Literary Festivals – who pays?

One of the great things about living in Galway is the amount of festivals we have here.  For writers, however, there is one that stands out from the crowd and that is the Cúirt International Festival Of Literature.  When the giant pencils appear on the old cobbled streets of the Latin Quarter, probably dropped by Gulliver on his travels, it’s Cúirt time!

I was lucky enough to have two of my poems (yes, I dabbled!) featured in the 2005 Cuirt Annual, as part of a series of workshops and had the great honour of having one of them read aloud by actress Kate O’Toole at the launch.  It was the first time I saw my words in print, and I will always treasure that.

So this year, we were extremely fortunate to have one of my favourite authors, Joanne Harris, come to Galway and read from her latest book ‘The Gospel of Loki’.  Engaging, intelligent, witty – she was a pleasure to watch.  I suppose after all those years of being a teacher, she knows how to command a room, but it was her insight into literary festivals themselves that intrigued me.

Despite my inclusion in the 2005 anthology, I’ve yet to join the esteemed ranks of guest speakers who are invited to appear at such literary events, but many of the authors who do attend festivals are being asked to do so …. for free.  It seems, once again, that our industry is the one where you’re expected to work for nothing.  As Joanne Harris pointed out during her talk, there would be no festival if the authors didn’t agree to show up for the event, so surely they are due a bit more than the old chestnut of “Oh but you’ll get great exposure”.  Of course she hastened to add that Cuirt were perfectly satisfactory hosts, but explained that someone has to cover the costs of travel expenses and so on, whether that be the publishers or the event organisers.   When you weigh up how many books you would need to sell in order to break even, the figures don’t always add up.  As she pointed out, authors want to support literary festivals because they are important and full of value, both for the audience and the authors themselves, but is it fair to expect them to work for nothing?

So i ask again, why is it that writers are continually expected to work for free?  Whether it’s writing articles (again, to gain exposure) or giving away free ebooks to try and build an audience, working for free is worryingly becoming the norm.  I watched a documentary the other night called  ‘Out of print’, where Scott Turrow (President of the Author’s Guild) asks why other industries such as Ford or GM are never asked to give away their products for free.  It’s unthinkable!  And yet, writing is somehow becoming devalued by the practice of expecting writers to work for free.  It’s an interesting discussion and one that we, as writers, need to have.  In the meantime, here is a link to Joanne Harris saying all of this much more eloquently than I every could! “How much is a writer worth?”

2 thoughts on “Literary Festivals – who pays?

  1. It’s the same way for artist. Entire magazines are filled with pictures of art sent in “for exposure” with no payment at all. The artist pays to send the work and pays for it to be returned. The magazine makes the money. There are many other examples. Until art is respected and seen as “real” work, the idea that artists should work for free will not change. It’s unfair and artists are taken advantage of because too many times there is no alternative.

    1. Hi Gigi and thanks for your comment 🙂 That’s a very interesting point about magazines. I’m also an artist and have taken part in a few group exhibitions for festivals and actually had to pay a ‘hanging fee’. I’m not sure it’s right that artists should have to subsidize exhibitions, just as writers shouldn’t be expected to subsidize literary festivals. You’re right – if there is no alternative, artists/writers will no longer see the creative arts as a viable career and where will that leave us in the long run? As you say, it’s all about respect for the artist and the work.

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