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?”

Thinking Outside Of The Box

So the other day when I was chatting with Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat … Oh did I not mention?  Yes, Joanne and I go way, way back.  To February 7th 2014 to be precise.  Okay so we weren’t exactly alone and it wasn’t exactly in person… alright it was a live web chat with Stylist UK!  But still, it’s kind of amazing to be able to talk to one of your writing idols and ask them about their process, insights and experience.

Now what I’ve always loved about Joanne Harris is that she doesn’t stick to any one ‘formula’ when it comes to writing successful novels.  Her stories tend to jump all over the place – my favourite being Blackberry Wine, probably because it has a dual narrative and two separate timelines, one set in present-day France, one set in Yorkshire twenty years earlier.  Then there’s the non-fiction cookbook My French Kitchen and most recently The Gospel Of Loki, a fantasy novel based on Norse mythology.  While her central themes of everyday magic, being an outsider, the sensuality of food and obviously her connection to France run through her novels, she is not afraid to take on different genres.

The question of exploring new genres was a very important one for me.  My own debut novel, The Cross Of Santiago is a Time-Slip novel, also with a split narrative and separate timelines.  I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed writing that novel!   Historical fiction can be so engaging and the research like an exciting treasure hunt.  Tying up two completely different stories into one novel was challenging but so rewarding and I think it makes for a very interesting read.  But do I want to write an endless list of Time-Slip novels?  I’m not sure.  I love incorporating historical elements into my stories and I’m sure I will write another Time-Slip novel, but I’m not sure if I want to feel pressured into staying in the one genre.

Like Joanne, (I call her Joanne now!) I have found my own distinctive style and writing voice and would hope that this is what readers would look for when they decide to pick up one of my books.  Because what is the point in taking readers on the same journey, over and over again, just to play it safe?  Now I’m sure we all know traditionally published authors (who shall remain nameless!) who are very successful at rehashing the same old formula time after time.  The powers that be tell us to find our genre and stick to it – apparently that’s the only way to build a fan base.  But surely in self-publishing there has got to be a bit more leeway when it comes to expressing yourself as a writer?

So, that was my question for my BFF Joanne 🙂

Evie GaughanAdded: 07 Feb 2014 – 13:09 GMT 

Hi Joanne, Such a pleasure to chat with you! I wondered, after the success of Chocolat, did you feel a bit pigeon-holed by your readers or publishers? Did you ever feel obliged to write a certain way to follow up on that success? As an Indie author, sometimes I worry if I can ‘bring readers with me’ if I wish to change direction. Blackberry Wine is one of my favourites by the way!

Joanne HarrisAdded: 07 Feb 2014 – 13:13 GMT 

Hi Evie, all my books are so different that I don’t think my readers pigeon-hole me at all. In fact I’ve found them very accepting of all the different areas I’ve chosen to explore. On the other hand, publishing loves to create little boxes to put us into. I’ve been fighting to keep out of the box all my life – and so far I think I’ve managed…


Now I know what you’re going to say – when you’re as successful as Joanne Harris, you can write whatever you damn well please!  But I believe that it is her willingness to disregard the status quo that has won her so many loyal readers.  She is a writer that writes for herself first and foremost, and as a result, she has a list of books that are varied, unpredictable and exciting.

My new novel, which is currently going through it’s third draft, is also set in France and while there are historical elements, it is mostly set in the present day.  I think my writing style connects both novels and again the themes of family, identity and belonging are to the fore.  I hope I can surprise and excite my readers as much as Joanne Harris – and having Johnny Depp star in the adaptation of one of my novels would be nice too.  Just sayin’.