Tuesday, 5 October 2010

My take on talks

Two of the best bloggers for writers, Jane Smith of How Publishing Really Works and Nicola Morgan of Help! I Need a Publisher have recently weighed in on the subject of payment for talks, particularly at festivals. I thought I'd add my thoughts on the matter. Many overlap with Jane and Nicola, so bear with me if you've already read their remarks.

Jane makes the point that many festivals (some of them big ones) take the attitude 'we won't pay for authors, because they get publicity and sell books.' Nicola picks up on the money aspect and a whole host of other suggestions for festival organizers (including the request to be given a meal but not have to talk to people during it).

I also note one of the comments to Jane's post, where someone who 'organizes [academic] conferences for a living' doesn't see what the fuss is about as his speakers usually do it for free.

Let's get the money thing out of the way first. An academic speaking at a conference is totally different from an author giving a talk. Academics will be paid by their university to attend the conference. The university will probably cover expenses as well. But every time an author attends an event they are giving up earning time. If they aren't writing, they aren't earning. By default, a talk or a festival starts off as a negative impact on the personal finances. And it's not just the hour of the talk. There's preparation time and travel time - it's very rare that a festival appearance won't eat up a day or two's work time with no immediate reward.

Yes, attending such an event will result in some publicity - but typically only with a very small audience. And don't get me started on book sales. The author's cut on the sales of books at a typical festival is probably around the £5 mark.

As far as I'm concerned, giving a talk at a school or festival definitely should be a paid job. As one of our two bloggers suggests, why on earth should festival organizers expect marquee companies to want paying but not authors? It doesn't have to be a huge amount, but a payment is only polite, as is covering all reasonable expenses. I'm not saying I don't do events on an expenses-only basis occasionally. If it's something I particularly support, or I feel I will get a lot of useful publicity, that's a decision I will make - but no venue or event should assume an author will perform for free.

I have to say, I'm less fussy than Nicola on 'riders'. I'm quite happy to share a meal with festival organizers or audience members. I like what I write about and I like talking to people about it. However, I do think any talk organizer should offer the speaker a reasonable level of support. While most schools I speak at are absolutely brilliant, I have had these interesting experiences:
  • Left alone with 400 year 9s while all the teachers disappeared for at least half an hour
  • Thrown into a class without an introduction or a teacher staying
  • Been part of a festival session where the festival organizers arranged a practically inaccesible venue with no signage or any easy way for the audience to find it
  • Arrived at a school for an evening talk after a 2.5 hour drive to find the hosting teachers finishing a fish and chip supper. They offered me a biscuit
... and really that isn't on.

I don't want this to appear like yet another author's whinge. I love speaking at all kinds of events. It's one of my favourite parts of the job (I accept this isn't the case for all authors), but I think simple matters like payment, expenses and being properly looked after are no more than a reflection of the respect that's deserved in the circumstances. After all, desirable though it may seem to some, it's hard to run a literary festival without authors.


  1. I've just done a free talk (in exchange for book sales) at a local festival and it probably wasn't worth it financially, although it did help with the word of mouth and also give me a few leads for more events which may well be paid, so I'm reserving judgement. And the yurt I was talking in was also free - in exchange for good advertising for the yurt business, so maybe the festival organisers are getting a better deal than you think!

  2. Yes, well said. Money aside, even common courtesy would be nice. Love the poster, by the way....

  3. As I mentioned, Sally, I do sometimes do events without a fee, but it has to be for something special I'm interested in, or that will get me a lot of publicity - you have to judge every opportunity on its merits. But I do get upset if festival organizers don't realize that when you are self-employed, your time costs you money.

    Thanks, Sue, I think should use the poster from now on.