Should authors be paid for festivals?

Philip Pullman at the Oxford Literature Festival. Photograph by Adrian Hon

Lots of debate this week as to whether authors should be paid for their appearances at literary festivals.

It’s come about because acclaimed author Philip Pullman took the principled decision to step down from his role as Patron of the Oxford Literature Festival over its failure to pay authors for appearances. Here’s the full story on that in the Bookseller

My view, for what it’s worth, is a big cheer for Pullman and a big pantomime boo for the Oxford festival. I can’t make the basic point better than Pullman did himself. The Oxford festival isn’t some new event, it’s well established. And it pays everybody else involved in the thing. It pays for the marquees it uses, the electricity, the catering, the drinks receptions. It pays salaries to administrators, and publicists and to the people who design and print the programmes.

Why, in the name of all that is holy, should the authors, the people who the ticket buyers are paying to see, be the only people in the whole damn thing who don’t get properly remunerated for the work they do?

This has gone on for years of course, not just at Oxford but in lots of places, and that I suppose, is why this incredible situation seems acceptable to the people who perpetrate it. It is custom and practice – authors often work for nothing when they provide information and entertainment at festivals to people who then pay the organisers of the festival for the privilege of seeing them.

Things have come to a head because the rest of the business model for authors is under a lot of pressure. People expect to pay less for books these days and there are a lot more books to choose from – I’ll write more about that in a separate post. But what it means is that, to earn anything like a fair income for what they do, writers have to look at exploiting other opportunities and this includes getting paid fairly for public appearances.

I was discussing this on social media this week and someone offered the opinion that, if punters were paying to get into a festival event then the writer should be paid an appearance fee, but if it was free they should not be.

But I would point out that costs of many free events are covered by corporate sponsorship and the festival brings in money that way rather than through ticket sales. So the author should still be paid.

I would go further. I would say the author should still be paid at a free event with no sponsorship. Because the event is part of the festival and the festival as a whole makes money. It’s one of the attractions on the bill and should be treated as such.

Let’s not forget, none of these festivals would exist at all without the authors.
Now, I confess, I have sometimes appeared free at festivals before now, ‘for the exposure’ as the organisers like to pitch it, in the hope of selling a few books. And I say it is up to the individual author if they want to do this. But I don’t honestly think they should be put in the position of having to. Nor should they be asked to ‘donate’ their fee back to the festival to cover its costs.

Paying the authors should be the first item on the expenses bill for any festival or other literary event. If you can’t do that then you shouldn’t be running the festival at all.


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9 thoughts on “Should authors be paid for festivals?”

    1. Yes, that’s an analogy I use too. These days bands make most of their income from live performances. Granted an author talk isn’t like watching the headliner at Glastonbury but it’s still an event people are paying to see.

    2. I’m not sure that’s an appropriate analogy. A closer one might be a musician giving an interview backstage, or an actor signing autographs at the stage door. (I.e., a bit of low-cost PR work.)

      1. What you are describing sounds more like a book signing – where we go along and sit at a desk, readers buy copies of our books and we sign them. I’ve done these before and of course, authors don’t expect to be paid for that. That’s similar to an actor signing autographs. I’ve also done plenty of media interviews, and I don’t expect to be paid for them either.
        A festival appearance is completely different. It’s a prepared talk, perhaps on some aspect of writing for example, which people buy tickets to come and see. The performance is what they are paying for, like a concert. That’s why we expect to be fairly paid for our work at that event.

  1. I didn’t know they were not paid, Chris. It sounds as if the organisers somehow think they are doing the authors a favour by having them there. Try telling a musician to appear at a festival without being paid….

    1. It’s a mixed bag Val. Some festivals, both large and small, treat authors very fairly, but others, even big ones like Oxford, don’t pay and seek to justify it in various ways – by pleading poverty, by claiming authors gain through exposure and the chance to sell a few books. I don’t think if can be justified really, certainly not for a large established festival.

      1. I quite agree, Chris! The large festivals are probably in a much better position to pay, even if it is just an appearance fee. It’s not something I know about, not having such festivals here for English authors. I’m going to find out though!

  2. 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.

    1. I would say though that when I used to play in bands we never played for nothing. If a venue wouldn’t pay us we sacked it off and went somewhere else. We might not have got rich but we didn’t pay for free. Even if the venue wasn’t charging an entrance fee we took the view we were selling beer for them and should get something in return. Times may have changed since my gigging period though! Still – as you say, we never got very much and, when you consider the overheads, we probably played at a loss plenty of times.

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