This week, I’ve had
NINE TEN invitations to speak at schools or conferences, either to staff, parents or teenagers. Most invitations come with the understanding from the host that I do this for a living and that I’m not a charity. This is my work, just as your work is yours. Most organisers are completely fine and respectful when I say what my fee is, even though it may be more than they wish it were! Sometimes, of course, they don’t have the budget to manage the fee. I understand that.
But here’s the thing: although it’s a problem, it can’t be mine. I need to explain this and I want to do it in a blogpost because otherwise I spend all day trying to work out how to explain politely in an email to each one.
A short answer could be: “If you would not ask a salaried person to lose their income for a couple of days, why is it OK to ask me to? Because there is really no difference.” But this is a tad abrupt, so let me explain better.
First, though, some exceptions:
- The School Library Association. I will usually try to do reduced-fee events for them! Even then, I increasingly just can’t.
- A local public library. Occasionally, and if asked in the right way… For example, Oakham library, a few miles from me, asked me to do an event for them about Reading Well. They asked what my fee would be. I offered to do it free.
- Occasionally, as with 2, an organisation gets under my skin, randomly. But it hugely depends what it is and how easy the event will be for me to get to. It would need to be specifically related to my work, not a “random” charity.
- Festivals. They have set fees and should offer everyone the same, so, if I accept a festival event I accept the fee offered. But I can only do very, very few of these, and the conditions would have to be right. I turned two down this year, not on the basis of fee but on the basis of what they were asking me to do.
I’m not cold-hearted. I’m not greedy. I give a lot of my time to help people in both their work and private lives.
So, here is my answer.
I appreciate your budgetary constraints. But I am not on a salary and you (usually) are. This means that for much of the working week, I am not being paid. At all. Including while we have the email conversation in which I explain why my fee is what it is. But I am paying for my working overheads while this is going on. For a freelance of any sort, it would simply not be possible to have paid work every day because then there would be no time for the substantial unpaid tasks which must be done. That is one of the main reasons why freelance rates are higher than employed rates – the money does not all end up in the freelancer’s pocket. I’ve blogged about this and how I set fees before.
Let’s look at it in one simple way. My working time is divided into three (unequal) parts.
- Writing days – for which I’m paid pitiably badly if I make the mistake of thinking how long a book takes to write and then working out an hourly rate based on my average income from a book. (Average annual writing income for writers: £11k. Often we are paid a very few pence for each sale.) Effectively, we’re not usually paid to write a book but we are paid if copies sell – which may start two years after we were doing the writing. I often write things that don’t end up being published, too, for which I obviously am not paid.
- Speaking days – for which I’m usually paid relatively well. My usual fees are fair recompense for the energy and expertise.
- Admin, business and preparation days – for which I’m not paid at all. Except see the next point.
The only way to make my career work and allow me to survive financially is to minimise the downside of 3. In other words, when I set a fee, I must try to embed into it the actual amount of time this event will take from my working week. So, if I have a ballpark figure that a day is worth, say, £350*, and if your event is going to take me three days, I have to charge you around £1000, plus expenses. Many events will take that long, because I may be away for two days and need at least another day for prep and admin.
And that’s not even beginning to think about office overheads, all the insurance, electricity, accountancy, stationery, computers etc etc.
(*Andrew Bibby’s reckoner to compare freelance with employed rates shows £346 a day as equivalent to a salary of £32,000. Forgive me if this sounds like a boast but I think my expertise and where I am in my profession put me at a much higher salary than that…)
Let me list reasons why I don’t reduce my fees:
- I’m extremely good at what I do. I’ve been doing this a long time; I’ve learnt and improved hugely over the years and I’ve got to the point where I’m 100% confident that you will get brilliant value. Much better value than years ago when I was charging less. Thousands of hours of work have gone into the knowledge that I can now offer. I also spend a lot of time keeping abreast of new knowledge about the brain and cognition, so that I can deliver top-grade information. I consistently get excellent feedback.
- I offer something no one else is offering – a wide range of topics of enormous interest to schools and other organisations, topics including the teenage brain and stress, adolescent mental health, cognitive science, the reading brain and digital distraction issues.
- Although I charge decent fees, I am not earning these fees every day or even every week. So, don’t think that, if I charge you £1000 for delivering your INSET day, I’m earning £1000 a day! Remember: that day takes three days, usually.
- If I reduce my fee for you, I don’t think it’s fair on those organisations who find the fee by doing sensible things such as charging delegates to attend. (I’m talking about conferences/INSET here, rather than normal school events.)
- If you’re being paid, other adults in the room are being paid, and you’re not taking a pay cut that day, I don’t see why I should reduce my income. That demeans me and undervalues me.
- Supply and demand: I cannot do this work every day or even every week, partly because otherwise I’d never be able to write and partly because it would simply wreck me. (It is not like teaching, which I’ve also done. It’s perhaps like being on stage, solo, for hours; or it may be something like having your first day in a new job, every day.) Therefore, I limit the number of events I do; therefore I charge more.
- I am not, at the end of all this, a high earner. As evidence: I’m not VAT-registered. So, when I say I can’t afford to reduce my fees, I’m being honest.
- I don’t need, as a few people seem to think, a higher profile… Earlier this year a large private school wanted me to do something for NO FEE, on the basis that it would “help you get your name out there”. This was an insult and meant that the person had failed to read up about me and discover that, actually, I am an international speaker and have far more invitations than I can say yes to. Again, sorry if that sounds like a boast; I’m simply trying to show you how it is and why suggesting that the event will boost my profile is not the way to get me to reduce my fee! (Occasionally, it really would boost my profile, in which case I would know that myself without you telling me. For example, if you invite me to a huge conference in New York, I might well agree to reduce my fee.)
I’m really genuinely sorry if you’d love me to speak but you can’t afford the fee. I’m particularly understanding if you’re a school and you want me to speak to pupils, because I realise the budget for this will be less than if it’s an INSET day or conference or if you can charge parents a small amount to come to an evening event. But if you are a school planning to organise a conference, for example, and you have a low budget because you’ve decided not to charge delegates, I would ask: why not? Why should the other schools all get away with sending their staff at no cost and yet the professional speakers, without whom there would be no event, need to be underpaid? Of course, some professional speakers will say yes, for many reasons. They may be salaried, for a start. Or not feel able to say no. Or need the profile… I am genuinely sorry that I can’t.
You see, I really value my work, my energy and my time. I also value the organisations who make such an effort to afford fair fees and who work really hard to make the event a success. I want to devote a ton of energy to those organisations which fight to find the fee and which make me feel valued. That way, it becomes a virtuous circle, as I feel empowered and trusted to deliver a great event. And that’s what you’re more likely to get.
So, if you ask me to reduce my fee, please be really sensitive about how you make that request. Don’t forget that I need to earn something vaguely like a living wage. Consider that I’ve spent my career building up the knowledge I have and practising my speaking technique. Realise that no one works harder than I do to make sure that you get exactly what you ask for and that my attention to the brief you give me is absolutely second to none.
I’m worth it. Really.
PS Edited to add: a school I spoke at this week has just been in touch to say they are not going to pay the amount on my invoice: they are going to pay more! And no, they hadn’t previously asked me to reduce my fee or anything like that. There is no particular reason given but I am extremely grateful and delighted. Thank you! This is what I mean by saying that most organisers really do have respect for us authors, creatives and speakers. It’s worth remembering. The ones who don’t have respect and understanding are increasingly the exceptions.