Between the Covers: What’s really going on in the world of books

There was a predictable outpouring of support for Philip Pullman last week from authors who are sick of working for free. Pullman (below) announced on Twitter that he has resigned as the patron of the Oxford Literary Festival because of its “attitude to paying speakers (they don’t)”.

Many writers responded. “I once turned up and they asked me if I’d brought someone along to chair me,” wrote AL Kennedy. “So two of us to not pay ...” Philip Hensher added: “Thank you! They once hosted me, didn’t pay, and brilliantly forgot to order any books of mine to sell, too. Never again.”

A blog by Guy Walters reports that the comedian Al Murray, far from appearing for nothing, expects 70 per cent of the door.

On Friday The Bookseller published an open letter from Amanda Craig, and signed by authors including Linda Grant, Louisa Young, Denise Mina, and Joanne Harris (left), calling on fellow writers to boycott festivals that do not pay them to appear.

Payment in “exposure” is a common gripe among authors and freelance writers (last March Joanne Harris blogged about it, suggesting, “Try asking your plumber to work for bus fare and a curry”), but often audiences are not aware of the policy.

Tickets to see Professor Richard Dawkins and Dr Yan Wong at Oxford this year cost £12-£25, for example. Some authors may accept the publicity value of talking to hundreds of people about a new book; but they would have to sell a lot of copies to make the minimum wage. Meanwhile, professionals who chair the events often have nothing to gain from publicity. 

Many festivals do pay, including the Derby Book Festival, Birmingham’s PowWow, and Chipping Norton, which has a profit-sharing system. 

Danuta Kean, the books editor of Mslexia and a publishing analyst, warned about the trend of not paying writers on the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society website in 2014. “But a battle cry is growing among authors and journalists for there to be ‘no work without pay,’” she wrote.

Kean also noted one speaker’s imaginative response to being asked to work for free. “A few years ago, a literary agent of grand reputation was asked to speak at a trade conference in Wales. ‘What’s the fee?’ she asked. ‘There isn’t one, but we will pay travel expenses,’ came the reply. She arrived at the gig by helicopter.”

A statement from the Oxford Literary Festival pointed out that it is a registered charity and could not function as it does if it were to change its policy on fees.