By Alex Mutter
Hurricane Sandy struck the eastern United States in late October of last year, leaving in its wake a trail of destruction through the mid-Atlantic states and an estimated $60 billion dollars in damage. Subway tunnels flooded, train tracks were washed away, businesses were inundated and homes were carried into the sea. Among the many thousands who lost jobs, homes and power were authors and writers, and those without adequate insurance and income were in dire need of a lifeline.
“There were more applications for assistance during the week after Hurricane Sandy than I’ve ever seen in one week’s time,” said Isabel Howe, the Executive Director of the Authors League Fund. The fund has so far given out two loans directly related to Hurricane Sandy, both going to authors who lost their homes. One of those loans was not applied for until December.
“It was a bit surprising,” Howe said, “considering how late the application was submitted. But we figured that it took some time for the applicant to get things in order, or to hear about us.”
Formerly part of the Authors Guild, the Authors League Fund has been providing emergency monetary assistance to writers since 1917. Afflicted authors apply and, if they meet the fund’s criteria, receive interest free loans with low expectations of repayment. According to Howe, most loan recipients do not repay their loans, although some send in donations once they’ve overcome their financial burdens or pay the loan back in installments, and the fund never pursues people for repayment.
The Authors League Fund helps authors with bodies of work published by traditional publishing houses, dramatists who have had their plays produced in theaters with at least 200 seats and journalists and freelance writers whose articles and stories have been nationally or broadly circulated. The fund’s guidelines prohibit self-published authors, yet to be published authors and small-scale journalists from receiving aid, although Howe was quick to note that the restrictions were not necessarily implacable.
“We decide everything on a case by case basis,” Howe answered, when I asked her how the Authors League Fund has responded to the meteoric rise of self-published authors. “The Authors Guild has loosened their guidelines a bit for membership by self-published authors, and we’re kind of following their lead. For us to help them, it would have to be a self-published author who has found some success. And we do help older writers who are publishing their backlog by themselves.
“The tricky part of it is that we do have to keep some restrictions,” Howe explained. “It’s not too much of a stretch to say that anyone could become a self-published writer, and if our fund could help anyone and everyone, then this wouldn’t be sustainable.”
The Authors League Fund has seen a clear increase in applications since the recession began in 2008, with an average of 130 to 140 per year. The fund now helps approximately 80-100 authors per year; prior to the economic downturn, the fund helped between 60 and 75 people per year while turning down 20 to 40.
The fund operates with an informal cap set by its yearly budget, but is willing to make exceptions based on need. Despite setting a limit of no more than $6,000 per loan in 2012, the Authors League Fund gave out a few exceptional loans of up to $10,000, based on medical emergencies.
“Authors have a variety of reasons for applying for help,” said Howe, describing a fairly even split between medical issues, underemployment and older writers on fixed income, without savings or pensions outside of social security. “It’s unfortunate, but the profession has led many writers to the point where they’re not financially secure.”
It is indeed an unfortunate reality, but for those who need it, the Authors League Fund is there to help.