Tuesday, May 31, 2011


From the 26th to the 29th, I was in Toronto attending the Onwords Conference and AGM of the Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC). TWUC was conceived in 1972 and was formally begun in 1973 at the initiation of writers that included Margaret Laurence (1926-1987), Marian Engel (1933-1985), Margaret Atwood, Graeme Gibson and Andreas Schroeder. Now there are 2,000 members.

This year we celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of Public Lending Right, a program through which writers are paid a modest amount for the copying of their work in libraries across the country. The only reason the PLR exists is because members of TWUC worked extremely hard to gain the recognition that writers deserve to be paid for their writing copied by many people.

Andreas Schroeder, who is called the founding father of PLR, gave the keynote lecture, “The Untold Story of PLR.” He told the story of the endless work that was required – thirteen years of slogging - before Ottawa finally established funding for PLR, thanks to Marcel Masse in 1986. Unfortunately this money was, and still is, seen as a grant, rather than what it is: writers getting paid for their work.

No one expects plumbers or chefs or book sellers to work without pay. And yet, there is this strange notion that being published should be a reward in itself and with that reward writers should be satisfied and not expect payment. On the other hand, I have also encountered people who have the idea that if you have published a book you must be rich. Royalties to authors are generally ten percent of the selling price. So for my last book, “Perfect Red: The Life of Paraskeva Clark,” I get paid about $3.70 for each book that is sold. It took nearly ten years from the time I began researching for that book until it was published. Figure that one out. I’d have to sell a lot of books to get paid anything that comes close to being able to live on my writing life. And this is fairly typical for writers.

Industry Minister Tony Clement commented that as a way of cutting government spending, he favours getting rid of entire programs that aren’t as important as they were twenty-five or thirty years ago rather than cutting back on programs here and there. Given this government’s disregard for the arts, this is an alarming statement for arts workers. How does the passing of time reduce the value and necessity of the arts?

In a number of the workshops the impact of electronic media, including ebooks, was a recurring theme. For me, as for some other writers, this electronic world is somewhat daunting. Furthermore, establishing a viable system in which writers are paid a decent amount for their work seems extremely complicated. For example, the provincial government in British Columbia is spending millions of dollars to make ebooks available, but are writers benefitting? No.

Having a chance to talk with other writers, some of whose books I’ve read and love, is one of the great benefits of this conference. And hearing writers speak about a variety of issues in the panel discussions is also stimulating.

During the plenary sessions, I was impressed with the dedication and hard work of the leaders of this organization whose sense of humour and respect for each other set a positive tone for the entire conference.

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