Why Writers Should Be Paid For Appearances

The Arts


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.

Signing @ FP copy

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.

7 comments on “Why Writers Should Be Paid For Appearances”

  1. chris hughes says:

    Couldn’t agree more – anyone and everyone with expertise is worth their hire. They have, after all, spent a very long time learning a trade, be it writing, plumbing or growing potatoes. I had the privilege of seeing you at WhitLit discussing British horror films with Barry Forshaw and well worth the price of a ticket (out of which I hope you were well rewarded too). There is a darkly funny story in Hilary Mantel’s collection, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, which I think must be partly based on her own experiences about an author being invited to speak about her work – brilliantly funny.

  2. Helen Martin says:

    The very least that an author should expect is travel, accommodation, and at least some meals. That should be the very minimum. We have calligraphy conferences where specialists are teaching week long classes. International travel is terribly expensive but it’s not so bad if several locations can divide up the travel. Of course we often have billeting arrangements to cut down on accommodation and meal costs, but the teachers don’t mind if they are staying with an artist whom they have always wanted to meet. Not so possible in the case of writers.

  3. Wayne says:

    You have made a great point and in making have explained why it may not work. Many of the events you describe pay the organisers with kudos and that is it. Many see such events as opportunity to be convinced to buy something by an author they have not previously heard of. As an avid reader I would pay to hear a writer I admire and enjoy but only if something of value is being offered. If the purpose is purely to sell books then I do not want to nor will I pay for advertising. I think some writers will always draw a crowd while others will struggle. It can do no harm to try this approach at a few events and see what happens.

  4. Peter Dixon says:

    Its interesting how different industries (and the arts ARE a group of industries) deal with this situation. People like to see and hear experts and are usually willing to pay a ticket price but the approach to fees differs enormously.

    In sport, particularly golf, cricket or football, professionals, ex-pro’s and attendant ‘after dinner speakers’ can earn hundreds, sometimes thousands, of pounds per appearance at local sports clubs and associations. Members pay hefty fees or regular ‘subs’ to fund the whole shebang and clubs can rely on bums-on-seats support.

    At the other extreme I know musicians who are paid paltry fees for working in pubs or only a few pints for joining a busker’s night because a standard has been set that pub’s don’t charge on the door for live music. The result is that punters ignore the music and talk over it and usually don’t appreciate what is offered to them. This is music subsidised by the musician – a set of guitar strings is probably cost more than their fee.

    Literature, despite its enormous audience, doesn’t have anything like a local rugby or golf club with a committee, clubhouse and hundreds of members to support it, so it eventually has to rely on libraries, arts organisations and local council’s for funding. This is where it gets difficult; arts cuts mean that there are two attacks on creativity. Local council’s have dramatically less money to spend on ‘culture’ than they have ever had – libraries are underfunded, arts officers are paid to set up and organise events but have less money to spend than their own salaries and spend every year expecting redundancy.

    Secondly, we have huge arts related buildings which, although described as ‘civic gems’ cost a fortune to maintain, staff and run, paying large fees to international artists (of whatever genre) while leaving indigenous creator’s with crumbs.

    This is the Capital vs Culture society we have ended up with; cities can point out that they have a world class concert hall or an internationally acclaimed art gallery transformed from a building of architectural significance but at what cost? I’ve seen highly appreciated and successful community arts centres and theatre groups closed down for a lack of funds approximately equal to the salary of the director and cleaning staff of a big city arts monolith.

    If you want to spend an idle hour or two comparing priorities then try to find out how much your local council spends on a new mini-roundabout or yet another set of traffic lights and then compare with arts spend – you’ll be spitting nails for all of 2016.

    The fact is that most money goes to institutions, not individuals. Accountants more than artists, professors more than the poets they praise.

    Phew! Glad I got that off my chest before the New Year.

  5. Jay Mackie says:

    It’s ludicrous that authors shouldn’t be paid for appearances and signings! To my mind it comes under the umbrella of being a writer and an aspect of your job, and you work damn hard at your craft and valuing your fans and readers in this way. I think you should get paid for the wonderful work and maintenance you undertake daily so assiduously on your website and blogs too Chris! Been a fan of yours since 1989 and recommend that everyone read your works. Eagerly awaiting your new story collection Frightening now-Happy New Year! X

  6. Helen Martin says:

    Mind you, the signings are different because purchasing the books are involved so it is seen as the author’s share of the promotion process.

  7. admin says:

    My favourite event remains St Jordi Day (see columns passim) – ars gratia artis!

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