Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Random Good Fortune

THE PUBLISHER Random House, which is no small business, recently issued Anita Heiss' Am I Black Enough For You? As readers will know, the book has been the subject of much comment, but not lately on Random House's web site, where hundreds of critical, but by no means racist, remarks were erased not once but twice. The same thing happened at the ABC, where a comment thread vanished without trace. There were no calls to burn crosses, distribute blankets contaminated with smallpox or remove dusky moppets from their parents' care. The comments were critical of Heiss and that was enough to see them obliterated. This is the sad state of free speech in Australia, and we can only hope that the soon-to-be Abbott government will do something about it.

With this in mind, there is one other thing the next government might wish to examine. Indeed, given the wreck our current PM has made of the nation's finances, one would think it has an obligation to do so without delay.When she sat down to pen her book, Ms Heiss was in receipt of some $90,000 in government grants reserved for Indigenous writers. Had she lacked the requisite melanin to qualify for such support, Heiss would have gone to Random House, pitched her idea and, if it had been accepted, pocketed an advance against future royalties. When the book came on the market, she would not have received another penny until the publisher had recouped its initial investment.

Instead, she and Random House would appear to be making out like bandits. Paid by the taxpayer to write a book about which taxpayers are not allowed to comment, she is now free to pocket royalties from the very first sale. And executives at Random House must be smiling as well. Very little of the company's own cash went into the book's preparation, as its only expenses were printing and distribution. It, too, will be in the black (so to speak) very soon after the release date, regardless of how well or poorly Heiss' book is received.

If this in an inaccurate summation of the way the grants system works, the Professor would like to know. But that is the way it seems from a quick reading of Australia Council charters and wotnots.

So here is a nifty idea for PM Abbott, one that might save the taxpayer just a little bit of cash and improve both the quality and breadth of Australian writing: Instead of simply handing out money in the form of grants, why not underwrite advances to authors? This would mean favoured authors could not double dip -- once on the grant and again on the sales -- and it would also oblige publishers to invest a little more thought to the commercial and literary appeal of projects they take up.

Or think of it this way: You are an acquiring editor and two proposals land on your desk. One is supported by the Australia Council and guarantees a return, regardless of the merit you might see in it. The other is an unsubsidised pitch, one that may well be the worthier of the pair.

Which is likely to get the nod, do you think? 


  1. The government is already able to recover from insurance compensation payouts any funds expended by the government in the treatment and support of the injured people involved. It does so without any compunction, regardless of the circumstances of the injured parties.

    So, why shouldn't the government recover from an author's future earnings, eg royalties, literary prizes and so on, any government grants made to that author in respect of any particular book.

  2. Careful or you'll get a rabid leftie on here called Bob7-or numbers depending on where he's trolling.

  3. What would a modern government be if its underlying purpose wasn't market manipulation?

  4. Elizabeth (Lizzie) B.April 17, 2012 at 1:50 PM

    Just don't give any grants, Prof. It only encourages writing to committee requirements or luvvie mantras, often the same thing.

    Thousands of people find the time to sit and blog or comment on blogs. These people write. They are not subsidised. What's different about writing a longer piece of work, a chapter at a time, with more thought and elegance, in your evening hours or out in a little garret of your own making somewhere?

    Off you go, Lizzie, says The Hairy Ape, pointing out that we'll soon have a spare room.

  5. This approach is consistent with that taken for tertiary education fees - HECS has the government advancing the amount of (some small portion of) the fee for a degree, against later repayment once the student earns a living.

    This idea (income contingent loans) could also usefully be applied to the grants fit young things receive to prospectively wear the green and gold. Once a sportsperson earns enough from tennis they should repay the grant they received from the Australian Sports Commission which funded their training.

  6. Nice post. I agree completely with Lizzie B. Give them a medal for their efforts, but do not give them any money beforehand. Once they get their jaws on the government tit, it's a job to prise them off again without much screaming and tantrum-throwing.

    I should warn you that for some bizarre reason, the text of the first reply turned up as the post text when I tried to share this to Facebook. Rather odd, which is why I declined to do so.

  7. The government shoudn't be paying anything to writers or artists at all.

    People who want to be writers or artists can get a job; stacking shelves in supermarkets, driving taxis or whatever, and write or paint in their own time.

    If they are any good, they might make a go of it and if not they can stick to their day job.

    The best way to deal with grant funding bodies, like the Australia Council, is simply to stop giving them any public money. If these bodies wish to keep operating, then they can look for a bit of private support.