Few Kiwi authors can earn their living from their art. A British study illustrates the problem: the top 10 per cent of British authors earn more than half of all income; the bottom half earn less than 10 per cent.
A mirror of general society, you might think, until you realise that the average income for a British writer is £16,531 ($32,460), a pitiful amount for a successful published author. While there are no comparable statistics for New Zealand authors, the economic picture is likely to be similar.
The global and domestic publishing industry has to face some hard facts. Hard copy book sales continue to decline, while digital book sales are growing. The writing, in this case, is on the wall. Yet the digital revolution being wrought in publishing - the biggest change since the printing press was invented more than 400 years ago - presents an unprecedented opportunity for Kiwi writers to increase their income.
Digital publishing is expanding the audience for the written word at a dizzying rate and New Zealanders, as usual, are proving eager adopters.
In Britain, the value of consumer e-book sales grew 366 per cent to £92 million last year and this trend is expected to continue, although it is far too early to call time on the printed word - vinyl records, for example, have recently made a huge return to commercial favour.
Digital rights to New Zealand books will be part of the picture at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the world's largest book fair, in October. Copyright Licensing NZ, with Creative NZ support, has invested in the conversion of more than 400 Kiwi books which will be published online for New Zealanders and the rest of the world to buy, download and read.
These titles, along with other great works from New Zealand authors, will form a formidable collection of New Zealand literature, previously available only on these small isles.
All of this potential revenue is being undermined, however, by illegal downloads.
The industry is losing a lot of money. While legitimate e-book sales were worth £92 million in Britain last year, nearly £30 million of additional revenue was lost to illegal downloads. That money is taken straight out of the pockets of authors and publishers.
Illegal downloading is compounded by inadequate copyright law. New Zealand's Copyright (Infringing File Sharing) Amendment Act allows publishers and authors to take action against people who illegally download content but the present regime is unaffordable for authors and publishers.
At present, rights owners have to pay $25 to send each notice of a breach of copyright under the so-called three strikes rule. In 2010, there were 200,000 instances of online piracy each month. The cost of enforcing the law will send publishers broke. There has to be a more cost-effective means of protecting copyright.
Also, the law is poorly framed, making it difficult for authors and publishers to use. The regulations limit enforcement to peer networks and it's rare to find books being shared with this technology. E-books are available everywhere on the web because of their small size, not just on file-sharing networks.
These legislative faults constitute a significant deterrent to effective copyright protection.
What the law really needs is a damn good editor armed with a heavy blue pencil. If our copyright law could be written half as well as the books by our Kiwi authors, we would have a law that reflects modern commercial reality and provides a welcome boost to an important industry.
Paula Browning is chief executive of a not-for-profit company Copyright Licensing NZ and executive officer of the Copyright Council of New Zealand.