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Authors and Speaking for Free

Recently Phillip Pullman (author of THE GOLDEN COMPASS) resigned as president of the Oxford Literary Festival because he couldn't stomach asking authors to appear there for free. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jan/14/philip-pullman-resigns-oxford-literary-festival-patron-pay-authors It's sparked a conversation across the Internet, including a response from a litrary festival that DOES pay its authors: http://manxlitfest.blogspot.com/2016/01/paying-whats-due-because-its-right.html

I don't work for free, either.  I used to.  Oh, how I used to.  I begged to appear on panels at conventions or get booked at literary festivals, all for the chance to show my work around.  I've stopped doing that because I realized I was being stupid.  I was working for free.

Conventions and festivals mean well.  They operate on a small budget but still want a good festival for the attendees.  I get that.  Except when it comes to handling the stuff that actually gets people to attend--authors--festivals and conventions lose all sense of proportion.  They wouldn't dream of asking the venue for free space.  They happily pay to rent tables, chairs, and other accoutrement.  They willingly fork out money for mailings, computer server space, and advertising and publicity.  But then they say to the people who will actually draw a crowd, "We don't have an honorarium in the budget."


I don't speak for free because public speaking is WORK.  I don't teach for free.  I don't write novels for free.  Why would anyone even THINK I would speak for free?  It's like walking up to a doctor at a party and saying, "Could you diagnose me real quick right here?  It'll only take a minute" or saying to a lawyer at dinner, "I have this legal problem.  Could you write up a quick writ for me?  It'll only take a second."  These things are work, and doctors and lawyers charge to do them.

"Well," say festival moochers, "it's not like speaking is hard or anything.  You just get up there and talk."

Right.  Then why don't YOU  do it?

Yes, I make it look easy.  This is because for 20 years I've spoken every day in front of the toughest audience in the world: special education freshmen.  Due to all this practice, I can hold an entire class of ADHD freshmen motionless with nothing but the sound of my voice.  A venue of adults is nothing--because I'm experienced.

I'm also extremely knowledgeable about the craft of writing, editing, and selling fiction.  I've written and sold 23 novels and dozens of short stories and articles since my first sale at the age of 13.

A lawyer will rattle off courtroom strategy quickly and make it look easy.  And it is--because the lawyer knows what she's doing.  Doesn't mean the service comes free.

When someone brings me in to speak, they're getting decades of public speaking skill and decades of writing skill.  And it don't come free.

"But you can sell your books," say the moochers.  "You'll make money that way!"

No.  First, you're assuming I WANT to sit behind a table and sell my books.  I actually hate doing that.  I'd rather just sign them.  Second, I'd have to sell several hundred copies in order to make the day worth my while, and I've never been to an event where that happened.

"It only takes a little time," whine the moochers.

Yeah, and?  The plumber charges by the hour.  The law firm charges by the minute.  The doctor charges by the visit.  I charge the same way.  Do not denigrate me by claiming my time is worth nothing.  My time is worth EVERYTHING.

"We just don't have the money to pay you," say the moochers.  "We're barely making our other expenses as it is.  Even our president is a volunteer!"

Then maybe you should charge more for admission.  Or get some sponsors.  Or just realize that you can't have speakers at such a low-budget event.

"But you'll get exposure," goes more whining.

Tell you what.  You talk to the grocery store, the electric company, and the mortgage people and get them to accept exposure instead of cash, and I'll speak for exposure.

I once showed up at a local convention where I'd been scheduled to speak on five panels (that's five hours of public speaking) and was informed that I owed =them= $30 to cover my admission.  It was only when I turned to walk out that they grudgingly allowed me free entry.  Later, the con chair denigrated me by name on Twitter.  I thanked him for the exposure.

And that brings me to final reason I charge.  No one, including event organizers, values something they get for free.  You get what you pay for, and an author who speaks for nothing is worth nothing.  Certainly they're treated that way.  At festivals and conventions where I spoke for free, I've been ignored, pushed around, insulted, and denigrated.  This has never happened at places that paid me.  In such places, I was valued and respected.  (This isn't to say all for-free conventions and festivals treated me badly.  I've met some very nice people at for-free venues.  I've also met some terrible ones.  Never have I been treated badly when I was getting paid.)

My one exception is libraries.  I can be had at a library for cheap.  Not free, but cheap.  I'm speaking at a library in Kent County this spring, in fact, for travel expenses and three figures.  Why?  Because libraries were my only source of books when I was a kid, and they set me on the path to being a World Famous Writer (tm).  I still charge them, though.  And you know what?  I've never, ever had a library ask me to speak for free.  They always say, "What are your speaker rates?"

The moochers should listen to the librarians.

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( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 18th, 2016 02:21 pm (UTC)
Steven what are your speakers rates for libraries?

In Canada libraries can get grants to those authors but only if the author works at it full time and is a Canadian.

Do US public libraries have access to similar grants?

I remember that convention incident and I thought they were crazy to treat you that way.

Some authors do come for free because they like the synergy of being with other authors and sometimes it does lead to advancing one's writing career.

Bottom line if you are asking someone to work for free you had better at least make it an enjoyable, worthwhile experience.
Jan. 18th, 2016 02:42 pm (UTC)
For libraries, I negotiate. I usually say something like, "What do you have in the speaker's budget?" and go from there. Some places have grants like you mention, and some places have money in the kitty that will evaporate if they don't use it. If they want to use it, I see no reason not to take it! :) But I've spoken at libraries for as low as $50 or $100.
Jan. 18th, 2016 03:09 pm (UTC)
I've taken to prioritizing conferences and conventions by a) will cover costs, b) will offset my costs an c) aren't offering anything more than a free membership assuming I put in X hours. And C has to be either close by or somewhere I needed to be anyway, for me to even consider it. Like you, I've never sold enough books at a table to break even on the weekend, even assuming I was willing to sell books (I don't take work away from book vendors in the dealer's room, and if they don't have a book vendor in the dealer's room, why do they even have writers as guests?

If I'm not worth compensating, they're generally not worth accommodating. On the other hand, if someone is compensating me to be there? They get ALL my time, attention, and energy that weekend.

(Libraries are libraries. I have been known to haul out on my own dime in a blizzard to talk at libraries. I have a debt to repay.)

To attend anything, there are three costs the freelancer has to consider:

1. The actual cost of attending (hotel, transit, food, even assuming they comp a membership).
2. The emotional/physical cost of attending (stress and exhaustion are inevitable, even when you're enjoying yourself. As you said, public speaking is HARD, especially if you're naturally an introvert.)
3. The cost of not working - every hour of travel, of speaking, of dealing with the small bites of time that attending a conference requires to be effective/useful - is time we're not working. And time we're not working is time we're not earning money, and these are work-days....

Jan. 18th, 2016 07:36 pm (UTC)
I'm totally with you, especially your last three points. When I go away somewhere, I'm losing work time.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
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