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When book festivals pay and when they don’t

Yup, that old issue again. Thing is, it just doesn’t go away.

I’m going to sing the praises of two book festivals, one very large (Edinburgh) and one very much smaller (The Isle of Man – Manx Litfest). And I’m going to refer to one that doesn’t think enough of its performers to pay them.

The 2014 Edinburgh International Book Festival is in its final public day today, and will have welcomed 900 authors, all of whom are paid the same fee: £150 per event or £100 if you’re on a panel with more than one other person, plus travel and accommodation.

I’m going to the Manx Litfest in September, to do several events, and there’s a daily fee (the highest I’ve come across for a book festival), plus travel and accommodation which is booked for us, and we will be driven everywhere and well cared for. Some of the events are free to the audience but we are still paid.

So, if a huge festival and a small island festival can look after their authors so generously and with such respect, why do some festivals think it’s OK to pay electricians, caterers, joiners, security, marketing companies etc etc etc, but not the authors and speakers, without whom the stages would be empty?

Let me say this: I do understand how difficult it is to fund festivals. I do understand that the organisers are often working voluntarily and always with great energy. I am friends with people who are at the heart of organising festivals of all sizes and I once helped someone start a new and tiny festival – which paid all speakers the same. I am very in tune with the issues on both sides. But I have to eat and I have to support authors in their quest to be treated like any other working person: by being paid. You see, I don’t believe authors need to be treated differently from other people. We all have the same bills to pay.

If you’re struggling to find a budget for something, you naturally find ways to make it cheaper. You might even want people to donate their expertise for free. If you decide to use this method, just be aware of what you are actually asking and think carefully about how you word that request.

Because there are ways of doing it really badly. For example….

….a while ago, I was invited by a large festival (I know it was large because they spent several paragraphs on their Very Important Sponsors and their footfall of 50,000 people last year). I had to decline the invitation, explaining that their desire to make the festival “accessible and inclusive to as broad an audience as possible” meant that they were excluding people who can’t afford to work for nothing.

The wording of the request got under my skin.  It spent a great deal of time on how impressive the festival was, how large, how well attended and well sponsored, without recognising that this would all be at the expense of the speakers, some of whom are struggling to earn a living and who make that living from speaking engagements. The fact that the organisers were volunteers is not the point – when salaried people give up time outside their working hours, it’s quite different from asking a non-salaried and low-earning person to do so because you are actually asking them to give up income. A salaried person donating time for voluntary work is not directly giving up income. The time I’d be working for the festival would be time I can’t earn through my normal work, so it is like saying to a salaried person, “You won’t be paid for those two days of work” and deducting that money.

I’m not a mean person. I do a lot of unpaid work to help various causes I’ve chosen to support. I’ve sometimes accepted unpaid gigs and sometimes not, always making a judgement based on what I can do and what I should do. *The Society of Authors is very keen to empower authors to make those decisions robustly and wisely. You see, we’re not at all against giving things away, including time, expertise, and words. A great deal of our working day consists of unpaid tasks, which makes it even more important to be paid for our work when we can.

(* That link takes you to the new SoA document about fees, which I wrote.)

If that festival, with its 50k visitors, had even charged £1 per visitor instead of making everything free, they would suddenly have a budget to pay a speaker fee. £1, not a lot to ask, but something that could make a huge difference – I actually worked out that it would have provided £400 per event – and still let the festival be thoroughly accessible to everyone. It would enable respect and self-respect. It would make all invited authors want to accept the invitation. It would just be right.

So, thank you to those many festivals who understand how to treat a normal, professional, working person and thank you, especially, to the Manx Litfest and The Edinburgh International Book Festival for setting great examples.

Now, please just wish for calm winds on my flight to Douglas…

12 Responses

      1. It’s good to see this issue again being openly discussed, again. We also run a successful annual children’s literary festival here in Shrewsbury, and have done so since 1999, and we make it a clear policy that we will pay all our visiting authors, illustrators, actors a fee in accordance with the Society of Authors, and we ensure they are assigned drivers, minders and a good time whilst with us. Whilst our committee is made up primarily of volunteers, that is what we have chosen to do, and we do not expect authors to give their services for free as well. Venue spaces, printers, insurances etc. all charge a fee so there is absolutely no grounds to expect the crucial element of the event, the authors and illustrators, to waive theirs. What is difficult to address is that a festival’s geographical location can present problems in terms of travel and accommodation costs. This is an area which is rather grey – an ‘out of the way’ festival can be enthusiastically supported, sponsored, wanted and needed by its community but the considerable expense of getting the speakers to the festival presents huge financial headaches for the organisers. But the fee issue….authors must be paid for their services, end of! The culture of ‘we’re a massive festival and the kudos of speaking here is more valuable than financial payment’ should be challenged. That, or just elect to appear at festivals that WILL pay you! Investing in an author/illustrator to appear at a festival usually means the festival organisers will make damned sure the event is going to be as successful as possible for everyone!!

        1. Brilliant, Joanna! Thank you. And congratulations for organising such a well thought-through festival. I know it’s not easy. Very very good luck to you.

          (btw, your comment appeared twice so I deleted one. Hope that’s ok. If by any chance they were not identical and I deleted the wrong one, shout and I think I can get it back!)

  1. Well said, Nicola. Totally agree with this. Just back from the Edinburgh Festival, where they get it spot on every time. I would also like to add the Manchester Children’s Book Festival to the list of festivals who know how to treat authors. All events paid for, hotel stays covered and drivers/escorts for all the events. It’s such a pleasure when you deal with people who understand how important it is to get this right.

    1. Maybe we should start a list of festivals that get it right. Good to know about Manchester, Liz. Also, your comment “It’s such a pleasure when you deal with people who understand how important it is to get this right” reminds me of the other point: that we are likely to give our best performances if we feel looked after.

  2. As the co-creator of three festivals and organiser of one currently we have always held that authors should be paid for their time and expertise. Book sales are not to be relied upon and footfall guarantees absolutely nothing. What kind of sponsorship doesn’t take authors’ fees into account? Without authors there’s no festival. If every author remembered this then this would soon sort out those non-paying festivals!

    1. Joanna, many thanks for your support from “the other side”! As you say, “What kind of sponsorship doesn’t take authors’ fees into account?” I wonder if the sponsors of festivals such as the York Festival of Ideas realise that the authors/speakers are not paid. Interesting.

  3. It’s certainly a problem that needs highlighting but there are some people who run literary festivals without counting material gain. I’m on the committee for the Wellington (Shropshire) Literary Festival, now in its 18th year. It is run entirely by volunteers with the support of the Town Council and lasts for three weeks in October. None of the organisers take a fee and no one is charged to attend. There are donation buckets at the exit of the evening events. The fees to pay our visiting authors comes from the money raised from grants and the donations collected from the previous festival. The library, schools, and cafes, allow events to be held in their buildings, again free of charge. The town is very proud of its festival and being able to make literary events accessible to all. It’s a lot of hard work by dedicated individuals but the success of every festival is their reward.

    1. Catherine, thanks for commenting but I’m afraid you’ve missed the point. I acknowledge really clearly the effort put in by volunteers. I also point out that I, like other authors, often choose to do things for no financial gain. But this is not how bills are paid. I have also organised a conference myself, for no financial gain, and at great cost in effort and time. But willingly. (We paid the self-employed speakers.) I hope and trust that none of your volunteers finds themselves in poverty through the voluntary work they do but that is exactly what would happen to an author or any other adult who was prevented from earning a wage for their normal work. And by expecting authors to work for nothing, that is exactly what is happening. So, we would have a situation where only rich authors can afford to accept invitations? I don’t think that’s right. I can, theoretically, afford to do some events for nothing, but only because my husband earns a regular salary which we could survive on. How do you think that makes me feel? And so, I will continue to fight for the right to be respected and valued. And to be treated just like any other working adult.

Do comment but please remember that this site is for all ages.

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