I’ve been intrigued to read the furore in The Times that Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat, has pulled out of a book festival because organisers are only paying her a £50 fee. Even more so, that other luminaries such as Philip Pullman are springing to her defence and calling for a boycott of literary festivals that don’t pay fees. Of rather more concern to me would have been the fact that festival organisers were trying to tie her into a six-week exclusivity clause – though this is mentioned as something of an aside.
As someone who has organised literary festivals and conferences for over 20 years (for organisations ranging from The Arts Council of England to the Oxford Literary Consultancy), as well as being an author-speaker in my own right, I like to think that I can see both sides of the debate.
I know the superhuman effort that goes into organising an event: working 60-hour weeks and having sleepless nights in order to ensure a full house. I also know what it’s like to spend half a day traveling to an event, then be expected to give your all on stage without so much as a loo break or a cup of tea.
First, before we look at the specifics of how much an author should be paid and what can reasonably be expected of you when you speak, let’s look at the benefits of speaking at an event and why you might want to do it in the first place:
1. Bums on seats
People mistakenly assume that once an event has been organised, the tickets will automatically sell themselves. This is far from being the case, even if you have an extraordinary line-up of big-name speakers. It can take months of hustle to sell-out an event and ensure a full house. This means calling in favours and mailing to other people’s newsletters. It means shamelessly asking friends, family, work colleagues, and everyone else you know, to buy tickets. It means promoting the event in newspapers and magazines. It can mean setting up an affiliate scheme so that commission is paid to anyone who sells your tickets. To sum up, it is a big hassle and a big headache – regardless of whether it’s a big event for 1000+ or a small event for 50 people.
It’s a joy to arrive at an event and see that there’s standing room only. What you don’t see is all the hard work and hassle that brought those people in.
2. Events cost big bucks.
A venue for around 500 people in central London can cost around £5,000 to £10,000 per day. That’s before you even pay for the “extras”: the sound system, the white screen, the microphones, the stage, the curtains, the lighting, the roller banners, the flipchart and pens, even the jugs of water at the back of the room. That’s before you get fancy and start offering attendees cups of coffee or a buffet lunch. Everything in a venue costs money. You’re usually expected to book upfront based on numbers that you can’t be certain of.
Then, there’s the liability insurance and cost of the marketing; the online and offline advertising. All told, the standard costs for hosting a 2-day event for 500 people in London are around £40,000. And the organiser gets to take all the financial risk. Do you really want this level of financial risk? Are you willing to survive on 4 hours sleep per night for weeks on end? Or would you rather keep your sanity and save your energies for writing and promoting your next book?
3. You’ll need back-up
Every event needs a crew. If there are more than 30 people in the room, you’ll need stewards to check tickets and direct people to their seats. You’ll need runners to fetch and carry microphones and flipcharts for the speakers. You’ll need technicians to put up the staging and lightning, and stick gaffer tape over the wires so that no-one trips. You’ll need security staff in case there’s any “trouble”. Even if you use volunteers, they’ll need refreshments: a breakfast, a lunch or a tea and sometimes all three. And when people don’t show up due to illness, broken-down cars or injured cats, you’ll have the worry of how to make do with a team that’s several people short.
4. Blowing your own trumpet
Most authors are clueless when it comes to marketing or are wary of sounding like a used car salesman. But as a speaker, someone else blows your own trumpet for you. You roll up to a venue amidst fanfare, speak for 90 minutes, then bask in the applause. You sign a few books, have your photo taken with attendees, then you disappear home to a glass of wine. You needn’t think about the emergency exit that’s been broken or the laptop that’s gone missing while you were on stage.
5. Stress levels
You don’t have to worry about clearing up dirty teacups and notepads. You don’t have to deal with Mrs Brown who left her favourite scarf under a seat on the back row or her companion who dropped her mobile phone into the toilet in the break. You don’t have to worry about the man who punched his neighbour for sitting in his seat or the footlight that set fire to the stage curtain setting off fire alarms. You don’t have to calm down tipsy speakers who show up several hours late without their Powerpoint slides; or who swear on stage offending a large percentage of your Muslim audience. Nor do you have to deal with the whinges about the heating being too hot or too cold, or attendees asking why you’re not offering a free organic vegan lunch. (Yes, all these things really have happened). If you have a sideline as a stand-up comic, you will gain lots of absurd, and often dark, new material. But if you choose to speak at an event, rather than hosting one yourself, you are saving yourself from ridiculous levels of stress.
To sum up: assuming that the festival organisers have done their job properly, you’ll be getting massive exposure for little expense or aggro. You get to swan in after all the work has been done, grab the glory, and disappear.
I know dozens of incredibly successful authors all over the world who speak for free. Many of them regularly fly in to London from places like America, Canada or Australia, paying the cost of a long-haul flight and overnight accommodation out of their own pocket.
Why do they do it? Because standing on someone else’s stage is a privilege. Because even if they’re offered a £10,000 fee, it’s a drop in the ocean compared with the amount of money that flows in in other ways after an event. Some speakers choose to sell their products (books, DVDs or seminars) at the back of the room and make over six-figures in 60 minutes. Others “skim” the room – they simply offer a free gift or invite the participants to sign up to their newsletter or blog. They then contact them at a later date to politely ask if they’re interested in their products or services. Where author-speakers fail to make money from a festival, it’s usually because they don’t have an enticing enough “offer”. They give their talk, but they don’t give their audience a big enough incentive to take action.
So yes, it’s great if you’re paid as a speaker. But to insist on a fee at all times, and to boycott literary festivals and events that don’t pay, in my opinion is short-sighted. When considering an invitation to speak, the main question you should be asking yourself should not be: how much am I being paid? Instead, assess where the event is being held, the type of people in the audience, the number of attendees, and the track record of the organisers. The chief question you should be asking yourself is: how much would it cost me – timewise and financially – to get this same level of exposure?
Ask for a fee, yes. But don’t make it your be-all and end-all.
This weekend I’m driving over a hundred miles – a trip of 5 hours there and back – to speak at a literary festival in Cambridgeshire. I’ve done this for three years in a row, and I’ll be happy to continue for another three. Why? Because I have multiple clients from the previous festivals I spoke at. Because I know what it takes to host an event of that size and calibre. And because it’s an honour to be asked.