The issue of whether authors should charge for appearances and events has raised its head again. I read this today. It’s a good article. It seems to have stemmed from a recent discussion on twitter, but it’s a discussion that keeps coming back. Here, for example.
I think there are good theoretical arguments in favour of an author charging for his or her time in this way. If you’re a professional writer, you make your money from writing. If an event is not going to sell many books for you, and you’re not being paid, then it isn’t a financially productive use of your time. Connected to this is the notion that you’re being invited to contribute to an event effectively as an expert, and experts should be paid. Plumbers, for example, do not fix your toilet in exchange for spurious promises of the exposure being good for their career. To appear for free, it could be argued, devalues what you do. And in many cases, other people connected to the event – the organisers, etc – will be receiving a fee, so why shouldn’t you?
These are all – I think – good arguments. I’d add another vague point too, which is that I imagine many writers feel quite precarious in what they do. There is nothing like walking into a bookshop and seeing your single title lost among two hundred thousand other books to make you realise quite how special and important you are not. It took a long time before I was comfortable even calling myself a writer. Appearing for free feels like it ties into that apologetic mindset: the idea that, frankly, you should be grateful to have been invited at all.
Having said that, I don’t usually charge for events and things. Here are some of the reasons why – which are largely personal to me, but (I suspect) not only me.
I often do events I would be attending regardless. At things like CrimeFest and Harrogate Festival, if I wasn’t on a panel I would be paying to attend, and it’s no massive skin off my nose to sit on a panel for an hour or so while I’m there. For the most part, I expect to be paid for my writing; the writing things bit is my work. Rightly or wrongly, even though it involves advance preparation, I don’t see sitting on or moderating a panel as work exactly. I actually quite enjoy it. And I think that makes a big difference. Of course, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be paid for something you enjoy doing, but if you’re not paid then it certainly helps. There are lots of things I enjoy doing and that I choose to do, which, for various reasons, I am not paid for.
The first of two related points: could I be paid for it?
Well, that very much depends on the event, and it’s difficult, without being privy to specific accounts, to answer that question. Let’s imagine a weekend festival in a UK hotel that has 100 authors attending, and an additional 300 readers. If you’re going to pay the authors a fee, it seems obvious you would also pay their expenses first: travel and accommodation. (Otherwise the fee would effectively be a voucher towards those things). For someone based in the UK, on two panels, a conservative estimate for travel and accommodation would be £300. (That’s £100 for travel and £100 per panel-night’s accommodation in the festival hotel). Some will be less, but if you’re getting big names then some writers are going to be coming from outside the UK, which will likely cost considerably more.
So on average it would be 30k without paying any of them a fee. Which means your punters need to pay £100 each already, just for you to break even. There’s then the cost of hiring the hotel for the weekend. That’s thousands of pounds. There’s advertising, etc. Various other fees. The cost to the punter goes up and up.
And now the fee.
[An aside. How much? It’s an interesting question, because the arguments for paying the writer make it seem like writers are professional people who have easily calculable rates, but in reality the fee is likely to be fairly arbitrary and individual: based on the perceived draw of the writer, but not necessarily with any objectively measurable regard to past performance. It is clear, for example, that certain writers can command higher fees than I can, simply because they will draw more people. It is not clear, however, how or even if those numbers can be calculated in any objective way. We just don’t have standard rates. In a changing environment, where event-income relies on an unpredictable box office, I’m not even sure how we could. Also: plumbers can compete on price. How do writers? And based on what? The comparison to other professions is actually a very tenuous one indeed.]
Let’s say £100 on average. That’s at least another ten grand. Your punters are up another £34. This is just to attend, and for the organisers to break even.
And so on. Perhaps this is reasonable in many ways, but while theory is all well and good, is there a market there to support this? Is the demand there? Factor in travel and accommodation for your attendees, and the whole thing becomes very expensive for them. A holiday, basically. It’s no good the event treating authors as the professionals they want to be seen as if it isn’t financially viable for the audience and nobody fucking turns up. What numbers and costs and fees and prices are reasonable and sustainable?
Bottom line: I like playing my small part in a culture that has these events. I would hate for these events not to be around.
The second of the two related points: would I be paid for it?
Depends, but possibly not. If you’re a better-selling writer, then fair enough. But if you’re a low-mid-list writer like me, there are simply more authors than panel and event spaces. If they’re not offering payment, and I demand it, chances are they’re going to say no and ask the other guy instead. I don’t get paid that way either.
What is the point in events? My vague impression is that – at least for me – events aren’t even close to being cost-productive in terms of selling books. Why are these events worth my time, then, if I’m not being paid?
Three things here. The first comes back to point 1) above. If someone said to me “Steve, you’re going to be flogged senseless with a knotted rope in the name of promotion; you’re not going to be selling any books by doing this; would you like to be paid?” I would probably say “Yes,” followed swiftly by “Hang on, what?” Whereas if it’s stuff I enjoy doing anyway, then it’s slightly less of a problem.
Two: that other point above, about liking book festivals and events and being proud they’re part of our culture, etc. It’s good to be part of that.
Finally: not all value comes with a price tag. Ten years ago, the concept of moderating a panel in front of a hundred people would have been a fair distance up my fear pyramid. But I can do that now. I can stand up and ad-lib about my writing for an hour if it comes to it. On a personal level – I’m a quiet person – I find that difference quietly rewarding.
But professionally, I think festivals and events have been enormously beneficial to me, just not in obvious, tangible ways like book sales or fees. I’ve made friends and contacts. I’ve networked, however accidentally. I’ve had fun. I’ve discovered things. And my name has got out there – at least to a greater extent than it would have done if I’d stayed at home. The effect is difficult to measure, but if you appear in front of fifty people and none of them buy your book that day, that doesn’t necessarily mean the whole thing was professionally worthless. A lot of networking is just turning up for long enough that people eventually stop ignoring you.
None of this is clear-cut, of course – each to their own. As I said, it’s just my personal approach to things, and I do tend to judge things on a case-by-case basis.
Hey! I have some events to announce. I’ll be doing so … shortly.