Making a living as a novelist was no easy feat in Canada in 1981

Making a living as a writer has never been easy -- and definitely not in 1981.

Hundreds of book authors were working full time, but barely making any money

'Not enough Canadians' buying books

43 years ago
Duration 0:14
The CBC's Knowlton Nash introduces a 1981 report on the state of the Canadian book industry.

The report started out with a controversial question from The National's Knowlton Nash.

"When was the last time you went into a bookstore and spent money on a hardcover book — a hardcover book by a Canadian writer?" the anchor asked the audience on April 10, 1981.

"If you're having some trouble with that question, you're not alone."

A $5,000 annual paycheque

A tough market for Canadian writers

43 years ago
Duration 0:21
The National examines the challenges of making a living as a writer in Canada in 1981.

The National's Russ Patrick reported that just 3,000 Canadians made money from writing at that time and just 800 of those writers worked at their writing full time.

According to Patrick, nearly half those full-time writers were making less than $5,000 a year — or less than $14,200 in today's dollars, according to the Bank of Canada's inflation calculator.

That made it very hard for them to make a living putting pen to paper. The National was trying to delve into why the writing market was so challenging.

Chains to blame?

Big chains and book projects

43 years ago
Duration 1:12
Big bookstore chains held a lot of sway in the Canadian market by 1981.

For starters, only a small fraction of the books — just 11 per cent — sold to Canadians at that time were original books from Canadian authors.

A second issue was the large proportion of sales that took place at large booksellers' chain stores and the power those chains in turn held in deciding what titles got presented to consumers.

Sign reading "bestsellers"
A sign in the "bestsellers" section of a Canadian bookstore is seen in 1981. (The National/CBC Archives)

"The big three — W.H. Smith, Classics and Coles — run 60 per cent of the shops in the country," Patrick explained.

"Writers and publishers are worried about that concentration and about the chains' emphasis on promoting bestsellers, most of them foreign."

The National spoke to author Margaret Atwood about the influence that large bookseller chains had in the industry at that time.

"I would say that it's a bad problem and it's a growing problem and what it means — if it keeps going this way — is that the book chains will control what gets published," Atwood said.

"Because the publisher will go with a book to the chain and say: 'Will you stock this?' And if the book chain says no, the publisher will say to the writer: 'Well, sorry, you know, we can't publish this book.'"

Pricey product

Big chains with big influence

43 years ago
Duration 2:08
The National examines how the country's big book chains influence what gets published.

There was also an issue with the general health of the book business amid rising costs of making and selling books themselves.

"Inflation, in general, and the high cost of paper in particular are making hardcover books very expensive," Patrick reported, noting that some novels were selling for $30 at that point — or a whopping $85 in today's dollars.

Patrick said paperbacks were selling well, but there could be fewer of those produced in future, as fewer hardcovers were being produced in the first place.

'We've survived'

Man with beard and glasses
Malcolm Lester saw the ongoing survival of Canada's domestic publishing industry as a victory of its own. (The National/CBC Archives)

Malcolm Lester, then the president of the Association of Canadian Publishers, said the ongoing survival of the domestic publishing industry was itself a victory.

"The good news is that we've survived in a market that, logically speaking, there shouldn't be a publishing industry," Lester told The National.

"And in spite of everything, we're still here and we're still producing some exciting books for the Canadian public."

More than four decades after The National reported on this issue, many writers are still finding it hard to make a living from their work.

In 2018, the Writers' Union of Canada, which describes itself as the national organization of professional book authors, conducted a survey involving 1,499 participants from Canada. The average net income from writing was just $9,380, according to the survey. The median income reported was less than half of that figure.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

Sign up for this biweekly blast from the past, straight from the CBC Archives.


The next issue of Flashback will soon be in your inbox.

Discover all CBC newsletters in the Subscription Centre.opens new window

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Google Terms of Service apply.