Why are we STILL questioning author pay?

Howdy folks.

Last week, I hit London Book Fair for an intense couple of days of meetings, seminars, over-priced lunches and plenty of fun. As we entered the afternoon of the fair’s final day, attendees were treated to a half-day conference on Literary Festivals. But who knew that these sessions would soon descend into such fiery behaviour? This, ladies and gents, was the place to be for controversial talk. I wrote the following article for Book2Book but I’d love to hear what you think. Is there really any question about paying authors to appear at festivals? I invite you to be the jury…LBF_2015_logo

Whilst we celebrate the rise of literary festivals, the remuneration of their crowd-drawing stars, continues to spark heated debate as audiences at London Book Fair’s Festival Forum discovered last week.

Though panelists in ‘The Do’s and Don’ts of Successful Organisation’ (chaired by Cortina Butler) seemed united in their beliefs that all authors should receive payment for their appearances, as questions were invited, or indeed spontaneously shouted out from the audience, it became clear that this decision was not so straightforward.

With a turnover of approximately £2.3million a year, Edinburgh Book Festival, directed by Nick Barley, forms one of the largest and most popular events in the literary calendar, celebrating 17 days with upwards of 800 authors from over 55 countries and approximately 220,000 visitors. Employing a much-admired egalitarian payment system, each author, regardless of ‘status’, receives £200, with moderators offered £75. What’s more, all staff working on the festival are given a wage for their effort rather than the volunteer system generally used by festivals across all industries.

Chalke Valley History Festival has adopted a similar charity status using their £700,000 turnover to first cover author fees, followed by land rent, tents (!) and so on. What was evident from the experiences of these two festival directors was that, as Fiona McMorrough summarised, authors were at the heart of festival strategy: they provide the content through their work and the attraction in their physical presence; they are the drive behind and the draw of a festival. In short, if you don’t have the budget to be paying your authors, you don’t have a festival.

These statements were upheld in the following session, ‘The Wider Festival Scene’, by Latitude Arts Curator Tania Harrison who, as the programmer for Reading & Leeds Music Festivals, made the valid comparison that you could not get acts for free at a music festival and indeed their appearance fees far exceed the expected costs for authors (£150 according to the Society of Authors), so why should we question the payment of ‘acts’ in the book industry? Similarly, Ben Preston of the newly-founded Radio Times Festival, said although there we no plans to make a fortune (or loss) from their premiere event, author fees were always going to be covered.

The dissenting voice, who soon became almost vilified by panelists and audience members alike, came from Annie Ashworth of Stratford Literary Festival. Though in agreement with the principles discussed by her peers, it was frustrating for her that authors and their publishers were demanding fees that far exceeded her budget when she was offering them a platform to publicise their books to a buying audience. P&L sheets could not be balanced, in her experience, if she were to bow to these fees. Borders Book Festival organisers have equally found it difficult in sorting the budget as bigger names required greater fees in order to appear.

Without the heavyweight reputation of festivals such as Edinburgh, attracting key authors was both difficult and costly, with little advice offered on a solution.

Within the small confines of the room, a heated debate ensued as authors, festival directors and council members jumped to voice their views. As the issue spilled over into the session chaired by Philip Jones, Jorge Volpi of the Cervantino Festival Mexico, threw another issue into the fire as he revealed that the state covered the large part of the Mexican festival costs, a stark contrast to the limited funding offered by the British Council. The venue became a microcosm of the festival scene – crowded with conflicting views on what really should be a clear-cut issue. As Bloody Scotland Festival Manager, Dom Hastings, replied in my tweet throwing the debate out to the twittersphere: ‘authors need to be paid for their time. We shouldn’t even need to discuss it, it’s basic.’ Following my response that festivals form a platform but do not negate the value of author time, he continued, ‘publicity is great but the research shows that it’s becoming an increasingly important part of authors income… I get paid to organise the festival, there is no reason not to pay the authors.’

One issue left to be addressed was the involvement of publishers. It remained unclear whether festivals, in addition to author fees for their appearance, should also cover travel expenses and accommodation, or whether this was a publisher cost. James Heneage of Chalke Valley certainly believed that this is very important for festivals to cover these expenses as the treatment of authors throughout festivals can have a significant impact on future appearances; a view supported by an author in the audience who shared that many authors she knows refuse to attend certain festivals due to poor management. It seems that publishers, whose sole financial benefit from their author’s appearing at festivals comes from the cut of their book sales, are often expected to foot the bill for these extra expenses. Indeed, there are several instances of festivals that are fairly well attended and charge for the privilege where publishers are not only expected to cover travel and hotel costs, but also pay for their authors to appear with minimal return: a strategy that is increasingly being questioned in publishing circles.

As the afternoon came to a close, there was an overwhelming sense of things left unsaid. Despite the success of the festival panelists, smaller or emerging festival directors were left with little direction in growing their events whilst under increasing pressure from their peers and authors to make sure budgets covered author fees before they pursued their projects further. Similarly, the cost for publishers was a topic left, in the large part, untouched. But the resounding message that rang clear was that the people who are at the heart of the book industry deserve to be paid for their events and festival appearances. It is well-known that authors struggle to survive on the profits of their writing alone and that their efforts to engage with readers and draw new crowds to literary festivals should not be taken for granted. Viv Groskop used only one tweet to both sum up and seal the heated events of the fair’s afternoon: ‘What “debate” is there to be had about paying authors to perform at events/festivals? No debate. Just pay. No pay, no author. #LBF15′

– Franny

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