When Phillip Pullman
resigned his patronage of the Oxford Literary Festival, he took
a stand for all authors. Think about it: authors are the bread and
butter of lit conferences. The wait staff, the AV guys, everyone
else gets paid. Why shouldnít writers who are invited to share their
expertise and provide valuable content to the organizers get paid
The challenge, the Oxford
Literary Festival says, is that they are a non-profit. And thatís
valid. Luckily I have
a foot in both the literary and events worlds. I understand a
bit of both sides.
Pullman says he didnít mind speaking
for free in the OLFís early days. They needed help gaining traction
and he felt an obligation for his own personal reasons.
What heís pushing back against is
that heís not reaping the benefits of all his hard work and support.
The OLF is now a profit center for its organizers.
Most conferences are. Theyíre
designed to be
revenue generators. Organizers pick up sponsors, they charge
attendees, and they usually make out much better than breaking even.
Maybe not in their early days, but a conference thatís been around
as long as the OLF isnít going in the red.
But donít authors speak in exchange
No. Exposure is not a currency. Letís
get this myth out of the way right now.
The thing is thisÖ even though book
on the rise, authors earn an average of
$10,000 per year. Thatís well below the poverty line and
certainly cannot sustain regular speaking engagements.
Itís not worth the cost of exposure
to attend. The ROI just isnít there.
Speaking is a great way for authors
to supplement their income (when theyíre paid). Itís a great way for
them to feed their families without having a full-time job on the
should literary festivals and book conferences pay writers?
Letís get back to the conferences
themselves. Youíd be right to ask, ďarenít most of these events held
by non-profits?Ē The answer would be yes.
Some are held by corporate groups,
but most events are held by non-profits. Still, theyíre a huge
revenue generator for these organizations. Plus theyíre often
gaining membership dues and registration fees from attendees and
On top of this, many of these
organizations take the content the speakers create and use it as
internal content. They promote next yearís event with it. They sell
it as educational webinars. They generate web traffic with it (aka
more member/attendee leads and sales).
Who else creates free marketing
materials for organizations theyíre paying to be a part of? This is
beyond volunteering. Itís exploitation.
How can organizations pay authors
who speak at their events?
Look, I get it. Some organizations
canít afford to pay every speaker $5,000. But I donít think thatís
what Pullman and the
Society of Authors is after.
Here are three simple ways
organizations can pay authors without breaking the bank:
1. Complimentary Membership
Dues, Registration, & Education
This should be a given. Sadly, itís
Organizers could offer every speaker
complimentary membership to their organization, free registration to
the conference, and free or discounted educational opportunities
throughout the rest of the year.
Most conference organizers host
supplemental workshops and classes throughout the year. What better
way to give back to speakers than to invite them to these
educational opportunities free-of-charge?
2. Travel and Hotel Expenses
This is probably the most crippling
expense for authors. Planes, trains, and room and board can get
pricey when attending a speaking engagement.
You know, most authors would be happy
to exchange their ideas and expertise for a little bit of exposure
if they broke even on the opportunity. Since the conference would be
nothing without content, this would be beneficial for both sides.
3. Revenue Share
Some non-bookish conferences pay
their speakers this way already. They give authors free admission to
the conference (really no skin off the organizers back), then
guarantee a percentage of the net revenue afterward.
Letís look at what this would look
like for relatively small conference that pulls in a net of $50,000
(and yes, to put things in perspective, this is small compared to
average events earnings). Say they have 10 speakers and offer
them each 2% of their revenue. Each speaker would earn $1000. Thatís
enough to cover costs plus leave them with a little extra to take
Sure, 20% is a big chunk of the pie,
but think of it this way. The organization is still left with
$40,000 in revenue plus all that awesome content theyíre going to
use to increase memberships and attendance at next yearís event.
To top it off theyíve got some really
happy speakers who are also authors with audiences of their own.
Talk about a great way to gain some extra promotion.
Are the models above perfect?
Of course not. A combination of the
three would be best. Or maybe something else entirely (if you think
you have an answer, leave a comment below).
And there are still going to be
variations. Keynotes for example will always get paid more than
The important thing is that
organizers, speakers, and even attendees to these conferences start
to think about this issue. If authors arenít getting paid, the
renaissance is over. There wouldnít be lit festivals without their
content. And if theyíre getting paid, qualityís going up. Itís a
win-win for everyone.