The Writing Life: money for nothing
A friend of mine is a therapist and says you should always charge clients. If you don’t, she tells me, they take your work for granted and the sessions are a waste of time. I wish somebody would tell this to the myriad events organisers who think professional writers gain more from speaking gratis at back-of-beyond festivals than festivals gain from having a well known name to draw punters through the door.
But it’s good for your profile, organisers claim. Whose? Certainly not ours. Unless we have a book to sell, there is little to be gained from appearing at events for free. And, even with a book to publicise, serious questions need to be asked about the likelihood of selling enough copies to cover the cost in time and effort. I have lost count of the writers who’ve been told by audience members: ‘I’ll buy your book on Amazon when I get home.’ Well, I’ll let you into a secret: buy it at the event and the author will make some money.
Unless an event is on a par with Cheltenham, Harrogate, Hay or Edinburgh, it is unlikely the presence of a well-known writer will be anything but marketing for the event itself – the bigger the names: the bigger the draw. That is why the best run festivals and conferences recognise that ticket prices should include a percentage to pay speakers.
They should also offer travel expenses. I know, you are wondering who on earth expects speakers to pay for their own travel? You’d be surprised. I know of more than one writer who has agreed to appear at an event hundreds of miles from home only to be told that ‘there is no travel budget’.
The reaction to requests for payment says much about attitudes in our society to professional creativity. When pointed out that no fee or expenses mean guest speakers subsidise events, organisers can react aggressively as if the very mention of money in connection with Art debases the creator and their work.
Well, believe it or not, some of us need the money to pay for those little luxuries in life. You know what I mean: housing, food that sort of thing. Astonishing isn’t it?
Few other professionals encounter such contempt when the issue of payment is raised. Can you imagine offering an electrician ‘great word-of-mouth’ in return for his labour? Or telling a plumber you’ll give them a positive review on Check-a-Trader rather than pay? Even my lively imagination can’t envisage a lawyer or accountant waiving their fee in exchange for publicity on Twitter.
But writers are often coerced into feeling embarrassed about money. The mentality reflects a widespread myth that writing full time is not ‘proper work’, as if everyone else works down a mine. The value of words finely turned has been debased by the freeconomy of the internet – whether by content hungry websites unwilling to share ad revenue or writing wannabes willing to work for free as long as they can say they are published. It has also been encouraged by the myth that we all have a book inside us. Well, we don’t. Most don’t even have a decent short story (present company excepted, obviously). Writing involves skill, effort and talent.
I know, I sound harsh, but the reason professional writers are able to write for a living is that they know how to write, which is why editors and readers are willing to pay for their books and journalism. There is nothing dilettante in their approach to deadlines, copy or research. This is also why unpublished authors are willing to pay money to hear them speak – though I wonder how many audiences realise speakers are the only ones not to get a cut of the ticket price at certain events.
It is not as if authors have nothing else to do. By taking time to share expertise and inside knowledge, professional writers sacrifice potential income from writing books or articles. ‘I ask for a fee for the same reasons anyone expects to be paid to work. I can’t afford not to, I’m a professional, I’m worth it,’ says author and popular speaker Nicola Morgan. She adds: ‘I find that people who pay a fee will (a) put more work into the organisation and (b) value what I do.’
Me? I ask for a fee because I know what I am talking about. I have spent over 15 years writing about the publishing industry and have a proven track record. I also expect to be paid because when I chair an event or run a workshop I spend days preparing: reading panelists’ books; working out appropriate questions with the organisers and panelists; working out timing; writing scripts; researching new developments; and preparing slides and handouts. I don’t just turn up on the day and hope it goes well.
I’ve been to events when it’s clear that those on stage have spent no time considering the audience or preparing. I have had to sit through PR puffs for books or services that teach the audience nothing of value and leave a bitter taste if I paid for my ticket. I have also sat through events where the speakers have clearly spent time and effort trying to understand the needs of the audience and have delivered impressive presentations. Sure such events enhance the speakers’ reputation, but they enhance the event’s reputation even more by creating good word-of-mouth.
If organisers want audiences to feel they’ve received value for money, they will have far more control over the quality of presentations if money changes hands. But if they want writers to subsidise their events in exchange for spurious promises of ‘profile building’, they should consider the work involved and that some speakers conflate ‘no fee’ with ‘no accountability’. And if they still think asking for money is cheap, they should remember something else my therapist friend says: ‘You get what you pay for.’
© Danuta Kean 2012