Yesterday Philip Pullman, author and President of the UK's Society of Authors, resigned as patron of the Oxford Literary Festival, saying on Twitter that "Because of the Oxford Literary Festival's attitude to paying speakers (they don't) I can't remain as a Patron any longer. I've resigned."
Pullman has been involved with the festival for twenty years, and he explained to The Bookseller how it grew from a tiny event to a well-funded festival with sponsors, advertising, and the like.
"In the early days the Oxford festival was a small-scale and much more informal affair, run on a shoestring," he said. "In recent years it’s become much larger and grander, putting on an air of being ‘prestigious’ and ‘exclusive’ and flourishing its large array of corporate sponsors. It seems contradictory to me to lay on lavish ‘black tie dinners’ and at the same time claim that it can’t afford to pay speakers."
And to make matters worse, the Oxford Literary Festival has taken on some of the worst traits of publishers. According to Pullman, the festival demands that authors not do any book signings within 30 days or 40 miles of the festival event, effectively denying them any chance to get paid (not even at a book signing in a nearby bookstore).
But the Oxford Literary Festival doesn't see any problem with that, saying in their official response that “We have over 500 speakers each year. If we were to change our policy, we could not put on a festival as large and diverse as Oxford’s which supports and promotes the work of both bestselling authors and of those at the outset of their writing careers or with a smaller following.”
When I first read this story, the exclusivity requirement reminded me of demands made by publishers (a point I raised over at The Passive Voice). But on reflection, book festivals act more like the NCAA than like publishers.
What's the connection, you ask?
The NCAA presides over a billion dollar industry (college football) where everyone except the main attraction (football players) gets paid. The NCAA makes bank on merchandizing and tv rights, coaches get paid millions, and even consultants can pull down six-figure salaries, all while many student athletes work a full time job in exchange for little more than a scholarship.
Book festivals may operate on a much smaller scale, but they share one critical flaw with the NCAA: many do not adequately pay the main attraction, authors.
Even among those that do pay authors, the remuneration is minimal and doesn't cover authors' expenses. Last December, the Society of Authors published the results of a survey of book festivals which showed most festivals pay £150-£200 per appearance to authors.
That is hardly enough to cover travel expenses, much less an author's lost income, and authors aren't going to put up with it any more.
Over the past year the Society of Authors has been ratcheting up the pressure on book festivals, and Pullman's public resignation yesterday has brought matters to a head. The Bookseller reports that authors are joining a boycott of book festivals that don't pay authors.
"For too long, authors have been persuaded to give our services to the public for free - even though the public is paying in good faith to see us," the open letter reads. "We are the only people in festivals who are not paid, and yet without us the festivals could not exist. Writing is a vocation but it is also a profession, and it is time we all stiffened our spines, dug in our heels and said No."
You can find a full list of signatories here.
They're not wrong, and Pullman summed it up the best. "Festivals pay everyone else who’s professionally involved," he told The Bookseller.
"They pay for the electricity they use, they pay rent for the lecture halls they hire, they pay the people who supply the marquees and the toilets, they pay the publicists and the professional administrators, they pay for the drinks receptions, they pay the people who cook and serve the ‘black tie dinners’, they pay the people who design and print the brochures and the programmes, they pay the people who do the cleaning. Only the authors are expected to work for nothing. Many of us have had enough of that."
And it is high time that changed.
images via Blackwell's,