Why Writers Should Be Paid For Appearances
This is a Punch cartoon in the late 19th century that sums up the writer’s job. Sitting and thinking, or just sitting, is good news for writers. While office workers have to rush-hour ride LT’s mobile TB clinics to work in hangars lit like garages, we can drift to our studies with a plate of biscuits in our dressing gowns to think and write. Score one to the creatives.
But wait; our pay is stuck at a national average of £7,000 a year, and most of the job is waiting. You send something out, wait for six months, and then it’s turned down, so by the time a book has done the rounds two years have passed.
That’s part of the job, but there’s one thing that has become included in our collective skill set and should be changed; most British literary festivals don’t pay writers for appearances. There are now a huge number of festivals, and only a tiny handful pay their writers. The publisher picks up the travel costs.
An arts festival brings kudos and cash to a town, and some festivals pride themselves on the sheer number of writers they can announce, even binding them to contracts. Knowing that writers are keen for publicity, they exploit them outrageously. You can be sent to the other end of the country to sit on a one-hour panel split six ways (ie. featuring five writers and an invigilator), and this sliver of exposure (roughly 10 minutes each) takes a lot of preparation, plus a day off work, or two if it involves an overnight stay. Sometimes there are only ten people in the audience. I went to one where there was no audience at all thanks to bad organisation.
And as for signing books – if any make it to the event – you may sell one or two copies. So the organisers can show off the fact that they have dozens of authors in attendance, and the publishers have to take their word that readers will turn up to buy tickets. By comparison, if I host an online event I can get thousands of readers involved without leaving my chair.
There are some great arts and literary events, big and small – Harrogate, WhitLit (the Whitstable literary festival), Charleston, Oxford and Sutton Library are all superbly run and get very good attendance. But there are others that writers need to think twice about attending.
Luckily, there’s a simple solution.
Pay all authors who appear before audiences a flat fee – ie, do not pay star fees for star authors but a offer a standard one-off payment – the result would be that festivals would concentrate on quality not quantity, booking fewer writers (and ones who can speak in public, not mumble their way through a chapter), and they could use these hired writers better. Be more imaginative – instead of sticking six of us in a panel called ‘The Future of Fiction’ do something more interactive and original, and give us more to do. Many of us can easily sustain an hour. Talking for 10 minutes just to get a name in a festival brochure isn’t enough; it cheats the audience, the writers and publishers. Give us a couple of subjects each. Jumble up the categories. Show some showbiz flair.
Every year Paul Burston and Suzi Feay organise a strand of London’s South Bank Literary Festival that mixes slam poets, performance, readings and comedy, to great effect. Too many literary events lack imagination and result in stuffy, dry, under-attended events.
In the last year some of the best events I’ve attended have been the smallest, run on tight budgets by smart organisers, and a couple of the worst have been the ‘Too Big To Care’-type events. We love interacting with readers -what we need are organisers who stop thinking about their own status and remember that their readers want to be entertained.