From The Spectator:
A few months ago, one of the organisers of the Oxford Literary Festival contacted me.
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.