhill famously shared what was left in his bank account before he deposited the $100,000 cheque: it was $411.

In 2015, another Giller winner, Andre Alexis, joked with host Rick Mercer that winning the prize would "bring him back to zero."

Then there's Charles Foran, an Order of Canada member and author of 11 books. Foran just won the $50,000 Writers' Trust Fellowship for his body of work, which has allowed him to quit his full-time job and work on his next book.

In 2016, Foran raised some eyebrows in literary circles when he opened up about his finances in an essay for Canadian Notes and Queries magazine. In it, he explained how despite awards and healthy sales, his finances after the publication of his popular 700-page Mordecai Richler biography still left him needing a full-time job.

Author Charles Foran raised some eyebrows in the literary community when he started talking about money. (Jon Castell/CBC News)

"I was deliberate in doing something writers never do, which is I talked about money," Toronto-based Foran told CBC. It took him five years to write the book, people liked it, and it was awarded "all these prizes," he said. Even then, "it still doesn't add up to the income of a middle-tier banker for one year."

Reasons for decline

The Writers Union of Canada attributes the decline in authors' incomes to a combination of factors. John Degen, the organization's executive director, attributes the particularly steep drop-off in the last few years to the rise of free photocopying of written material by educational institutions.

Before the Copyright Modernization Act of 2012, educators had to a pay a fee for all the photocopying they would do in a year, a fee that was redistributed as royalties to authors whose work students were reading. But once the Act deemed educational copying as fair dealing, that income for writers was gone.

"This is really, really destroying an integral, crucial market for Canadian writers," said Degen.

Additionally, the publishing industry has contracted in recent years, with some houses folding and others, like Penguin and Random House, conglomerating into one. That means fewer venues for writers to publish their work.

John Degen is the executive director of the Writers' Union of Canada. (CBC News)

On top of all that, there's what Degen calls a "bestselling mentality" among publishers. At one point, a promising writer would get a two- or three-book deal with a publisher, allowing the author to fail but still keep writing. Now, said Degen, many publishers are focused only on those books that are sure to sell well right away.

"It's really hollowed out the developmental level of writers, the middle class of writers, you either hit it big right away, or you don't stay in the industry." 

Writing as a labour of love

According to Degen, many authors are choosing to leave the industry altogether. But many others, in spite of increasing financial hardships, are finding ways to survive.

At the Toronto Reference Library, a Writers' Union-organized talk called Get That Grant packs a room, with writers new and seasoned trying to learn how to supplement their income with grants so they can keep writing.

A young science fiction author, Rebecca Diem, is there to figure out how to branch out into more literary fiction. Her background as a self-published genre author has already given her some entrepreneurial skills needed to navigate the tricky landscape. 

Author Rebecca Diem attends a grant seminar from the Writers' Union of Canada, held at the Toronto Reference Library on Nov. 13, 2018 (CBC News)

"I have a growing fan base, a lot of my income comes through e-book sales, convention appearances, and through Patreon campaigns. One of the things that authors in Canada are doing right now is trying to broaden our reach, make sure we're diversifying our streams of income," said Diem.

Tough though it is, writing is a labour of love, according to Charles Foran.

"If you need to do it, you need to do it. If it is bound up with your self-conception, with your sense of your worth, with your sense  of purpose," said Foran. "The rest of it is, curiously, just conditions you accept."


Deana Sumanac-Johnson

Senior Education Reporter

Deana Sumanac-Johnson is a senior education reporter for CBC News. Appearing on The National and CBC Radio, she has previously reported on arts and entertainment, and worked as a current affairs producer.