Michael's essay: A new survey shows how poorly writers are paid in this country

“If you made a grand total of $9,380, down somewhat from the year before, but you love your job — congratulations. You are a Canadian writer.”
“If you made a grand total of $9,380, down somewhat from the year before, but you love your job — congratulations. You are a Canadian writer,” says Michael Enright. (Shutterstock / bondvit)
Listen3:54

Let's say you have a job that you love. The hours are long but you are your own boss; you answer to no one.

Of course there is no pension, no dental or health coverage. There are no regular hours, no paid vacation time, no sick days. And you know that last year, you made a grand total of $9,380, down somewhat from the year before. But still you love it.

Congratulations, you are a Canadian writer.

For more than 85 per cent of writers, their writing income falls below the Canadian poverty line.- Michael Enright

In the spring of this year, the Writers' Union of Canada conducted a survey of its members' income and followed up with similar surveys in Britain and the U.S. The numbers are depressing.

In the last three years, writers' compensation has fallen nearly 30 per cent. Taking into account inflation, writers are making 78 per cent less than they were making from their writing in 1998. For more than 85 per cent of writers, their writing income falls below the Canadian poverty line.

In this fall season of countless writing awards, with numbers as stark as these, it is a miracle that our literary culture is managing to survive. 

In truth, nobody goes into the writing game to make money. They write because they want to, indeed because they have to. Very few reach the dizzying compensation heights of an Atwood or a Munro or a Barclay.

In cafeterias and coffee shops, in quiet corners of a school, writers are are hard at work striving to enrich us and our common culture. All for $9,380.- Michael Enright

Most writers have to take outside jobs to survive. They teach journalism, freelance magazine pieces or try to subsist on Canada Council and other arts grants. Ironically, they provide the fuel that drives a Canadian book industry worth almost $2 billion. 

A major part of the problem can be laid at the feet of the federal government, specifically the Stephen Harper government. 

In 2012, the Harperites changed the copyright laws, reducing writers' share of educational copying by tens of millions of dollars. The government's argument was that reducing the writers' compensation would help the education sector. 

The result is that uncompensated income from Access Copyright has lowered writers' royalties by an average of 42 per cent. Results are roughly similar in the United States and the U.K, but Canada is by far the worst.

Our literary culture seems to be flourishing. There are sell-out book festivals in every region in the summer. Every province has developed its own local literary traditions. Hockey chatter notwithstanding, Canadians are a bookish people. We have one of the largest and busiest public library systems in the world. We love to read and tell stories.

Every province, every region of the country has developed a rich literary culture. Book clubs across the country have grown faster than barnyard grass in Manitoba. There are few things more exciting than to visit the local library on a Saturday morning and see the very young wrestling with the words. Our best known writers carry the allure of rock stars that our young marvel at.

We are at the end of the literary awards season for this year. The winners at the Giller or the Governor General awards have cashed their cheques.

In the meantime, at kitchen tables late at night, in cafeterias and coffee shops, in quiet corners of a school, writers are are hard at work striving to enrich us and our common culture. All for $9,380.

Click 'listen' above to hear Michael's essay. 

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