This week I went to give evidence on PLR/writers/writing/arts monies in general to the DCMS Select Committee, with Jim Parker from PLR, Barbara Hayes and Richard Combes from ALCS. (And we were very ably taken care of by the kind and generous Westminster-ly-knowledgeable, Janet Anderson)
I was terrified, excited, thrilled to be there (nice view of the Thames), and also really aware that I had a big responsibility, to try to impress upon the committee how vital PLR is for writers, how vital libraries are for all of us, and – in a wider point, that I didn’t really get time to make, but referred to anyway – that the creeping commercialisation of ALL our arts is damaging for ALL of us.
It really helped that the committee seemed positive and engaged. It really helped that my fellow-writer friend (yes, I do personally know a Tory, and a Tory MP at that!) Louise Bagshawe is on the committee and knows all about how important these things are for writers, as well as the importance of writing in general. As the day progressed it became very clear however, that the giving evidence and the committee stage is just that. A stage. The committee can recommend all it wants, it always goes back to ministers, who go back to Treasury … and there the buck stops. Quite literally, in the case of this current government. And even so, I’m glad I went. I’m glad I spent days preparing and speaking to mates about their views. I’m glad we were asked to go.
This is the mini-essay I wrote for myself, as a guide to what I might say, depending on which questions I was asked. (You can only answer questions, they prefer you not to make a statement, and while it’s always possible to skew one’s answers, I kind of feel it’s also always better to try to be in the moment, to listen to what is being asked, and to respond as honestly and openly as possible.)
While we can talk about the value of writing and the importance of writing and writers and the arts in general to society, in the matter of PLR and ALCS, it really IS about money. PLR is NOT a subsidy paid to writers. As long as libraries are free (and surely we all think they should be??!!) then the writer has the RIGHT to gain some benefit from the free use of their work. PLR then, at a capped 6p per loan (and a maximum payment as well), pays the writer for their COPYRIGHT. Just as an actor, when a film is shown again and again on television is paid residuals, just as a composer when their work is played in the background in a pub is paid from PRS, so too, a writer earns from PLR. (And also from ALCS for non-library use.)
Here’s why these monies DO count.
The vast majority of writers do not get six-figure, or even five-figure advances. The average writer in the UK today earns one third LESS than the average wage. Retrospective payments, such as ALCS or PLR, along with royalties, make a massive difference to very many writers on a day to day basis. Like the old-fashioned (pre subsidy!) farmer, many of us work to create a product which we THEN take to ‘market’. To pay for the time needed to create that product we have various sources of income. One source is the advance. It does not always offer enough income to take the time to create a new piece of work. Some pieces of work take a year or two or five to make. Nor does the advance always exist. I have just, on my thirteenth novel, written the first draft, out of contract, unpaid – getting on with the work while my agent and editor and publishers agreed the new contract. I wanted to work rather than wait, I knew it would take a long time to negotiate, and I knew it would take a long time to write. So I wrote out of contract. That is, I was making a product, in the hope that my publishers would want it. Not the other way round. (They do want it, jolly good, but there is NEVER certainty in this business. In any business.)
A publisher may, for a time, offer a standard advance, to a writer they know and who they know will create a substantially similar body of work this time as they did last time. All well and good, and very useful for the writers who want – and are able – to write to a sort of formula. (Albeit their own formula!) That is one type of writer. But there is another type – myself for example – who is not such a safe bet. Who is interested in creating new work, in style, form and genre perhaps, in another form of writing, maybe moving from novels to theatre, or theatre to film, stage to radio, something more fluid, less sure, less certain. In NOT working to a formula, not even their own.
There is a place for both in my opinion, but the writer like me (who I’m guessing makes up about 50% of writers) does not, therefore, always live on these useful advances and commissions – advances that are so much easier to pay to writers when the publisher or producer can second-guess the market with a little more accuracy. Because we are creating new and unquantifiable work, we (book writers) therefore rely heavily on PLR, ALCS, overseas sales, royalties, income from other events (and in my case, work in theatre on occasion) – all these non-advance sources of income pay for the TIME needed to create a new work – and to then take it to the marketplace.
I believe that in all forms of the arts it is this maker – the less ‘sure bet’ maker – who needs the most protection. The people who are creating work that may be harder to sell, harder to publicise, harder to market. The people who are creating new forms and new ideas. It’s fine to reward repetition of formula, in any form, and after all, that IS what the public very often wants – what they know, what they know they like. And fair enough too, I want that pretty often myself. But it is innovation and bravery and sticking your neck out that creates the new. While the arts can indeed be a comfort, offering the solace of recognition, the balm of the familiar, it is also their job to offer the excitement of the new.
(Actually, I don’t think I do this ‘new’ thing in such an avant-garde way myself! Not at all. But in a career of 13 novels so far, I’ve written crime, historical, literary and magical realism … and that is a fairly wide range of styles compared to most writers I know, and commensurately harder for agents and publishers to know – based on past form – what will do well in the future.)
In the literary world, one of the places that will be hardest hit by the many proposed cuts to Arts Council funding, are the small presses. I started with one, Serpent’s Tail. Small presses like Comma (short stories), Salt (poetry & short stories), Arcadia (works in translation) and almost thirty others in the UK today do astonishing work in getting writing and writers out to the public. We all know it is close to impossible to make a living writing poetry. And yet, in many ways, that’s what Britain’s known for, the wealth of poetry of our past. Poets and short story writers will never (well, probably never) be a JK Rowling or a Martina Cole in terms of sales, but just because there is no large commercial attraction to publishing poetry, short stories, work in translation (though perhaps Steig Larsson’s publishers tell another story!), does not mean we should let it all go. Books at the airport are a great thing. But the stock is never wide, the range not vast, and if we are not careful, if we do not maintain funding to small presses as well as praising and rewarding the financial successes of the big boys, then ALL our bookshops stand to become the same as each other.
More generally still :
I also work in theatre, and there is a long roll call of companies that started small (and many that still are small) but are now working on an international basis, at the highest level – Improbable, Complicité, Told by an Idiot, Kneehigh among them. All ostensibly ‘fringe’ companies, whose directors and makers and work are now on Broadway, at the Met, the ENO, in mainstream film … all bringing what they learned while NOT headlining in the commercial sector (the equivalent of the main stand in an airport bookshop) to a far wider public.
Some artists start big and stay big. Some artists start small and grow big. Some stay small. Some only ever want to work in the mainstream, some not.
We NEED this multiplicity, we need the likes of Stephen Daldry to go from The Gate Theatre to Hollywood, for writers who slog away for years to suddenly make it big, for some to maybe never ‘make it’ and to keep supporting the arts through their innovation, their bravery and their time. (Their time!! ALL the artists I know ALREADY subsidise all their work with their freely given, unpaid time, in a way I suspect most salaried workers would find horrifying.)
We need all forms of arts to make us rounded people, both as makers and as creators. And some of those forms, no matter how hard they try, will NEVER be commercial. Fine, then please, let’s keep supporting them, through public funds if necessary, because it’s the right thing to do. Because commercial success should never be the only way to judge the success of an artist. Because a wide range of all forms of arts is good for us, as individuals and as a society.