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Keeping Authors Writing in a Collapsed Economy

by John Degen

Early in the days of the 2020 pandemic, we at The Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC) felt it was important to get a solid sense of the economic impact of lockdown on Canada’s authors. We produced a short questionnaire, loaded it on our website and invited all members to respond. Hundreds of authors filled out that form, noting both their confirmed income losses from cancelled readings and festival appearances, the estimated losses they could see coming because of delayed or cancelled publication, and the shuttering of bookstores.

Within a couple of short weeks, we had a disturbing picture of the writing side of the publishing industry. The average loss to individual authors came in at just over $10,000. Those who’ve been paying attention to the sharp decline in author incomes over the past two decades will know that $10,000 is also just about the average annual income for a writer in Canada. So, the early picture of the coronavirus lockdown was that it could very well wipe out the writing economy for all but the luckiest few authors with current bestsellers.

Discussions at TWUC centred on government relief, especially the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), and the need to make sure writers would qualify for that essential program. Early indications were that perhaps they would not qualify, for two reasons. Firstly, income from royalties on past sales might not count toward the $5,000 earnings floor required to join the program, because that income might be considered to have really been earned too far in the past. Secondly, a royalty payment might put a writer over the monthly maximum of $2,000 and once again disqualify him or her from relief. We and our advocacy partners met with government to lobby for authors and succeeded in clarifying both points. Writers could apply for the CERB, and their occasional royalties would not count toward the income maximum.

Meanwhile, our colleagues at The Writers’ Trust of Canada (WTC) were looking at their Woodcock Fund, a special granting program endowed by author George and his wife Ingeborg Woodcock and sustained through private donations. The Woodcock Fund gives emergency grants to mid-project writers in financial need, but it was not built for a crisis of pandemic proportions.

logo for Writers' Trust of Canada

WTC and TWUC staff met over Zoom from our scattered remote offices, put our heads and budgets together, and came up with the Canadian Writers’ Emergency Relief Fund (CWERF). All credit to the folks at the WTC, who saw immediately that they could repurpose the Woodcock infrastructure to administer and pay out special emergency gifts from the CWERF.

Photo by Chronis Yan on Unsplash

Digging into the strategic reserves of both organizations and happily accepting an early donation from the RBC Foundation, our two organizations launched the CWERF in late March with $150,000. It paid out its first round of 60 $1,500 gifts within a couple of weeks. Behind the scenes, trust and union staff continued to approach potential large donors and even talked with government funders about a potential top-up to the rapidly diminishing fund.

Thanks to generous donations from the Access Copyright Foundation, Amazon and Audible.ca, the CWERF delivered over $376,000 in emergency funds to about 250 authors in extreme need. And tens of thousands of those dollars came directly as private, individual donations. In other words, those in our community who could afford to do so actively supported those in crisis.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

We talk a lot about the freedom to read and the importance of free expression, but threats to these essential freedoms don’t always come from censorious governments or inflexible ideologies. Sometimes they come from global disaster. In the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the combination of the CERB and the CWERF kept those expressive freedoms relevant by keeping writers at their desks. No easy task, considering the economic emergency most writers found themselves in.

Thanks go to my dedicated colleagues at both the union and the trust, to a generous community led by the Access Copyright Foundation and individual donors, to a responsive government, and to everyone who found a way to continue buying Canadian books during the lockdown.

Since the exhaustion of the CWERF in early summer 2020, the Writers’ Trust has returned to the excellent work of administering their regular relief funding through the Woodcock Fund. The Access Copyright Foundation has continued to pay out their professional development and research grants. And the Writers’ Union has returned to its role of policy advocacy, nudging government toward a Basic Income Guarantee program, the growth of the Public Lending Right budget to sustainable levels, and the necessary repair of Canada’s copyright laws. In our own ways, each partner in the CWERF continues to work to make sure writers continue to work.

John Degen is executive director of the Writers’ Union of Canada and chair of the International Authors Forum. If you want to help keep writers writing, join or donate to TWUC.