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…