Literary festivals and author events: what should writers be paid?

Early in 2011 I was invited to be a speaker at an event in Brighton, which brought together individuals from the creative industries, to discuss networking and support in our community.  Attendees included writers, musicians, artists, acrobats – and a whole host of associated creative workers.

One of the questions that came up again and again was this: “Why are creative individuals so often expected to give their time and efforts for free?”  It’s a good question.  You’d never invite a technical expert to speak at a ticket-paying seminar and not expect to pay them.  Then why are writers and artists regularly invited to appear at ticket-paying festivals and talks with no offer of remuneration at all?

In my first year as a published author, I consciously made the decision to accept every literary event offered to me.  I’m glad I did, as I’m now much clearer on what’s worth doing and what’s not.  Today, I’m comfortable turning down an unpaid gig if I can’t see evidence that the event will be a) well attended, b) lead to book sales, or c) offer something of value within my local community.

The Society of Authors recently issued a report on ‘Authors’ Appearances’, to provide members with some basic guidelines to refer to in terms of what to charge and when.

The SoA report gave some examples of authors regretting giving their time for free.  One member is quoted: “I do get cross when you take in, say, 500 people paying £8 each, and are paid not a penny out of the £3,500+.  No rock group or comedian would dream of accepting such a deal.”  Another said: “Bearing in mind that some festivals are now big business, they should pay speakers commensurate fees.  £250-500 should be the norm.”

However, the report also talked about reasons its members gave for being willing to accept a low/no fee.  They included: Feeling confident of being treated well and having fun; supporting a charity or under-funded cause; seeing clear opportunities for raising their profile; having the chance to network with others; supporting a local event which is nearby and incurs no expenses.

Having now experienced a wide range of different author events, I’ve worked out a loose rule of thumb for my own appearances:

Local events: If it’s an organisation with low-funding, and I feel my presence will add something I am happy to give my time for free.  But only if there is also a clear opportunity to sell books and gain exposure through press/radio etc.

Festivals & Conferences: I expect to be paid – but of course that’s not always the reality.  Early on in my career I was a speaker at a small festival for which my publishers were told there was no budget for fees.  It was a lovely event, reasonably well attended and I sold a good number of books.  The 50 or so attendees each paid £6 of which I received no fee at all.  On the one hand, this might be acceptable – I was a relatively new writer, and it helped me to gain exposure.  On the other hand, the bigger name writers were all paid large fees, and of course my non-payment effectively helped to subsidise those.  Now I’m a little more seasoned, I do expect some kind of payment for my time and efforts, whether it be an actual fee, being put up in a nice hotel or free tickets for the weekend’s events.

The Society of Authors recommends £350 for a full day and £250 for a half-day engagement at a literary festival, plus expenses.

Schools & Universities: If I’m invited to run a teaching workshop, give a talk etc I will always charge a fee.  Contrary to common belief, schools often do have budgets for this kind of event, and it’s only right that they pay you, just as they would if you were a visiting TV or sports’ personality.  If it’s clear they can’t afford it, I sometimes offer other options eg “OK, if you buy 20 copies of my book for your library or to sell on, I’ll come in to talk for an hour.”  In order to get your book out there, you have to be creative!  I’ll also give up my time to judge a poetry competition or meet with a small group of local high school kids at their book club – it’s my community, and I’m glad to help encourage literacy and creativity where I can.

The Society of Authors recommends £350 for a full day and £250 for a half-day engagement at a school, plus expenses, or £150 for a single session not exceeding one hour.

TV & Radio: Unless you’re a mega-star, TV and radio just never pays a fee, so be grateful if they invite you to appear, and make the most of the free publicity!

Libraries: The SoA report states that some libraries will pay for author appearances.  I have to say, I’ve never received a payment and in the current climate of library closures and cutbacks, I wouldn’t dream of requesting a fee.  Just view it as a chance to engage with your readers whilst supporting your local community.

The debate over payments for authors’ appearances will, I’ve no doubt, roll on.  My advice to anyone starting out would be this: Initially, do everything that you’re comfortable with in terms of promoting yourself and your book.  Use it as a time to make friends and contacts in the literary world, and enjoy it.  Then, take time to reflect on what has worked and what has not before deciding on a plan for the future promotion of your efforts.  Finally, join the Society of Authors, as their quarterly magazine, advice and support is worth every penny of the £90 annual fee.

Many thanks to the Society of Authors for their characteristically clear information and advice on ‘Authors’ Appearances’ sent with a 2011 issue of The Author magazine.

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