Talking Point: Book Festivals and Payment

First Published: The Bookseller 8th March 2016

rbz-texas-book-festival-06I called an electrician the other day – there is a light switch in my sitting room that hasn’t worked for a month. She came highly recommended, but I can’t afford her standard fee, so I offered to pay fifty quid and, because no one can put a price on exposure, I promised to tweet her name to my 7,000 followers.

I don’t understand why, but she turned me down.

Of course, this is a lie. No one in their right mind – even me – would dream of asking someone to work on those terms – even for ‘exposure’ (let’s face it, exposure usually brings death not glory).

And yet, literary festivals have no shame when they invite authors to appear unpaid. In fact, should the author accept an invitation, they are likely to be assailed by a list of demands that make Kanye West’s backstage riders look reasonable.

Last week, Chocolat author Joanne Harris said enough is enough after an unnamed literary festival sent a list of demands of astonishing temerity. Among them was a six-week exclusivity rider that would keep her from appearing at rival local events in July, as well as telling her to supply free books and allow unrestricted filming. “All this for the princely sum of fifty quid,” Harris tweeted, adding: “No thanks.”

My guess is that the festival will be in shock at this rebuff. When I wrote for the New Statesman recently about authors’ protesting low/no pay events, the organiser of one called me angrily saying festivals were being given a bad name.

She added that it was “impossible to pay everyone” when some star turns demand as much as £3,000 for a personal appearance – I won’t name names as I haven’t seen his contract, but one well known poet asks for £1,200 and to be put up anywhere but a Premier Inn (though that sounds pretty reasonable to me).

The festival organiser complained it couldn’t have a star turn if it paid every author. Out of the mouths of babes…. Her comment said everything about the attitudes of no/low pay literary festivals and their regard for non-star turns as little more than platform fodder to fill up their programmes and give the event some heft.

Harsh? Well, not really when you think why audiences pay ten quid each to sit in draughty tents to listen to writers talk about books. To paraphrase an ex-president whose alleged fee for one festival was eye watering, it’s the author stupid.

No one goes to a festival to look at the lighting or for the comfy chairs or even to check the sound quality – though all the providers of those services will be paid. No, they go because there is an author they love speaking or a panel discussing with authority a topic of interest to them.

Simply put: without the authors there would be no event. To refuse to pay authors for their PR value makes non-paying festivals little more than the Oxfam Bookshops of the tour circuit. the stock is there, but none of the profits go to writers.

I was recently asked to be involved in setting up a festival near where I live. I mentioned payment for authors. The reply I received said much: there would be no money as it would be a start up and the organiser would be working unpaid.

Excuse me? The person behind the proposed festival is a local hotel and restaurant owner. They may not take a fee, but guess where they hope visitors will stay and eat?

These events benefit local businesses and communities. They improve the image of a place and, for the teams of volunteers, provide a chance to meet and mingle with literary heroes and heroines. That amounts to a significant emotional capital, as well as marketing and promotion for the area.

Unless an author is part of that community, the marketing and emotional benefits to them are questionable at least. And, with riders like that presented to Joanne Harris, many authors will be worse off because a tour of local bookshops will be scuppered.

So to the festival organiser who complained about a £3,000 fee for a star writer, I suggested reassessing her priorities and to ask, is he worth it? And, regardless of whether he is, without the other authors on her programme, there won’t be much to see.


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