Philip Pullman quits as Oxford Literary Festival refuses to pay its guest authors

Pullman said he had 'had enough' of writers being expected to work for nothing

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The Independent Culture

For every best selling author who makes a fortune out of their books, there are dozens more who scrape by on meagre earnings. 

Which is why one of Britain’s most popular writers has taken a stance over the failure of the Oxford Literary Festival to pay its guest speakers and has quit as its patron.

Philip Pullman, the best-selling author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, said he had “had enough” of writers being expected to work for nothing. He announced his decision on Twitter and revealed he had long tried to persuade the Oxford festival to change its policy “but they won’t. Time to go.”

Pullman has been a patron of the literary festival – one of the UK’s biggest – for the past five years, but its refusal to pay authors put him in an “awkward position” as he is also president of the Society of Authors, which campaigns for author pay at such events.

“I realised I needed to resolve the issue so I decided to step down as patron from the festival,” he told The Independent. “We authors are the centre of the festival and the only reason people buy tickets in the first place. It’s only just that we should be paid.

“Other festivals pay and the Oxford festival pays everyone else involved from the cleaners to the people who put up the marquees,” he added.

The Oxford Literary Festival director Sally Dunsmore released a statement in response saying: “We are very sad that Philip Pullman has decided to resign as patron of the festival. We are grateful for the support he has given over the years, and for his many appearances at the festival.”

She added that the festival was a registered charity that did not receive public funding and needed sponsorship and donations to take place. Changing its policy would not allow the festival to be so “large and diverse” with 500 speakers a year. 

Oxford, one of the biggest festivals in Britain alongside Hay Festival and the Edinburgh International Book Festival, marks its 20th anniversary this year. 

Pullman’s decision to resign  met with an “astonishing” response on social media, and high-profile authors including Robert Harris and John O’Farrell praised his stance. 

Harris, a historical novelist revealed at the last event he attended those in the front row paid £50, while “I was given a mug”. 

“Authors fill large halls, with people paying a lot for tickets, yet they don’t see a penny. People are often astonished when they hear that,” Pullman said. “There are festivals that do pay their authors and good for them. The Oxford festival seems to find it difficult and I don’t understand why.”

The Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society found in 2014 that the average earnings of a professional full-time author is just £11,000. “In simple justice, it seems to me, writers ought to be paid a decent amount for their work, whether it’s written and published or standing on a platform and speaking,”  Pullman said. 

Danuta Kean, publishing expert and book editor at quarterly publication Mslexia, said: “We need to stand up to festivals. The reason people go is because of the authors. The sales the authors get are pretty negligible.  The more authors say no, the changes will come.”

The Society of Authors called on all festivals to pay speakers. It contacted 22 of the most high profile, and revealed that for those that pay the average appearance fee is between £150 and £200.

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