Coauthor and collaborator Ben Eltham has recently argued for a new organisation to pay writers:
It is possible to imagine an organisation that pays Australian writers in an analogous way to a symphony orchestra.
With appropriate resourcing, an organisation could advertise for a series of full-time fellowships for writers at a reasonable wage. Writers could be selected by a panel of respected peers and then employed on 3-year contracts, with superannuation, sick leave and all the rest. In return, we would expect them to write. At the end of their contracts, a progress report would be submitted.
I’ve considered this issue at two times in my life:
In 1997-98, I was involved in initial discussions about a book imprint for 21C Magazine. Publisher Ashley Crawford, myself, and others worked on a book imprint proposal, book proposals, and marketing plans. But when 21C‘s European publisher withdrew funding the project did not proceed.
In 1999-2008, I was at The Disinformation Company Ltd (TDC) when it set-up what was for several years a successful book imprint. I was involved in discussions with publisher Gary Baddeley and creative director Richard Metzger when they hired Ultraculture‘s Jason Louv. In my view, the book imprint’s portfolio expanded too quickly, and Baddeley later divested it.
In academic publishing there are examples like Zero Books who promoted the late Mark Fisher’s writings. In music, Robert Fripp and King Crimson’s label Discipline Global Mobile remains a favourite. In both cases there is an intellectual property portfolio (to be defended), an online distribution platform, and effective marketing to a subcultural audience.
This is an area where Trebor Scholz‘s idea of a platform cooperative — a publishing company owned by its authors — might be another option. South Africa’s Skolion Writers collective (which includes authors Masha Du Toit and Nerine Dorman) illustrates how Scholz’s platform cooperative might be run.
Eltham’s proposal is an interesting one for arts policymakers to consider. In particular, Eltham highlights the Australia Council’s low investment in literature. I would personally go with a TDC, Zero Books, or Skolion Writers-like approach as suggested above. The Australian market is really too small for many local publishers to get a good return on their investment — or for authors to get a good royalty income stream.