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Authors call for boycott on non-paying festivals

15 January 2016

From The Bookseller:

Prominent writers including Linda Grant, Denise Mina, Joanne Harris and Francesca Simon have responded to Philip Pullman’s protest over the Oxford Literary Festival’s failure to pay author fees by joining a call for publishers and fellow authors to boycott events with the same policy.

Pullman, who is president of the Society of Authors, has stepped down from his role as patron of the festival, saying it is a case of “simple justice” that authors should be paid for their appearances.

Now novelist and critic Amanda Craig has written an open letter to The Bookseller calling for all authors and publishers to boycott literary festivals which expect authors to work without a fee. “For too long, authors have been persuaded to give our services to the public for free – even though the public is paying in good faith to see us,” she wrote. “We are the only people in festivals who are not paid, and yet without us the festivals could not exist. Writing is a vocation but it is also a profession, and it is time we all stiffened our spines, dug in our heels and said No.”

. . . .

The fact that many literary festivals do not remunerate authors for appearances has been a long-running grievance among writers, with the Society of Authors currently campaigning on the issue and “working with them [festivals] to agree reasonable fees and best practice guidelines”, as chief executive Nicola Solomon told The Bookseller earlier this month.

Novelist Robert Harris yesterday tweeted a response to Pullman’s comments on his resignation, saying “So true! A few (insane) punters paid £50 for a front-row seat at my last event. I was given a mug, appropriately.”

Link to the rest at The Bookseller and thanks to Diana for the tip.

Advertising-Promotion-Marketing, Non-US

35 Comments to “Authors call for boycott on non-paying festivals”

  1. Calling for a boycott is all fine and good. Now if they actually don’t go — that would be better!

    • (and the having to ‘confirm follow’ bit is getting silly …) 😉

      • It’s annoying, yes. But necessary.

        • Ah, but it wasn’t ‘before’.

          Just one more hoop to jump through, a bit like having to press the brake to get the newer cars into gear. (I still remember shorting out the ‘clutch pedal is depressed’ on an older stick car so we could use the battery/starter motor to drag it up a ramp onto a trailer. 😉 )

  2. It fascinates me that writers were willing to be unpaid for so long.

    At work once, I overheard a photographer tell the other photographers that some person or business was asking him to take freelance pictures.

    The other photographers were quick to advise him to “See what he’s offering to pay first, and don’t take just any price! You can’t let him think we’re cheap and easy.”

    They were award-winning photographers who believed it would damage their professional reputations to take the equivalent of “coffee mug” pay for a job. I get it; I believe photography is that other creative field where the creator is presumed to work for free.

    I want to see more writers have more respect for themselves like the photographers did. It’s about time.

    • I $u$pect re$pect i$ not the driving factor. Time$ are tough and a thre$hold ha$ been pa$$ed, much like with BPH ebook pricing. People will put up with a lot out of inertia and tradition. But eventually the pocketbook pain will prevail.

    • I used to do event photography and I had the same conversation with half a dozen colleagues in the pub. Every one of them advised the new guy not to undersell himself, and he left the pub with a number in mind that was his bottom line.

      He took that bottom line to the client a few days later – and got told to get lost. One of the photographers in the pub had called his client and undercut him by 10%.

      There is always someone willing to work for less. Ultimately all creative industries are over-saturated with more would-be workers than available work, and it’s no surprise when that leads to rock bottom prices.

      Trying to enforce a standard of pay with anything short of unionized action is a total waste of time. All it does is drive businesses and therefore money to those willing to do it cheap.

      There are a lot of selfish, and some irrational, actors in the market on both the supply side and the demand side. All we can do is negotiate the best deals we can, and say no where it isn’t worth it.

      • And there are many a panhandler that will work in the hope of ‘some/any’ return, like that guy/gal playing/dancing on the street corner with the hat out for any donations …

        Though unless you’re ‘paid-to-write’, all writers are part panhandlers, there’s no promise that there will be a good/any return for the hours spent writing the book.

      • There will also be someone ready to work for less, yes. But will they be any good?

  3. Do festivals make money out of the presence of these authors?

    • Their entire raison d’etre is the presence of these authors. Otherwise, what’s the point? They should be at the top of the list when budgets are being worked out instead of at the very bottom. Back when my husband was a full time woodcarver, he used to do wonderful demonstrations of his craft at various events. He used to get letters and emails asking him to give demonstrations and in return they would give him a ‘half price stand’. Eventually, tiring of this, I took to masquerading as a pretend PA. I would write back quoting his daily rate, plus reasonable expenses. To our surprise, pretty much all of them agreed. It didn’t result in any fewer invitations – in fact he got more! And they publicized his work a lot more too. People tend to take you at your own valuation, as long as you can deliver the goods (and he could) – but on the whole, they don’t value things that cost them nothing. Not at all. It taught us a great deal. Scottish book festivals all pay their authors, by the way, and some of them are quite small. If they can do it, then these big events ought to be able to. They just need to rejig their finances.

      • As someone who is very involved in putting on a tech convention (in our case, it’s an all volunteer staff as well, which is extremely rare for something of our size), there is a lot of money that is spent for ‘infrastructure’, the stuff that if it doesn’t get paid, there’s no event for people to appear at. The cost of this can be surprisingly high (I am not in the budget meetings, but I believe that our event is in the 6 figures). If you then add to that the need to pay some organizers, many of whom will spend at least a month’s worth of effort over the year between events to make sure that everything can happen, you can end up with a much bigger budget than outsiders think.

        Based on the prior post on this topic, it sounds like this event used to be volunteer run, and with tight budgets, and this person was ok with not paying authors who appeared during that mode of operation. But when the event got much bigger sponsorship, he felt that it should have included paying the people appearing.

        As for why someone would appear without pay. Some people like to present, some view it as marketing.

    • Some festivals have make TONS of money off the backs of the well known and sought after authors. TONS. THEY HAVE TO have sponsorships. And connections to corporate if they want to bring the most well known authors who will draw the biggest crowds. Often the festivals contact the publisher not the author, and the publisher’s publicy dept contacts author [with dollar signs in their eyes, why not, for 92% +/- gross of sales and dont have to pay the author but 2x a year]

      I cant tell you how many authors including USAF have been sucked into ‘this will be good for your work’: No pay, unfair pay, ok accomodations, but often red eye flights, bad hotel food, REALLYBAD food, exhausting the author, and then shipping them back home. Some say they would give their right arm to be asked to speak for free to 3-10 thousand people at a time. They have no idea what they are talking about. RARELY can many authors come home well; often they get whatever cold/ flu/ whatever the people who come in droves have.

      I’ wouldnt cry for those on ‘the circuit’ for its their choice. But is it fair? H. No. The Concessionaires and those at the top of pile in admin get the lion’s share of money from the audiences the authors draw. The volunteers: 0. The authors 0.

      Prob who should be paid most ARE the volunteers and the authors. Without them, what would happen? Nada.

      Also, some may like to showmanship on stage for free. Fine. But most authors I know work d hard at their work, and gallavanting around the world is not their idea of getting their work done.

      And authors: many many supplement the pitiful 2x year income [which one never knows how much one’s ‘salary’ will be] with public speaking. For pay. Often decent to very good pay. The ‘gimme a freebie’ because its such great marketing might have been ok 20 years ago. Today, its for many, just a clue to a title to go pirate. Then, for sure, only pirates, admin and concessionaires make the money. The author can proselytize all they want. They often come home broke as before. It is my .02 that this ‘give me yourtime, your energy, your excellent speaking, your travel time, your bad food tolerances’ is in the EXACT same pattern of patronizing and unjust compensation that the publishers use already.

      • I don’t think anyone is saying that for events where they are making TONS of money that Authors (or anyone else) should be doing it for free.

        I know that all I am doing is trying to point out two facts

        1. TONS of money may not be what you think it is, even with an all volunteer admin/organizer/staff you can still easily get into 6 figures to put on a large event.

        2. if the people putting it on are willing to do it for nothing (the organizers, not the venue staff). then it may be reasonable for speakers to not get paid.

        And if you think the speakers who show up for a day, eat the bad food and move on have it bad, you should think about the literal man-months of effort that the individual volunteer organizers have put into preparations for the event.

        I’m not saying that ANYONE is obligated to work for free. I’m just saying that there are cases where it’s not an outrage to not pay.

        • I guess you’re addressing my comment… I just now read y our comment above mine [and below mine] and can agree that mounting a festival is a lot of work.

          My words in response to no one in particular, just what is true from many an authors’ point of view over the decades I’ve been published and am publishing– and been on the road literally hundreds if not by now a thousand times+.

          Some of the festivals/ conferences/are very real businesses, including non-profit ones [they have to make their nut to keep going with their paid admins etc; we have a non profit also and nonprofits do not mean not raising money, some non-profits, huge amounts of money,] not to mention BEA and BkExpo and others make TONS of money off authors’ back.

          The authors, not the publisher, not the sponsors, not the volunteers, not the c eats, are the draw in my .02 experience. Same with music and musicians. Try mounting a festival and paying nothing for the musical talents, i.e., the greats, the top numbers. Unless THEY choose so, for charitable reasons. Most festivals on books are not run to support cure research for grave and terminal illnesses or for famine amongst the abjectly poor.

          They make their money whether for their newspapers in times past, for the lions’ share the publishers take of the authors income, to promote the non-profit, or for-profit sponsor[s] and more.

          Many an author is/has been pressed by their publisher[s] to do several ‘book fairs’ a year. How many days away from family and work would that be. Nationally, Internationally. What is the authors main job? Writing. Where do they gain income when they are not working? Who merits from appearing for free at book fairs? It is rarely the author. Even bestselling authors who may be one or ten hit wonders, and then no matter how many give aways orchestrated by book ‘fairs’, no matter how many panels or platforms which in the end are not educational, no one remembers what anyone said other than that x ws contentious and y was mute, and z was conciliatory… and the publisher[s] decides those authors are no longer flavor of the year/ decade.

          Publishers are complicit. Volunteering because one has spare time, on site, is no doubt of heartfelt intention, some belief that this matters. I dont doubt the intention, nor the hard work for months to state the event. And For the authors, it is a different trajectory of being far away from family, from one’s work, traveling two days to get ‘there’ and back, getting sick, being tired, trying to accommodate the organizers who can be fickle and self-aggrandizing, the publishers who can be fickle and aggrandizing, the audiences who are often sincere.

          We have been volunteer workers for regional book fairs and conferences over the years for highlighting things we find worthy. It is NOTHING like the work on the road for authors. Not close. There’s no team on the road, no fellow helpers, no tradeoffs for hours, no going home, no hugging your kids, , no privacy to turn around– and other matters of meetings and goings and speakings and doings nonstop. It is exhausting, without rest. I believe that’s why so many authors get sick on the road. You can only run the machinery without oil and over-rev it for so long before it breaks down.

          Book tour and festivals, I think, again, just my .02 are a thing of the past. What I saw at some of the last few ‘book fairs’ has begun to look like a craft show cum music acts, sales tables, sidelines, with a few authors here and there. In the day, it was back to back authors. A List only, I’m afraid. But back in another time, that was the guaranteed draw. Recently, Pulitzer prize winning authors, poet laureate of the usa, new and promising novelists in many genres had small audiences compared to the overflow audiences to hear f u said dad, or like kind.

          It seems the page has irrevocably turned. Not nec better. Different. For those who wish it, I say have at it. For those not, not. Id just say ask the question: What is your work? How do you support yourself, your family? Is working without pay again and again, even if they give you an award, or publicity soon forgotten, or an honorary doctorate, or whatever, in your commitment to your work? Answers may vary. We are all different. At my advances age, I’d rather the gifted who write, know before hand, rather than, as we did in the anesthesia of publishing, learn the hard way that it makes life a tangle to try to serve publishers latest sparkling, and remain solid with work and family, really solid.

  4. Heck, I think authors should charge admission for readings in the first place.

    • people would pay Will. I think you are right. Have seen it starting back at Indie bookstores trying to compete with bn and borders, joe beth, back in the early 90s. Two ways: charge for tickets to hear the authors, and keep the money. Keep rolling authors through weekly, many times a week. Charge, keep the money. Sometimes the publishers gave the bookstores extra money to accomodate, and for book placement in the store.

      That may have slowed down as publishers seem to have greatly curtailed book tours.

      Second way: Bookstore says that buying a book of that author is the price of admission to hear them speak. PUblisher co-share also applied for. Although my sense has been that co-share has dwindled with publishers not doing/offering what they once did.

      Many many of the old indie bookstores, truly had a heart for authors and reading and readers and were already running a marginal business at 40% whereas big stores, I’ve heard, were getting a 62% or more deal from big pubs on price of book. So they thrust about to try to find additional ways to make the rent; one being ‘author events’. Most all those bookstores are gone now. Some bought up by voracious BAM and enchained.

      For authors, I think they could definitely charge a small fee or large, depending on their expenses. They would learn to create a venue [not hard], invite people, or ally with others, and gofor it. With internet reach to many it is no longer a issue of sending out a zillion postcards by snail mail.

  5. A “Non-Profit” label can often be a total scam. As others have pointedly pointed out, the organizers, vendors, and suppliers aren’t working for free. Why should any other patricipants, including writers and speakers?

    Yeah, Harlan Ellison is right. Pay the writer!

    • “A “Non-Profit” label can often be a total scam.” You said it. If people really knew where the money goes. I think James there is a site somewhere that tells how esp the big ‘non profits’ distrib their monies taken in

  6. I think we all need to be careful of saying “We all should be paid” with the subtext that anyone who is not must not be worth anything or doesn’t take themselves seriously.

    In a different field, I am quite well-known in certain circles and frequently asked to be a speaker, presenter. In that field, I am already paid a decent salary to do it by a large organization. As such, whether or not I do it, I have three criteria:

    a. Is it mostly knowledge sharing that will help others in the field? Similar to writers speaking to writing groups about tips and tricks…if so, I will do it, and I will do it for free. Even when offered remuneration, I say no. I am already “paid” for my work, this is part and parcel of professionalism and paying it back to those who paid it forward to me. I won’t do it if people are charging for my expertise like a conference level fee, etc. A small admission, sure, but not a full rate of several hundred dollars — why would I want them to pay for something I give freely?

    b. Is it something that really interests me? If not, I tend to say no. I won’t do it for exposure (I don’t need anymore) or to build my brand (low ROI). LIfe’s too short to do things you don’t enjoy doing, and there are lots of alternatives out there.

    c. If it is purely and utterly commercial, I tend to say no. Newbies, experienced people, etc. for free? Sure. But purely to line a business group’s pocket? No chance. Regardless of what they pay me, if at least one of the first two criteria are not met.

    Which is a roundabout way of saying I have two other reasons why I might do it for free, and they have nothing to do with my “value” or anything else. Just as some writers may choose to participate because (a) they think it promotes themselves in some way; (b) they like doing it; (c) they have some tie to the festival such as they did it early in their careers and feel like it is payback for early promotion; etc. Not all benefits come in the form of a paid fee, which means not all speakers are measured by whether or not they are paid.

    My view for what it is worth is that this is no different than the pointless arguments about giving away books for free or charging $3 or charging $9.99 — the remuneration you get per book has nothing to do with the value of the actual book, otherwise everyone would charge $50K per copy.

    Personally, I think if it is a relatively commercial business running it with profits going to corporate type enterprise, charge a fee; if not, decide if (a) you like it or (b) there are other reasons/benefits before you decide if you need/want/have to charge a fee. Or just don’t do it. As others said, maybe there are others willing to do it for free.


  7. There’s a great video on YouTube of Harlan Ellison called “Pay the Writer” and it applies here. Worth a look. NSFW. He got a naughty mouth.

  8. This has been an issue with me for years. If I want to give a talk, I have my agent/manager tell the group I do a couple of events a year pro bono, and this year they’re in luck. Gets me out of having other organisers come up afterward and want me for their group – for free. At writing conferences where much prep work is required, I expect a fee. I know this gets me off many lists when word gets around, but that’s okay, I can enjoy attending without the pressure. As others point out, the caterers, venue staff and most everybody else is being paid, why not the people who put bums on seats?

  9. caterers, venue staff, etc are either paid or there is no event. The venue won’t let a group running an event do that stuff.

    For the tech conference that I help run, we pay tens of thousands of dollars for the ‘privilege’ of having their venue tech staff let us bring in our own equipment and run the network for the conference ourselves.

    The key thing as I see it is not if the hotel/conference center people, caterers, audio, lighting, etc people are getting paid, but rather if the people organizing the conference are getting paid.

    If the people organizing the conference are getting paid to do it (especially if their full-time job is running events like this), then yes, all speakers should get paid as well.

    If the people organizing the event are voluneers, working for free (or for meals/rooms), then I think it’s reasonable to ask for volunteers to be at the front of the room as well.

    Like someone else said earlier, if the attendees are paying hundreds or thousands of dollars in attendance fees, then it’s almost certainly not a volunteer run event.

    • for profit, can still be helped by a squad of volunteers Anonymous. Seen it time and again. Many people of good heart volunteer, and some for-profits are often happy to take advantage of that. I’d agree the people bringing real service as you listed, of course ought be paid. So authors should be on ‘the ought to be paid’ list, too, I think. They are contract labor. The corp or profit or non doesnt even have to pay their health insurance. Though I’ve been amazed at how fast and loose some venues play with liability insurance, as in not taking out any to cover ills and spills of audiences for instance. Frankly, seeing the uneven ways [ and trust, the ways and means are far FAR beyond those some seem convinced by reading in econ or accounting journals, lol very ‘creative’ and sometimes way out there in terms of money and management, no doubt] some handle/ mask/ propagandize/ feature their ways and means has been slightly sickeningly enlightening over the decades.

  10. Somebody – and I forget who now – had a good rule of thumb for deciding whether or not to do a particular event, either as one of the occasional freebies we all do, or even a paid event. If you were asked to do it tomorrow, would you agree? If not, ask yourself why you’d want to do it six months from now. I realised that I often agree to do something because it seems a long way off. Then it comes round very quickly. I don’t do schools events these days – a hangover from deeply unhappy schooldays after we moved to Scotland where I was badly bullied. So if someone asks me to visit a school I still wake up in the morning with that same shrinking feeling I had when I was 13! But I must admit that the prospect of being paid a reasonable sum does tend to tip the balance in favour of the event, especially if the bank balance is down. It is very hard for people who are salaried to understand that what for them may be free time is working time for the rest of us. I’ve had this debate with academics on tenure before now. If I’m not writing or earning money by speaking or doing a workshop, I’m not just donating time. I’m losing money. And the benefits in ‘exposure’ would have to be pretty big to cover the loss.

  11. The demand for a service at zero is far higher than at $100. If every author were paid to speak, there would be far less speaking. Authors may be surprised at how low people value their speeches.

    • True, but if nobody of note wishes to waste their time and money going to speak for free — will there be a festival held worth holding?

      And if the big writers stay away, their followers have no reason to go either — so the festival won’t be bringing in the money to pay those that ‘do’ get paid …
      (about as useful as a garage in which the mechanics have all walked off the job — leaving the accountant to do the oil changes and wheel alignments.)

      • If people attend the events to hear authors speak, and no authors are speaking, then I agree the events will fold up shop.

        But, this is simply another arena of competition. Authors who charge zero are competing with those who charge more than zero. The non-zero authors don’t like being undercut by the zero authors.

        There is nothing wrong with bidding zero. If an author hits the bid, then they have a deal.

        Moral suasion doesn’t work in these kinds of markets.

        • “Novelist Robert Harris yesterday tweeted a response to Pullman’s comments on his resignation, saying “So true! A few (insane) punters paid £50 for a front-row seat at my last event. I was given a mug, appropriately.””

          How many £50 seats will they not be selling if writers like that one aren’t showing up? Sure they can find someone for ‘free’ that thinks the ‘exposure’ is worth gold, but will those £50 a seat types agree?

          It’d be too much like going to a computer expo and instead of the cutting edge gear, they have someone from the geek squad showing how to load an anti-virus program (hint, no one will pay good money to bother with it.)

          • All that stuff can happen, and we can predict the results if it does. But history shows it just doesn’t happen.

            • Ah, true, history …

              But even the trad-pub crowd is finally being forced to admit that ‘the times they are ah changing’.

              The next few years ought to be quite ‘interesting’.

  12. Author Olivia Kiernan has a different take on The issue over at her blog .
    I don’t personally agree with her but it’s still an interesting read .
    The link is here, http://oliviakiernan.com/2016/01/14/the-one-where-literary-festivals-dont-pay-authors/

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