Monday, January 27, 2014

Love or money

It was a dark and stormy night.  Out into the rain and wind a woman came, shivering as she shut the door behind her on warmth and comfort and a flickering fire.  She drove along great  sweeping roads, the stream of headlights assaulting her eyes, then off into smaller roads, and smaller, through deserted nondescript towns, searching always for the signs, remembering the obscure, puzzling instructions. And from other points, two more women set out, suffering their own struggle with wind and darkness and the terror of 'Lost!'

At last, there were the lights, the building, the place of assignation, the doors that swung silently open at their approach. They had arrived at the local library in a small town - three well-known Scottish writers, summoned for a panel to entertain an audience of  - eleven.  No, sorry, thirteen - there were two librarians.  Four and a third people each.  Total number of books sold afterwards?  Four between us.

There's a debate going on among the various writers organisations in Britain about turning up for events where clearly there isn't proper publicity, proper consideration, or proper payment.  All too often it seems to be considered a privilege for authors to give up time - often considerable amounts of it - to appear at a library or a bookshop or a festival.  We do it for love, naturally.

If it's a big, prestigious festival, where good audiences and book sales are guaranteed, it's one thing - though it's galling not to be paid, or to be paid a token amount, when they are pocketing the price of the quite expensive tickets. And if it's a small, struggling local festival you may want to support it - though when the organisation is bad and the demands are heavy, personally I do lose patience a bit.

Recently I was asked to go to one of these, set up by a small independent bookshop in the Highlands of Scotland, a considerable distance from Edinburgh where I live. Independent bookshops have a hard time these days so I agreed for travel expenses only.  It was arranged through my publicist who struggled valiantly to get the date confirmed, and failed completely to find out exactly when my event would be.  I had assumed it would either be a talk or a panel, though I had no direct word from the owner.

Eventually my long-suffering publicist managed to get a program out of her a fortnight before.  I was expected to stay for two nights, to be one of the hosts at the dinner on the Friday night, to bulk out a workshop next day, to be on a panel in the afternoon and another panel that night.  For this, I was given two nights accommodation, paying for my other meals.  The audiences consisted of the same thirty people who were friendly with the bookshop owner and it wasn't really surprising that was all since there was no publicity done in the nearby small towns, no posters anywhere and, the final insult, not even a display of our books in her own shop.  A request afterwards for the promised travel expenses was ignored.

It's events like these that make me wonder why, exactly, I do them.  Yes,you're promoting your books and in the case of bookshops and libraries you're getting (you hope!0 good will that will encourage them to stock copies and recommend them to their customers.

The thing is, I really enjoy meeting readers.  Talking in library is, with a very few exceptions, great fun and the audiences are lovely.

But what we're doing is a business, not a hobby., and in any job you have to cast a beady eye on the balance sheet.   Doing an event means a lot of time away from the desk where you earn your living: preparing a talk takes time too. The number of books you are likely to sell as a direct result is nowhere near enough to justify your time.

It's always hard to say no.  It's even harder, I find, to ask for a fee.  So what I've decided is that I will ask a few questions before I agree and if I'm not convinced it's going to be worth my while, I'll have a convenient other engagement.

That's probably cowardly, though.  I'm lucky enough to have a husband who won't see me starve but there are writers for whom the money they get from talks is a really important pat of their income.  If we all started trying to get it across that, just as a musician wouldn't be asked to come and perform a gig free,  just so people can hear them,  an author should be paid to entertain to entertain an audience .

It's a controversial topic, I know.  But there are so many other ways now of publicising your books more effectively, and though those take up a lot of time at well, at least you can do it from your own home and not waste half a day getting to and from a venue.  Is it all worth it?


Charlotte Hinger said...

Oh boy. I would love to hear other writers weigh in on this. I really smolder after some events where I bear all the expenses and this owner obviously hasn't put forth a bit of effort. On the other hand, owners smolder because sometimes they're tried really hard then writers are furious when no one shows up.

Aline Templeton said...

Having tried to get speakers for Society of Authors events and then found people wouldn't turn out, I do have sympathy. On the other hand, I think there's still a perception with publishers and booksellers that we're just lucky to be asked and should be grateful.

Anonymous said...

I'm tweeting this in hopes that more authors will comment. I'm just debuting this year, and the topic is important to me.