Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Much Ado About Oxford - Row over Speakers' Pay

I didn't realise speakers at the Oxford Literary Festival were not paid until Philip Pullman's shock announcement on Twitter. The author of the "His Dark Materials" trilogy caused a stir on 13th January this year when he resigned  as patron of the festival. He felt it conflicted with his role as president for the Society of Authors campaigning for authors' fairer wages. It's a campaign that specifically targets festivals that do not pay authors for their participation. In true predictable fashion his resignation got some media attention shining a spotlight on a contentious issue. The idea is simple enough; someone appears at your event then you pay for their time, but is it that simple where literary festivals are concerned? Let's see.

The Oxford Literary Festival is a non-profit event and registered as a charity. The money raised through ticket sales, sponsorship (FT Weekend, Blackwell's etc.) and donations covers the cost of the event run by volunteers. This year around 500 speakers will take part in over 250 events and include the likes of David Baddiel, Jacqueline Wilson, and Richard Dawkins as guest speakers. Well, if they are not paid for their appearance what benefit is there for the authors? In her column "Book festivals are worth far more than fees" Guardian book editor Claire Armitstead sympathises with authors who struggle to make a living from writing yet maintains a sort of 'suck it up and see the bigger picture' attitude. As well as abstract benefits (intellectual coherence, education) Armitstead argues that festivals offer readers a chance to discover new writers which in turn bolster the authors' book sales, a big advantage for those at the outset of their careers or so it seems. To back this up she cites observations from her years of chairing festival panels.

The sales argument is certainly compelling when you consider that over the course of the Oxford event, a town with book shops and a specially erected Blackwell's marquee for the festival's duration, book sales are bound to go up.  However Armitstead's argument is in defence of smaller festivals which she fears will be forced to shut down for not paying guests. Yet Pullman and the Society of Authors point the finger at events with wealthy sponsors and who they claim are known to make a profit, no mention of smaller ones.

It's easy to dismiss the claim for writer's pay in this instance when you talk about multi-million copy best sellers but according to a survey conducted by the Author's Licensing & Collecting Society, the average earnings for a professional full time author in 2014 was £11,000. Only £11,000, in one year, on average? So that means if an author is paid 15% from a sale of £10 per book on average that means they would have only sold around 7300 copies. Keeping this in mind then it calls into question just how much increase an unpaid speaking engagement would have on sales to make it worthwhile.

Footing the bill to travel around the country in the hopes of a higher profile leading to more sales could find on £11,000 a difficult and risky venture. Why then have the organisers of the Oxford Literary Festival until recently not paid for their guest speakers? Other festivals such as Edinburgh, Cambridge, Marlborough to name a few pay fixed fees for every guest ranging form £150 - £200. The Oxford event's director Sally Dunsmore argues that such a change in policy would limit the diverse range of speakers. The event does not, contrary to popular belief, necessarily make a profit and their 2014 audited accounts show a loss of £18,000. To make the event viable, for every £12 ticket sold sponsor donations of £20 are sought. To pay guest authors a further 15% in costs amounting to £75,000 would be needed which sounds like a mammoth task indeed.


The argument rages on but there is some light at the end of the tunnel; following Pullman's resignation the festival organisers have agreed to review the situation after this year's event. They have proposed discussing a way forward with interested parties and already the Society of Authors have offered their guidance as to how this can be done. There will be much to review and consider, what constitutes a fair fee, how to raise the funds, all to be balanced with maintaining the festival's reputation for attracting such a wide range of authors. This is a step in the right direction and it will be interesting to see what changes will be in store for 2017.

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