Friday, January 15, 2016

Philip Pullman is wrong (though writers should be paid): Oxford Literary Festival and Paying Writers

Phillip Pullman has resigned as patron of the Oxford Literary Festival because, he argues, the Festival doesn't pay its writers My first reaction is that Pullman clearly has little to no understanding how the Festival system works.

Pullman: Money money money
First off, Blue Met pays all its authors. I know many Festivals who proudly say "we've never paid an author," but for me this isn't something to shout about. What these Festival people are actually saying when they make this boast is that their Festival is so important that writers WANT to do it and are willing to do it for free. I've never been convinced that this is true. In fact, I know it's not true because writers who attend these Festivals often complain to me about it.

We Are Not All Stephen King

Some writers don't need the money. Stephen King probably doesn't care about the $300 you're going to pay him to do an event, even the $5,000 you might pay him (though he'd probably be more in the $30,000 range honestly because it's his agent who manages this part of his career). But the truth of the matter is that very few writers are Stephen King and very very few writers make money from their writing. They might have a good year. Or a good month. They might have extraordinary luck and do well for a few years. But writing a best-seller doesn't mean that writer is wealthy. No, the money doesn't just start pouring in. I could literally name right now the writers (literary writers) who make a living from their writing and nothing else. Very very few. Even huge names most people know rarely make enough from their writing to live on. That's why most big name writers teach at universities. Writing isn't enough.

Especially in Canada where a best-seller may not even mean that much money.

Case in point: a writer I know has had a book that garnered a ton of attention here in Canada. Her book was featured in most every newspaper and magazine. It was covered in the US (in some of the biggest publications there as well), nominated for several very important prizes. She has toured the world, literally, with this book. But she still hasn't made back her (very modest) advance. Her book is about as successful as a book can be in this country and yet she still hasn't earned enough to pay rent for even a month from the sales of the book.

And in the US, I imagine it's even harder as there is a lot more competition.

So writers do deserve to be paid to speak at events. "Promoting" their book is not enough.

We Are Not All the Jazz Festival

However, there is another side to this. Festivals don't make money either. We eek by every year. We are a staff of four and we put on between 200-300 events each year. None of us is getting rich in the Festival business either. We work 50 or 60 hours a week much of the year. I'm not complaining because many of us like our jobs and there are many exciting opportunities that come with working here. But our Festival barely survives each year with just enough to cover our bills, fly in writers, pay the hotel, pay for the photocopier, the phone bill, the graphic designers, the printers, the office rent, the posters, the paper clips, the furniture, the computers, the research, and all the countless things that all come together to make a literary Festival.

And keep in mind that we are one of the biggest literary Festivals in North America. There are countless other, smaller Festivals that don't have the same financial stability or resources that we do.

Yes, we pay our writers though we don't pay them much. Also, we don't provide all our writers meals
All that paper costs $$
because we pay them (most Festival provide all the meals in lieu of payment; we opt for the opposite arrangement though we do cover some meals).

If I had my way, we'd pay writers more, provide all meals, let everyone who wants to stay a week stay for a week, cover all their expenses while here. But we'd soon be out of business. Again, each year we have a small surplus (very small) that means we're not in the red but this is thanks to the huge amount of work that we all do to ensure that we meet grant deadlines, dazzle sponsors, charm funding bodies, etc. It doesn't just happen magically.

Festival Organizers Should be Invisible

In many ways running a Festival is a thankless task: you only notice us when something goes wrong (the room is too hot, the schedule is wrong, the writer is late).

When things go right and you're here at an event, enjoying yourself, listening to a writer pontificate on something relevant and brilliant in a comfortable room, you're not thinking about the Festival organizers or the countless hours of work and stress that go into every single thing which led to that event being so interesting. That's how it should be. We don't want to be noticed.

But Mr Pullman should use his ample resources and connections to find solutions to the problem that he identifies. Instead of just resigning, he should tout for a company to sponsor writer appearances or use his name recognition to convince someone to donate the cash that is earmarked only for writer appearances. Just walking away and bitching about something you don't like shows a lack of commitment and a serious lack of understanding of how a Festival works. A missed opportunity for him but also for the Festival who should have spent their resources convincing him to help find a solution. Walking away with a parting shot like that doesn't really help anyone, much less any writer to get paid.

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