Report: US Literary Nonprofits Paid Writers $9.9 Million in 2021

In News by Porter Anderson

‘Vulnerable organizations and publishers unprepared to withstand another crisis’ are described in a new US nonprofit-sector study.

Image: Literary Arts Emergency Fund

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Emergency Fund Distributed US$7.8 million in Two Years
In a first report of its kind released today (December 13), a new study from the Literary Arts Emergency Fund, the dual importance and vulnerability of many nonprofit literary-arts organizations is expressed in numbers from 2021.

The fund comprises three organizations: The Community of Literary Magazines and Presses, known as CLMP; the Academy of American Poets; and the National Book Foundation, which produces the National Book Awards.

The Literary Arts Emergency Fund was formed by these three organizations in the United States in 2020 with support from the Mellon Foundation. This was triggered, of course, by the onset of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on publishing. In two cycles of funding, the fund reports distributing a total US$7.8 million to 376 organizations in 43 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.

The three organizations behind the fund calculate that, combined, their work supports as many as 83,315 writers with work and projects that can reach as many as 220 million readers.

The study released today is drawn from data collected from applications made to the Literary Arts Emergency Fund and assessed by WolfBrown, a research and planning consultancy specialized in the nonprofit cultural sector. The purpose of its release is to demonstrate the contributions of the sector as well as challenges face by the nonprofits operating in it.

It’s also worth noting that we’re talking here about the nonprofit American “literary arts field,” which is distinct from the international commercial trade industry that makes up our main focus at Publishing Perspectives. The Literary Arts Emergency Fund itself makes a distinction between the community of endeavor it serves and “commercial publishing houses, bookstores, and libraries.”

Among points that make up the literary arts community, the fund cites:

  • Presenting author readings and talks in towns and regions without other literary outposts
  • Distributing free books in prisons and to community centers
  • Offering writing workshops for students and adults
  • Offering mentorship retreats for and amplifies the work of writers of color, LGBTQ+ writers, and writers with disabilities
  • Organizing festivals and public programs celebrating books, writing, and reading
  • Publishing books, stories, essays, poems, and works in translation by authors not represented by commercial publishers

This is, in other words, a humanitarian service sector of the literary community, which frequently works with “BIPOC individuals” (Black, Indigenous and people of color) “and serving historically under-represented groups.”

410 Applicants for Aid in 2021

Image: Literary Arts Emergency Fund

In our article—based on the newly released 42-page report from the Literary Arts Fund—we’ll move quickly through some high points provided to the news media, and then suggest our readers follow up, if interested, with a look at the full report. It can be accessed at each of the three organizations’ sites (CLMP, the poets’ association, and the National Book Foundation). Here is a link to it at the Association of American Poets’ site.

While the emergency fund has operated through two yearly cycles of activity, the study focuses primarily on the 410 applicants for aid in 2021. The majority of those applicants were located in the mid-Atlantic states on the Eastern Seaboard, and in the West.

The 410 nonprofit literary organizations studied, according to the report:

  • Produced a total of 15,433 publications, which contained the works of 29,856 poets and writers
  • Paid and awarded 32,579 poets and writers $9.9 million in prizes and publication fees
  • Engaged 19,880 poets and writers as teaching artists or presenting authors, paying them $12.1 million for this work
  • Employed 2,546 individuals, with 92 percent reporting having poets and writers on staff and 76 percent reporting that a majority of their staffs are made up of poets and writers
‘The Lack of Financial Resources’

Image: Literary Arts Emergency Fund

A key goal here is to illustrate the financial condition in which many of these nonprofits work, figures from the study indicating that:

  • 87 percent of these companies have annual operating budgets less than $1 million
  • 76 percent have budgets less than $250,000
  • 74 percent have three paid staff people or fewer
  • 80 percent have no cash reserves or insufficient cash reserves

The emergency fund stresses that it’s “critical to note is that BIPOC-led literary organizations and publishers, and those whose primary focus is serving historically under-represented groups, are underfunded and have smaller budgets than the rest of the field. Their median expenses in 2021 were $85,000.”

A majority of the nonprofits, 72 percent of literary organizations and publishers studied, noted that serving historically underrepresented groups was an area of work in addition to their primary focus. A smaller percentage, 39 percent, reported no BIPOC senior staff members. Some 69 percent of the 410 organizations reported having at least 25-percent BIPOC representation on their boards.

The point of the report is to convey a warning that the American nonprofits in the literary sector observed in this data do their work with “meager operating budgets and little or no cash reserve, particularly those that center and serve historically under-represented groups.”

This is, the fund’s media messaging says, ‘impressive but not sustainable. The lack of financial resources manifests in inadequate staffing and results in vulnerable organizations and publishers unprepared to withstand another crisis.”

Image: Literary Arts Emergency Fund


More on the United States’ publishing market is here, more on the National Book Foundation is here, more on CLMP is here, and more from us on industry statistics is here. More from Publishing Perspectives on the coronavirus pandemic and its impact is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.