Key differences between Literary Festivals and SF Conventions when it comes to payment

I’m extremely pleased to see Philip Pullman making a stand on the issue of literary festivals not paying writers – when everyone else involved gets paid – and to see a host of other authors backing him.

But I am also seeing a degree of confusion, particularly from SF&Fantasy fans/writers who think this is a call to pay programme participants at SF conventions. Some clarification may be useful. As well as regularly attending conventions, I’ve long been involved with non-genre literary festivals thanks to working with The Write Fantastic and also as a committee member for my old Oxford college’s Media Alumnae Network. Consequently I have observed how very different their approaches are.

Literary festivals organise their programming primarily around publishers’ schedules and offer one or two writers per slot an opportunity to publicise their current book. The biggest names with the highest media profiles get the biggest venues and the best time slots because these are commercially-minded enterprises whether or not they’re structured as charities like the Oxford Literary Festival. Everything from venues to publicity to technical support must be paid for and that means selling tickets to fill the seats. None of this is criticism. I always enjoy hearing a talented author share their enthusiasm for their work, fiction or non-fiction, as I sit in a quietly attentive audience. And yes, the big name events do help fund the lesser known and special interest authors’ events – such programming is assuredly valuable for readers and writers alike.

But make no mistake; this is work for an author. It’s essentially an hour’s professional performance or presentation. It’s just not treated as such. Over the years, as a contributor at assorted festivals, I’ve turned up, got a cup of coffee in the green room, done my thing, and that’s pretty much that. Depending on the time of day I might be offered access to a buffet lunch (problematic for anyone with dietary issues). I’ve generally had my travel expenses covered but in all but a very few cases, I haven’t been paid for my time on the day or for the essential preparation. And no, the royalties I might get from however many of my books are sold at the festival wouldn’t come anywhere close to a reasonable fee. I might get a ‘goody bag’ with something like a bottle of wine, maybe some perfume, and a couple of books (which alas, I seldom actually want). I would usually get one or two complimentary tickets for my own event, nice for friends and family, but if I want to go to any of the festival’s other events, I have to buy tickets like any other punter.

SF conventions are very different. From their earliest days, conventions have been fan-led events. Readers and writers alike are encouraged to get involved, exploring their shared enthusiasm. Those going to SF conventions pay for memberships rather than tickets. People aren’t buying a seat to passively attend a one hour event. They’re investing in the funding of a collective enterprise over several days, run by volunteers for fellow enthusiasts.

A weekend’s membership gives access to dozens, even hundreds of programme items. There are fact-based sessions, where fans and authors alike share their knowledge and expertise on everything from science in all its ramifications to historical, linguistic, political and psychological scholarship – just a few disciplines which underpin the ever-broadening scope of speculative fiction. As well as sessions exploring creative writing, programme items explore visual skills and disciplines from fine art providing inspiration to writers and artists alike, to comics and graphic novels. There’s discussion of SF and fantasy in film, TV and audio drama, from author and audience perspectives. Then there’s the fun programming, including but not limited to games and costuming events, ranging from the admirably serious to the enjoyably daft.

At a literary festival it’s rare to see a handful of writers talking more generally about their writing, about the themes and topics which their broader genre is currently addressing, about on-going developments in their particular literary area, comparing and contrasting their own work and process with each other and with the writers who’ve gone before them. It does happen, particularly with crime writers, but it’s still nowhere as prevalent as it is at SF conventions. I think that’s a shame, because audiences so clearly appreciate such wide-ranging discussion. It’s rarer still to see a fan/reviewer taking part in literary festival panels to broaden the debate with their perspective whereas such participation is an integral and valuable facet of convention programming.

Traditionally, at SF conventions, no one gets paid for the considerable amount of time they contribute, by which I mean none of the organising committee or any of those people who help out with such things as Ops, Publications, Tech and any amount of other vital support. Membership revenues cover the costs of venues and the various commercial services essential for the event to take place. Those authors who have been specifically invited as Guests of Honour have their expenses covered as a thank you for what will be a hard working weekend but they’re not paid a fee as such. Some conventions offer free memberships to other published authors on the programme and believe me, that’s always very much appreciated, but even then, those writers are expected to cover their own travel, hotel and sustenance expenses.

Is that fair? Well, an author assuredly has the opportunity to get far more from a convention than they do from a literary festival and not just a thoroughly enjoyable social event. It’s a weekend of networking and catching up on industry news, of benefiting from other writers’ experiences and perspectives, of learning things that are often directly relevant to whatever they’re working on or which will spark their imagination for a new project, of engaging with established fans and readers new to their work, often getting valuable feedback and usefully thought-provoking questions. Opportunities for paying work often follow from contacts made and conversations had.

Which is great – as long as you can afford to get to the convention in the first place and with authors’ incomes dropping year on year, that’s becoming an increasing issue for many SF&F writers. Plus the line between fan-run, non-profit events and overtly commercial enterprises has become blurred in some cases in recent years. I’ve been invited to SF&F events where I’ve discovered media guests are being paid fat appearance fees but the writers are expected to participate for free, in some cases without even expenses paid. You won’t be surprised to learn I declined. Then there have also been events where I’ve discovered some writers’ expenses are covered at the organisers’ discretion – but not others. That’s wholly unacceptable as far as I am concerned.

So do I think writers appearing at literary festivals should get paid? Yes. They’re doing a job of work to a professional standard and everyone else involved is getting paid.

Do I think programme participants at SF conventions should be paid? In an ideal world, yes – but doing that would force up the cost of convention memberships far beyond what the other fans could afford, especially once their hotel and other expenses are factored in.

Should all conventions factor in the cost of free memberships for programme participants? Personally, I’d very much like to see it. It’s saying ‘this is the value we put on your contribution and thank you’ as opposed to ‘kindly pay us for the privilege of working this weekend’ but once again, that would force up the cost of membership for everyone else with implications for levels of attendance and thus funds for essential expenses. Some conventions will decide their event can sustain this, others will decide that they can’t. As I know from my participation in running Eastercon 2013, a big convention’s budget is a dauntingly complex affair.

But the crucial distinction remains. Literary festivals and other commercial enterprises should pay the writers without whom there’d be no event. Non-profit conventions where readers and writers are sharing their common passion as fans are something else entirely.

2 comments

  1. I was a programme participant at Worldcon in Montreal and a few months later I was pleased to receive a cheque for about £50 as a refund of convention profits to the participants. I thought it was a lovely gesture from a convention that found it could afford it, and completely unexpected.

    Definitely if the event is making a profit out of the work of the participants, they should be paid.

  2. Very interesting article. Yes, I too have been asked to participate in a literary festival, in a professional capacity as an author and illustrator. In my case, it was the Cirencester Literary Festival last year. I was asked to run an illustration workshop as one of the events and discuss mythical characters. I was very happy to do this for the prestige and publicity it would generate around my book and my illustration work, but I was also satisfied that I was paid for such work, albeit £50 to cover expenses. I completely agree with Philip Pullman that authors are doing a job and should be paid as such. After all, only a tiny percentage of authors can actually make a living just from writing as 5 – 10% per book sale really only starts to pay the bills when you are selling in the thousands. BUT, I also completely agree with you that literary festivals, whether it is Cirencester or Hay, are completely different to SF conventions and therefore the same rules do not apply. Simply put, if authors started demanding pay for SF conventions, then most of them would have to close and the fans and authors would lose out.

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