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Why English writers accept being treated like dirt

18 January 2016

From The Spectator:

A few months ago, one of the organisers of the Oxford Literary Festival contacted me.

Hi Nick

I may be putting on a free speech event at Oxford Lit Festival 2-10 April 2016  and wondered if you’d be willing to take part?  It’s the usual festival deal.

As I have written a book on free speech, and banged on about it to the point of tedium (and beyond) in these pages, I was happy to go to Oxford and bang on some more.  I had one small query.

Should be able to. Does the ‘usual deal’ involve anything so vulgar as a fee?

Of course not. The very thought. Like the Huffington Post and newspapers hiring interns, the Oxford Literary Festival expects authors to work for nothing. My contact’s reply suggested that he was a high-minded aesthete who had not thought it worth his while to investigate the terms and conditions of his authors.

I think that they give you £100 but only if you had a book published in the last months to promote. Otherwise it’s the free lunch and travel expenses. Mind you, the lunch is very nice.

I pointed out that I hadn’t had a book published in the last few months, so Oxford was asking me to work for nothing.  I wouldn’t do it, I said, and emailed him a link to the Hollywood screen writer Harlan Ellison’s magnificent rant against Warner Brother’s trying to get him to work for nothing.

. . . .

Ellison offered one reason why authors have accepted zero-payment contracts: they think that exposure will lead to recognition. ‘Look at me, I’m gonna be noticed!’ And with that exposure will come sales and commissions, maybe. And one day when they look back they will realise that all that free labour was  a sound investment.

Think about their position, and you should have sympathy for them. They have poured all they have into their book. It represents the best they can do, the proudest achievement of their lives in some cases. They find a publisher, a hard enough task in itself, as most manuscripts are never published. Their book appears, and more often than not, nothing happens. It is not reviewed or is barely reviewed. The only public recognition of its existence is the Amazon page, which they check, every hour like crazed obsessives, marking each tiny change in the sales ranking with elation, or more usually despair.

What dreams they had of finding a fortune vanish. As the literary journalist, Danuta Kean says, most readers have no idea how little money most authors make, and how desperate they are for any publicity.

. . . .

The worst literary festivals prey on their hope of recognition like conmen preying on lonely old ladies’ hopes of company. If only they could talk to potential readers, writers think. If only they could get them in a room, sit them down and persuade them to give their damn book a chance.

I speak from experience when I say that most authors don’t want fame or money (although both would be nice). After all that effort, they just want to be read. The organisers of literary festivals try to wriggle out of the charge that they are swindlers by saying that the author can always earn money by selling copies of their book after the talk. The organisers know full well that an author would have to shift a great many copies to make that one-sided deal worthwhile.

Link to the rest at The Spectator and thanks to Catherine for the tip.


23 Comments to “Why English writers accept being treated like dirt”

  1. Freelance artists will tell you they hear the same kind of nonsense from companies and charities: “We don’t pay much [or at all] but you’ll get great publicity out of it!”

    No thanks.

  2. From statements like this, one would think of authors as voices crying in the wilderness, with no paying readers, and nothing but their public reputations to warm them in the darkest nights.

    And on the other hand, there are millions of books being sold daily. Money is being made.

    Somewhere in the middle is the truth. Somewhere in the middle, writers who produce good solid readable fiction should be rewarded with readers and actual cash.

    The critical piece is being discovered; after than, the next step on the critical path is to benefit from that discovery.

    It is hard not to feel sympathy for the English writers who do all the hard work, and produce the fiction – but nothing they are doing gets them OUT of the system described. It only produces bitter writers.

    • depends on the author whether they are after taxes, agents, commissions paid for life, making any money. Very much depends on their debt load, whether they have family to support, etc.

  3. “Most authors don’t want fame or money”

    I call BS. Sure, some people don’t want fame because they are very private, but to say that people don’t want money? That’s just Pavlovian conditioning.

    • But wanting money is so, so vulgar. And crass. And materialistic.

      I’ve noticed that people who have the above attitude are usually financially secure. And many not due to their own efforts, but because they’re Trust Fund Babies.

      Show me the money! (Or show me your heinie as you walk quickly away from me.)

      • Hear, hear!

        Money, good. Fame, not so much. Since the advent of the internet and the reduction of privacy, we’ve all had a taste of ‘fame’ in the form of instant and anonymous opinions on our politics and personal lives. I wouldn’t want more of that.

        That said, I figure that I would not benefit from the Trust Fund situation. I’d probably d*ck around on a yacht talking about the great stories I’m going to write but never get around to it.

      • Affected indifference to money is also a wonderful excuse for crappy sales.

      • “Or show me your heinie …”

        that made me laugh out loud

  4. But there is a very important question that needs to be asked.
    Why do writers attend literary festivals?
    If they go in the role of public entertainer, then yes, they deserved to be paid.
    But if there goal in attending is self-promotion, why should anyone pay for them to do that.

    • I don’t agree. Entertainers are promoting themselves with every public appearance, paid or not. The two things are not separate.

      If the entertainer sets up the appearance her own self, she can charge whatever she wants (free or otherwise) and her public will determine how much she makes. If an artist is invited to an event set up by someone else, someone who stands to make a profit from the attending audience, the artist must be paid.

      I figure if it’s for a charity the artist supports, that’s different. They can decided whether or not to forego or reduce their fee.

    • If writing is the way I make money, and someone wants me to come to their writers’ festival to fill out their guest list, which takes me away from my method of making money, I expect to be paid for, by the event’s organizers, that time away from my method of making money.

  5. When an author goes to any sort of festival, theyre not just going as them selves, they represent brand that a consumer/ customer might want to buy from.
    This also benefits the author because they can sell signed copies of their books at extortionate rates.

  6. First of all, a free lunch and travel expenses are pretty good perks for something like this. Many conferences/bookfairs don’t provide anything in terms of compensation. In fact, authors are required to pay travel expenses, conference fees, meals, etc. in addition to speaking for free.

    So does that make us victims? Does that mean we should never opt to participate unless we’re paid?


    Each author is their own business. Each author has to choose whether a public event is a good investment or not, and a lot goes into that choice. Expenses, timing, costs involved, networking opportunities (IMO by far the biggest perk at one of these events), etc. There are a lot of factors that have to be weighed. Sometimes it’s worth it, sometimes it’s not. Public appearances are certainly not something you have to do to be a successful author.

    Regardless of payment, the choice belongs to each author. If you deem it worthwhile, say yes. If not, say no. No one can treat you like dirt unless you let them.

    • What do you suppose they mean by “travel expenses”?

      • Depends. Could be a mileage allowance. Could be plane fare, hotel, cab, the works. Could be something in between. It would be important to have that defined before the author commits.

    • The Oxford Literary Festival is a *huge* event – I’m not sure if there is a comparable one in the US. And, in general terms, such events are not really comparable between the US and the UK anyway. My impression is that such US events are much more commercial in general, with dealing rooms and significant amounts of books sold at signings and events etc. It usually doesn’t happen on the same level in the UK.

      Anyway, back to the Oxford Literary Festival in particular. I’ve never been, but it’s a gigantic affair. You don’t just buy one ticket and get to attend everything. It’s sprawling – 250 separate talks/events, all separately ticketed, each costing $15-$20 a pop. A common complaint from attending writers is that there seems to be enough money being spent in various areas to compensate writers, but it’s just the will to do so that is lacking.

      Again, I don’t know if it’s different in the US, but UK trad authors are coming under a lot of pressure to attend events like this – a prospect which is much less attractive when you are getting 8% per sale!

      • This sounds similar to LitCologne but probably at least an order of magnitude larger. At LitCologne the literary venues are all over the city on different days/evenings. There’s usually a signing after the event/panel but there’s no central dealer’s room or headquarters that I know of.

        I don’t know how or if the authors are paid or not – I’ve always assumed they’re sent by their publishers. But maybe not. It’s deemed to be great exposure and only the ‘big names’ (heavily weighted towards literary and many of those who’ve won prizes) get in. It’s a closed shop. I went to a Michael Connelly reading one year. It was fun but pricey.

  7. I speak from experience when I say that most authors don’t want fame or money (although both would be nice). After all that effort, they just want to be read.

    Don’t want money? Then what are you whining about?

  8. I’m a musician as well as a writer, and I learned early on in my music career to never work for free, always have a contract (printed, signed, legal), and if possible, get paid half in advance. Even then, I’ve had supposedly reputable orchestras pay me six months late. The Latin American Video Awards took three months, and only paid after I called a high powered Latina songstress’s agent to advocate for me.

  9. I dont think anyone is a ‘victim.’ IMO, the point is a red herring.

    The answers to ‘ought I accept a non-pay situation’ are different for different authors. If we support the enterprise, sure. But to be filler [as often happens], or to be third choice [as often happens after first two turn down the iffy ‘honorariums’, no. Pay doesnt matter in either case.

    But because many of us make a decent living from the hard work of writing AND from speaking, and from doing promotion/marketing to large groups on our own terms… and meet many of our more famous peers on the circuit, often friends for life, the idea of no pay for a meal or two and ‘economy class travel,’ is pretty pale.

    However, when we were young, speaking for myself and peers who have been at this for more than 45 years, I’d advise those whose names are yet to be known widely [but will be known as one keeps slugging away at it– the lucky break will come, be ready] to take as many gigs for free if you wish, that do not interfere with your work or your health. Many a main act used to open for other main acts in times past, including us some time back, as openers/warmer ups for those genuflect-worthy [to us ] authors far far more well known and respected.

    As mentioned, depends on how you make your main income, what your work commitment, family and children and elder care commitments are, what bargaining capacity you have at present, what condition your condition is in. It’s a different answer for everyone. I think it wiser to rest on individual response.

    Yet, as an old union monger, ought people be paid for work that is valuable, work that makes others’ a lion’s share of the money or notice, or positions them? Yes. Unequivocally. It is not by accident that pay for work is a social justice issue since time out of mind that is considered an ethical consideration.

    As Alexis says, having whatever one agrees to must be in writing. This is essential gold standard business practice. Signed in writing.

  10. I must have been very lucky because all the events I’ve attended in a professional capacity (most in the UK too) have looked after me very well, covering all expenses and paying a reasonable fee as well. The one event which didn’t pay a fee was an international one in a gorgeous location which covered flights and a very nice hotel instead, and *really* looked after the writers on the ground. No complaints there whatsoever.

    Now, if a tadpole like me can get this kind of treatment from events far smaller and less prestigious than the Oxford Literary Festival, then surely they can stump up for what are presumably well attended talks by the likes of Philip Pullman. And good for him for making a stand.

    This has been a live issue for a few years now, particularly in the UK which has seen the rise of hugely popular events like Hay, without a concurrent improvement in how authors are compensated for their time. Obviously, the issue is exacerbated by the twin phenomena of publishers’ royalty cheques dwindling and increased pressure on trad authors to get out there and work the crowd. Self-publishers might (I said might!) be delighted to get an invite to an event like this, but then we are earning 70% a sale so it’s a totally different cost/benefit scenario (and the only pressure we have to attend is internal).

  11. If an author is in demand, s/he has negotiating power. If enough of these authors stop attending, the festival will have to revisit their policy. The event needs the authors who can draw a crowd.

    And I think it’s fine that he refused to speak at an event that wouldn’t meet his terms. That’s what everyone should do. And if enough authors (who can draw a crowd) do that, the readers will stop attending, and the festivals will have to change.

    What would not be in authors’ interest would be for the cost to the reader to climb so high that the readers can no longer afford to attend these events. That serves no one. It’s a balance.

    As for publishers requiring authors to do certain kinds of promotion without additional compensation (or even on the author’s own dime), that is a contract issue between author and publisher. One of many ways publishers can take advantage of authors and something to watch for.

  12. The large national and international festivals I’ve been at, often have large banks of free tickets for young readers, special prices for uni students, for those who are disabled, for so-called ‘senior’ citizens, for military ret. or ac., special pre-reg rates, special group rates, scholarships, work at festival in exchange for tickets, emeritus tickets gratis.

    I wouldnt worry about pricing out the reader who really wants to be there; where there’s a will there are many ways, including something I’ve seen recently, attending via streaming for a small fee –seeing the main acts on one’s home favored device.

    I’ve only seen the line item budget of the regional book fair we’ve been part of since the early 1980s, so I only know the expenses and payouts, barter, discounted tickets, etc from that.

    To comment on other festival’s exact numbers and inflow and outgo, and what they choose to spend money on, how wise they are with venue and concessions, what prosciptions they must follow re liability insurances and the laws of their state, etc, would have to see the papers.

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