THE PROBLEM: Our authors are being ripped off THE SOLUTION: Make readers pay for their library books

MARIAN ENGEL June 1 1974

THE PROBLEM: Our authors are being ripped off THE SOLUTION: Make readers pay for their library books

MARIAN ENGEL June 1 1974

THE PROBLEM: Our authors are being ripped off THE SOLUTION: Make readers pay for their library books



Last year at a party I struck up a conversation with a hand-some Frenchman. He asked me what I did. I said, unabashedly, because it’s easier in French than in English, “I’m a novelist.”

“Ah” he replied, “c’est un beau métier.” It’s a good trade.

It was such a lovely thing to hear, I nearly sat down and cried. It was lovely, but it wasn’t true. Book-writing is a lousy trade in Canada.

People have wonderfully exaggerated ideas about the writer’s situation. Either he is romantically starving — when he dies of it, he’ll be respected — or so richly rewarded for his books that he spends his leisure time in Nassau and his working time dictating quickies to a secretary. The truth is that the rewards from Canadian sales are mediocre.

Very few Canadian writers support themselves by their literary, as opposed to their journalistic work. Those few who do tend to live in the country, and not high on the hog. The rest of us struggle along on advances of from $300 to $ 1,000 for books accepted by publishers, 5% to 10% royalties, from which advances are deductible, small provincial arts grants, large Canada Council grants once in a blue moon, writing book reviews, magazine articles and CBC scripts, and hoeing turnips.

Take my own case. I have three novels out. The critics say they are good. I have never received a Canadian advance on any of them that was more than $750. One of them, The Honeyman Festival, which is on Canadian Literature courses across the country and in the U.S., has yet to bring in $1,000. I’m glad it was published in a cheap edition, but the return to me from that cheap edition is 20 cents a copy. I was offered one dollar for the film rights by a Canadian producer but decided to hold onto them for old times’ sake. It took me five years to write that book. Thank God my husband keeps me.

So if you meet a Canadian author mumbling to himself on the street you’ll find out he’s not saying anything elevated, he’s doing old, old math: 3,000 X $7.95, that’s about $24,000, 10% of that, $2,400, $800 of that spent, $1,600, when’s accounting day? Why isn’t the book getting into Coles?

Well, you say, still, that’s pretty good for spare time work, isn’t it?

Good books aren’t made in spare time. Hemingway let that cat out of the bag when he revealed that he rewrote the famous retreat from Caporetto scene in A Farewell To A rms 84 times. Nobody dashes off good prose; it comes from the most intense concentration and regular exercise at the typewriter. Writers beg, borrow and steal time to pit themselves against this kind of excellence. The genius who composes a master-

piece in a month is a legend. Even bad writers work unbelievably hard at their books.

Only money can buy time, and how is the Canadian writer to get enough money to buy time if he can’t get it from the limited Canadian sale of his work?

In Australia, New Zealand, and Scandinavia, an author is paid a fee for the use of his books in public libraries.

Heresy, you say? An end to Andrew Carnegie’s great dream of free books for the masses? Aren’t taxes high enough already, and don’t they already pay for librarians and books?

When I’m in line at a library counter behind a woman in a matched mink hat and coat getting seven Canadian novels free when she could afford to buy them (she’ll pay happily for the newest Jackie Susann), I think, to heck with free libraries. But I, like you, first learned to love books in a dark, cosy children’s library, down there among the terrestrial globes and the stuffed alligators. I wouldn’t deprive anyone of the flying-up ceremony: that first chance to go upstairs to the adult book world and discover Lawrence Durrell, Hugh MacLennan and Virginia Woolf all on the same day. Not for the world would I dream of depriving Canadians of public libraries.

It isn’t necessary. In Sweden, the government provides funds out of which Swedish authors are paid set fees when books are borrowed. This is called Library Compensation. When you take a book out of a library, or use a reference book, approximately six cents is set aside for its author. In Denmark, things are slightly different. Authors are paid on the basis of the number of books of theirs that are in libraries, not in terms of the books’ circulation. In both countries, money is paid into a central fund. In Sweden, this helps finance literary prizes, pensions and forms of social insurance, and in 1972 they began working toward a guaranteed annual stipend for certain authors. In Britain, a radical authors group, led by novelists Brigid Brophy and Maureen Duffy, is promoting a scheme similar to the Swedish one.

Like ourselves, the Swedes are great readers. They have, in addition, the advantage of a separate language. When Swedish authors in 1969 wanted an increase of lending right money from one cent to six cents a withdrawal, they drove trucks up to the libraries and, perfectly legally, cards in hand, withdrew nearly all the Swedish books. The authors returned the books next day, but their action drew attention to their plight and they got their raise the next year.

The new Writers’ Union of Canada, which was founded last fall in Ottawa, isn’t planning any such radical protest. (If all the Canadian books were removed from Canadian li-

brades, would they go out of business? Of course not.) What the union is determined to do is obtain for its writers due compensation for the use of their work. It is clear from the situation of the Canadian writer that many public institutions expect him to live off that vaporous substance “prestige.”

It is clear also that library circulation without compensation is at least a moral violation of copyright. A library compensation scheme on the Swedish model would not be difficult to administer. In the small libraries, a circulation count can be kept by putting extra cards in the backs of Canadian books, taking them out and putting them into a shoebox as they are circulated, and counting them up at the end of the year. The large libraries are computerized; an extra hole in a punch card is not much work. Middle-sized operations which use mechanical checkout machines would benefit from an English device which reads information from a strip of magnetic tape on the spine of a circulating book.

If funds were provided by the federal and/or provincial governments, library buying policy would not be affected. The scheme is already endorsed by other countries, and is established as a moral right. It’s time we had it here.

They said we writers were crazy to form a union. They said we’d never, individualists all, get along together. They said we didn’t know enough about business to do anything effective

for ourselves. But at one of the founding meetings, I sat down in a room with people like Margaret Laurence, Farley Mowat, Fred Bodsworth, Margaret Atwood, W. O. Mitchell, Harold Horwood, Graeme Gibson, Rudy Wiebe and Alice Munro, and I felt as if I had come home. This was my family, and it had come together to solve its own problems. The writers were unanimous in their desire for library compensation, and businesslike in their agenda. They were not greedy. Their egos were subordinated to a unified desire to make writing a better trade in this country — un beau métier, in fact.

If, as a citizen, you are in favor of (or strongly against) Canadian adoption of library compensation, write to your MP about it. If you are a writer whose books have been published here or abroad, write to the Union at 13 Bowman Street, Toronto, Ontario M4X IV1, and lobby for it. If you can’t make up your mind, buy a book. It won’t come out in paperback unless enough hardcovers are sold to make it worth the publisher’s while to bring out a cheap edition. O This is the fifth in a new Maclean’s series, Solutions, which tries to provide answers for the many issues that face Canadians today. Maclean’s welcomes readers’ suggestions for topics and experts to tackle them. We’ll pay for accepted submissions. Address: Solutions, Maclean’s Magazine, 481 University Avenue, Toronto, Ontario M5W 1A7.