Coffee House

Why English writers accept being treated like dirt

17 January 2016

1:49 PM

17 January 2016

1:49 PM

A few months ago, one of the organisers of the Oxford Literary Festival contacted me.

Hi Nick

I may be putting on a free speech event at Oxford Lit Festival 2-10 April 2016  and wondered if you’d be willing to take part?  It’s the usual festival deal.

As I have written a book on free speech, and banged on about it to the point of tedium (and beyond) in these pages, I was happy to go to Oxford and bang on some more.  I had one small query.

Should be able to. Does the ‘usual deal’ involve anything so vulgar as a fee?

Of course not. The very thought. Like the Huffington Post and newspapers hiring interns, the Oxford Literary Festival expects authors to work for nothing. My contact’s reply suggested that he was a high-minded aesthete who had not thought it worth his while to investigate the terms and conditions of his authors.

I think that they give you £100 but only if you had a book published in the last months to promote. Otherwise it’s the free lunch and travel expenses. Mind you, the lunch is very nice.

I pointed out that I hadn’t had a book published in the last few months, so Oxford was asking me to work for nothing.  I wouldn’t do it, I said, and emailed him a link to the Hollywood screen writer Harlan Ellison’s magnificent rant against Warner Brother’s trying to get him to work for nothing

They want everything for nothing. They wouldn’t go for five seconds without being paid. And they’ll bitch about how much they’re paid, and want more. I should do a freebie for Warner Brothers? What, is Warner Brothers out with an eye patch and a tin cup on the street? Fuck, no. They always want the writer to work for nothing. And the problem is that there’s too goddamned many writers who have no idea that they’re supposed to be paid every time they do something, they do it for nothing!

Ellison offered one reason why authors have accepted zero-payment contracts: they think that exposure will lead to recognition. ‘Look at me, I’m gonna be noticed!’ And with that exposure will come sales and commissions, maybe. And one day when they look back they will realise that all that free labour was  a sound investment.

Think about their position, and you should have sympathy for them. They have poured all they have into their book. It represents the best they can do, the proudest achievement of their lives in some cases. They find a publisher, a hard enough task in itself, as most manuscripts are never published. Their book appears, and more often than not, nothing happens. It is not reviewed or is barely reviewed. The only public recognition of its existence is the Amazon page, which they check, every hour like crazed obsessives, marking each tiny change in the sales ranking with elation, or more usually despair.

What dreams they had of finding a fortune vanish. As the literary journalist, Danuta Kean says, most readers have no idea how little money most authors make, and how desperate they are for any publicity.


The worst literary festivals prey on their hope of recognition like conmen preying on lonely old ladies’ hopes of company. If only they could talk to potential readers, writers think. If only they could get them in a room, sit them down and persuade them to give their damn book a chance.

I speak from experience when I say that most authors don’t want fame or money (although both would be nice). After all that effort, they just want to be read. The organisers of literary festivals try to wriggle out of the charge that they are swindlers by saying that the author can always earn money by selling copies of their book after the talk. The organisers know full well that an author would have to shift a great many copies to make that one-sided deal worthwhile. To get those sales, the festival would have to give unknown authors a big venue and spend time and money promoting them. Most do neither.

But there is another factor at work beyond writers’ doomed hopes that ‘exposure’ will be their salvation. (Such a strange word to use in these circumstances, I’ve always thought, when people die of exposure.)

In English literary culture, and I suspect the literary cultures of many other countries, middle-class taboos play their part in keeping writers servile.

You may have noticed that I didn’t name and shame the man from the Oxford Literary Festival. That is because I know him, and like him, and don’t want to embarrass him. It takes an effort for me to think of him as the moral equivalent of a pickpocket or fraudster.

How can I when he was asking me to help him spread argument, new ideas, and dear old art itself? What kind of knuckle-dragging mercenary brute wants payment for the chance to join the mission civilisatrice?

As a well brought up Englishman, it has taken me years to overcome my instinctive nervousness at asking to be paid. It felt sordid, not the sort of thing nice people do. Certainly, when I raised the grubby subject of money, the festival organiser replied in the pained tones of a bishop who has just heard a fart ricochet around his cathedral. I agreed to work for nothing, then resented the festival organisers and despised myself for going along with them.

The old terms of trade are changing. Philip Pullman resigned from the Oxford Literary Festival this week, saying quite accurately that it paid it cleaners, designers, printers, administrators, publicists, taxi drivers, cooks, waiters, suppliers of marquees and toilets and electricity and food and drink.

 Only the authors, the very reason anyone buys a ticket in the first place, are expected to do it for nothing. Well, enough is enough.

I am pleased so many authors are now boycotting Oxford. Perhaps the upsurge of anger after years of compliance will change the way literary England does business. Maybe it will. I speak from experience when I say that the Bristol, Glasgow, Hay, Bath and Cambridge festivals all treat their writers properly.

If the system does not change, readers will suffer for a reason that cannot be repeated often enough. The expectation that workers will work for nothing is leading to the class cleansing of British culture. Everywhere you go, you hear culture managers saying they want ‘diversity’, while presiding over a culture that might have been designed to exclude the working and lower-middle classes. Whether you look at journalism, the arts, the BBC, photography, film, music, the stage, and literature, you see that those most likely to get a break are those whose parents are wealthy enough to subsidise them. The generalisation is not wholly true. Young people from modest backgrounds can still break through. But every year their struggle becomes a little harder. Every year, an artistic career becomes a little less viable to potentially talented writers and artists.

I don’t think it will soon be too apocalyptic to recall Thomas Grey’s lines about ‘mute inglorious Miltons’ lying in the grave, and think that England has not moved on since he wrote his elegy in a country churchyard in 1751.

It has taken me years to find the social courage to say this. And I accept that I appear a grasping vulgarian. But it remains the case that if you want a truly ‘diverse’ culture, where all talents are ‘celebrated’, you must insist on one point before any other: pay the bloody writer.

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Show comments
  • Maureen Fisher

    It extends to artists too. One gallery held out for a full 4 months before paying me.

  • Darnton

    Thank you for an inspiring article. I too have long felt it a bit vulgar to ask about payment. No more. I will no longer be complicit in my own impoverishment. It’s long past time that writers insist on being paid like everyone else.

  • Mat Snow

    Absolutely agree. Any writer who falls in with this kind of racket accepts the valuation puts on them by the paid organiser: worthless.

  • Man in a Shed

    The anti-UK campaign takes us all for shallow fools.

  • Janie Hampton

    Good news from Oxford Literary Festival, possibly. But not until 2017. And how much will they actually pay? Or will they only ‘meet with all interested parties to discuss’?

  • Stephen Riley
  • Mark Clews

    Perhaps those of you who are complaining about this should go and run one. My experience was that it was very shoestring budget and difficult to make ends meet, but perhaps it’s different when it’s a more professional thing and not run by fans. Most of the Organisers of the fan based conventions make a loss if something goes slightly wrong and they always get people that say they could have done better.

  • Andrew Porter

    Doesn’t this discussion go back to the recent news about Phillip Pullman pulling out of the Oxford Literary Festival because of their refusal to pay authors:

  • UnionPacificRX

    The moment I read the article and the headlines the name “J.K. Rawlings” came to mind. That is a story of an English writer who went from rags to riches and is treated with dignity.

  • commenteer

    I’ve bought tickets for the Oxford Literary Festival before now. It had never occurred to me that the speaker wasn’t getting a fee. Perhaps audiences should be made more aware of this; a hat passed round for contributions would make the point nicely.

  • Anton

    Perhaps not entirely relevant to the subject but back in the late 1970s my folk group of that time was regularly asked to do freebies for good causes and being good eggs we usually agreed. We also enjoyed playing very much. However, we invariably discovered that we tended to be treated a bit shoddily (uncertain playing times, not a huge amount of respect,…) when performing for nothing, while when we asked for a fee, even a very minimum one, the organisers would be that much more attentive.

  • jeremy Morfey

    I had a discussion about this something-for-nothing culture the other day in Worcester.

    From its establishment in 1751, its takeover spiral from the 1980s and the closure of its factory in 2008, Royal Worcester Porcelain was a proud mark and icon of the city. Since then, most of the land occupied by the works was sold off for redevelopment, and the local pub knocked down to make space for a plush new building for a public school next door. A lot of money was made from the bones of the industry. That left an interesting little block of buildings, some Grade 2 listed, and all delightful and historic that the developers did not have the heart to knock down.

    Three years ago, a local entrepreneur and philanthropist came up with a scheme to turn it into an arts & crafts centre, with little workshops, cafes, studios and a theatre/concert hall. It need £10 million to convert the old buildings, much of it to be recovered on completion from the National Lottery. It got planning permission in 2014, after much wrangling with reports, heritage consultancies and conservation design. The two major corporate developers of the rest of the site, the public school and the local council were all asked to chip in. They all said how splendid the scheme was, but all refused to come up with the money, arguing that it was needed to keep their executive bonuses up to competitive market levels.

    The entrepreneur, who is now in his eighties, finally gave up late last year, and put in a planning application for the demolition of all but the two listed buildings, in order to build speculative housing and a token 144-seater recital room with restaurant attached. it was the only way it could get off the ground. Apart from a rather forlorn pottery museum in one of the buildings, little would be left of what was, until Thatcher’s and Blair’s business ethic destroyed it, a great industry. The City planners were due to make a decision last Friday.

    I wrote in to the planning website to express my feelings that the city really needs to examine what its values are.

    I agree with the author of this article – maybe we should start paying people if we wish their craft to continue?

    • dan

      isn’t that just the same as the article though?
      Article, man has dream of running lit festival, but wants it to be funded by other people providing services for free.
      your example, man has dream of making creative arts space, but wants it to be funded by other people…

      The DVD rant provided in the article is a pretty terrible example.
      No, I won’t give my services for free.
      then ranting that he doesn’t get his free DVD and shows offence at the mere thought that six months after release he could have actually bought it – you know since it’s an artistic en devour and the past few minutes the whole rant was about paying artists!

  • Frank

    What is the purpose of this literary festival (yet another!)?
    It has a host of sponsors, it presumably pays various Oxford Colleges for use of their premises, it generates spending in Oxford; but what is its purpose? Is it supposed to be the literary equivalent of one of those American Star Trek conference where you the public can pay money to rub shoulders with Captain Kirk? Quite strange (possibly quite British) to organise something and then not pay the star attractions to attend?

    • Nilzed

      Whether or not to pay names at Cons is a thing too. Many of the people most famous for that one role decades ago show up for free/expenses, but make money at the autograph table, andcharge for theautograph, more for a note, andyet more to stand up for a photo withyou. Comics artists likewise can make a tidy sum at the art tables. Inboththese cases though, the artist is actively working, they didnt get paid for thesitting on a stage and talking part of the day. Others, like Kirk, are paid for that part of theday, and the larger cons compete to get them. Still others are paid because they are promoting, the cons are like a working holiday, plenty of time off from their current gig, all expenses, including generous bar tabs, paid by their production companies.

  • fojap

    It’s much the same in the U.S.

    “As a well brought up Englishman, it has taken me years to overcome my instinctive nervousness at asking to be paid. It felt sordid, not the sort of thing nice people do.”

    As someone who was raised into a lower middle class family and had the misfortune of having a high IQ and always got encouragement to go into more artistic and intellectual fields, I can agree with everything you’ve said here. I think I was in my thirties when I finally decided that I would simply not work for free anymore, period. One of the things that really got my goat was realizing that the higher class people who were always asking me to do thing for free looked down on me as vulgar anyway.

    You’re very right about the effect it has on what books, and by extension artwork and music, gets before the public and therefore into our culture. Sitting around with a group of artists trying to find a way around this very problem years ago, one told a story about a friend who had been invited to be in the Whitney Biennial and who had to decline because he couldn’t afford to take the necessary time off of work or to incur the inevitable incidental expenses.

    Although I could sometimes support myself in a very bare way with my artwork, concerned about health care and having no savings, I switched to computer programming. I probably don’t need to tell everyone how mad I get when I hear people who are not programmers romanticizing the free software movement. More rich people who think it’s vulgar if anyone besides their own families have money is what they are to me.

    I’d better stop before I start to rant.

  • polidorisghost

    Perhaps they should withdraw their labour until we come to our senses and provide them a wage that accords with the contribution they make. On the other hand, perhaps we already do.

  • carl jacobs

    The problem is that artistic types chronically overvalue their work. Because they invest so much of themselves in their work, they tend to apply a sort of Labor Theory of Value. The market however doesn’t care that the writer invested several months of blood, sweat, toil and tears in the project. They will view it solely in terms of return on investment. If no one will buy it, then it has no value. Virtually all artwork (writing, music, sculpture, painting et al) has no value by this measure.

    So consider Bob Smith, author of “Free Speech and You” which sold 700 copies. The Festival offers Bob Smith a change to speak, but declines to offer a fee. Bob Smith refuses. He demands value be attached to his work. The Festival declines, and never contacts Bob Smith again. Instead the Festival calls Bill Jones, author of “Free Speech and Me” which sold 350 copies. Bill Jones accepts the offer, and the Festival advertises an event featuring noted author Bill Jones on the topic of “Free Speech.”

    The audience of course has never heard of either Bob Smith or Bill Jones. The audience is rather trusting the Festival to organize an interesting event. Bob Smith and Bill Jones are completely interchangeable speakers to an audience that mostly wants an interesting speech – one that will reflect back to it the assumptions and opinions that it holds. Bill Jones gives his speech, sells eleven more copies of his book, and watches the audience go home happy. Meanwhile, Bob Smith fumes next to his silent telephone.

    What is Bob Smith’s problem? Virtually all writers are highly fungible in economic terms. That means they cannot command a high price in the market. It would take a cartel to break this. But the barriers to entry for writers are too low. A cartel would never work because new entrants would immediately subvert the cartel. A writer could also develop knowledge of a very specialized subject that commands market attention. Or he could be an established figure with name recognition. But saying “I’m one of many writers who know this subject and I want to get paid because it’s the right thing for you to do!” won’t get much traction.

    • fojap

      I don’t have any problem with people who don’t want my paintings at all. My problem is mainly with people who want my paintings for free.

  • DellerboyNZ

    Getting from free to fee is a problem all creative people have.

  • T Ayling

    Often the case with these events that author speeches conclude with signing (and selling) lots of books, from which they obviously earn money. Truly, these festivals wouldn’t exist if they paid authors anything even mildly alluring to conduct their own PR campaigns for their latest scribblings.

    That said, if, as Mr Cohen has noted, they are not there to promote a book and were not conducting a book signing/selling afterwards (though this would most certainly be odd for a literary festival), a speaking fee would be appropriate.

  • anosrep

    The example Ellison gives in that clip is a bad one. In that instance he wasn’t asking to be paid for working. He was asking to be paid for permission to use existing footage of him – to be paid *again* for work he had already done and (presumably) been paid for. And maybe that’s fair – but it is a very different issue from being expected to work for nothing in the first place.

    • Adam Bromley

      Ellison was contacted about the use of an interview in a commercial DVD release. They wanted him to provide if for free, he wanted to be paid. It is the same phenomenon, everyone involved in the DVD release would have been paid, except him for that interview.

      • carl jacobs

        And we ultimately see just how valuable that interview was to the end product. If they are only willing to use it if it is free, then it doesn’t have value.

        • Adam Bromley

          What’s more likely is they would decline to pay for it in case it set precedent for other contributors, denting their profits. The world you describe sounds like an economist’s theoretical model rather than reality. Publishing, like most of the creative industries, is a highly imperfect market with lots of distorting factors. Things really are not as simple as you claim.

          • carl jacobs

            Ellison’s argument cuts both ways. He said the exposure wasn’t worth it because only 2000 copies of the video would ever be sold. But this also means that Ellison’s presence as a talking head wouldn’t have driven sales. It’s not like people would look at the jacket and say “Look who is interviewed! I am going to buy this!”. When Ellison refused, the video was not shortened by five minutes. The producers found another talking head to yap about Babylon 5. For free.

            Ellison was not angry about writers not being paid. He was angry that he personally had no leverage to compel payment. He thinks his visage and speech should possess some kind of objective value independent of the value that visage and speech would bring to the product. They don’t. The producers told him that by refusing to pay him. And that reality was the genesis of his little rant.

            The producers have a budget and are expected to turn a certain profit margin. They don’t have money to slake the thirsty egos of people who think they possess value they do not possess.

    • Hugh

      Much the same way as the studios expect to be paid “again” when their films are released on DVD or shown on TV.

      • anosrep


        • Hugh

          So his example is actually pretty good. The studios expect to be paid again (in accordance with the concept of “intellectual property”), so why shouldn’t the writer?

          • anosrep

            I didn’t say he shouldn’t. I said that intellectual property is a different issue and that the use of Ellison’s argument here conflates them.

  • Adam Bromley

    Well done Nick, it’s high time that someone blew the whistle on the notion that authors, musicians or artists should give up their time for free whilst everyone else is paid. If you like books, music or any other form of creative endeavour, you should pay the creators.

    • WetWork

      Scientists have to pay the publishers and sigh the copyright over to them.

      • Adam Bromley

        If you mean research scientists, then they are on salaries. Can’t comment about scientific publishing but it’s not a source of income for them. Authors only receive income when someone buys their books or perhaps pays them for appearing at a literary festival.

  • RoyWatson

    I notice that one vice of English writers going unquestioned in Nick Cohen’s piece is the equation of “English” with “British”. That is, I presume he didn’t mean to suggest that the terms offered by the Glasgow and Hay festivals were deliberatedly and especially unfavourable to the Saxons…

  • Mark Johnson

    i used to be a school Librarian. We had a few authors visit (Who we paid between £500 and £600 for the day) who were excellent. i was shocked to learn that thay made about 15-20 pence per book sale and that most of their money came from visiting schools. Only a small percentage make enough money to write full time, an even smaller one get rich. Most of us have no idea!

  • Janie Hampton

    Absolutely right, Nick Cohen, for picking up on Phillip Pullman’s support of ALL authors. Oxford Literary Festival is a registered charity but its published accounts show that one employee was paid 3 times the average income for writers, in 2014. I have a lovely collection of mugs without handles from OLF, but neither my gas board nor butcher will take them as payment. never again. I don’t want any more mugs, or tea bags – their more recent ‘fee’.

    • Charles Craig

      So authors come to the Oxford Literary Festival and they get TEABAGGED???!! That IS disgraceful!

    • tu


  • Polly Radical

    I get the impression that you should stop complaining, and write a more successful book.

    • InRussetShadows

      Sounds like you are endorsing the scam.

      • Polly Radical

        What – the scam of people who write books that nobody buys, and still expecting to be paid? That old scam?

        • Adam Bromley

          That wasn’t the point of the article. The Oxford Literary festival wanted Nick Cohen to give a speech. They sell tickets for each individual speaking event at £6 to £15 a piece. Why should an author give up an afternoon for free, when the audience have paid to attend the event? Whether the author has sold a million books or 1,000 books is irrelevant. They would be the only person there working for free. The ushers, waiters, security etc would all be paid… except the author.

          • James Strong

            If he wants to be paid for his speech and the festival organisers don’t want to pay him then he is free not to give the speech.
            He can strike a deal, or not.
            That’s what he could do.
            What he shouldn’t do is complain about the difficulties of his *chosen* trade to others.

  • carl jacobs

    I would suspect that the supply of authors willing to work for no fee far outstrips the demand for authors. Which means authors can work for nothing or not work. It’s not like someone will say “OMG! An author has demanded a fee! This changes everything.” Supply and demand determines the value of the author. If there is no demand from a paying audience for his services, why should he be paid? After all there are no “cleaners, designers, printers, administrators, publicists, taxi drivers, cooks, waiters, suppliers of marquees and toilets and electricity and food and drink” who will work for free. People demand their services and that gives the service value in the market. The organizers have no choice but to pay them. That isn’t the case with authors.

    This is just entitled artists thinking they are entitled to an audience. If they already had an audience, then they would be able to command a fee.

    • Brian Thedell

      Except no? They wouldn’t be coming to the writer in the first place, asking for work, if there were no demand. No one is saying that everyone who so much as starts a fiction blog get paid like they came up with Harry Potter. Indeed, this advice is for writers as much as it is for anyone—don’t sell yourself short, don’t be afraid to consider your work worth something. You say all these other professions get paid because they’re “worth it;” having worked as a semi-professional photographer, I can tell you most assuredly that ANY job that requires talent and skill more than it requires happening in a building owned by a large company gets pressure put upon it by audiences/consumers expecting something for nothing. Photographers, musicians, graphic designers (including web designers), and yes, yes, writers, all these professions have horror stories about talented people, some with impressive portfolios and/or education, who wind up as an accountant or something because everyone expected “you’ll do it for free for the exposure, right?” and in the end exposure doesn’t pay rent or put food in your mouth.

      With writers, many of us DON’T expect to get paid, so the answer is quite simple: either I will keep publishing my writing (essays, stories, poetry, whatever) on my own personal website, and in the occasional anthology that fancies my work, and it will stay there unpaid and UNDER MY TOTAL CONTROL, or you will find some kind of payment to encourage me to give you access to/use of my work. Again, obviously the work is worth SOMETHING, or someone wouldn’t be asking for it in the first place; if it’s not worth paying for, perhaps the person ASKING for it should re-evaluate if THEY should get paid, or should maybe enroll in some evening accounting classes themselves… 😛

      • carl jacobs

        If the organizers don’t provide toilets, will that affect attendance? Yes. If the organizers don’t provide a speech by the unknown author X, will that affect attendance? No. The audience may come to hear speakers but by def’n they aren’t coming to hear unknown speakers. If unknown speaker X provides no marginal gain to the conference, why should he be paid? The organizers can substitute unknown speaker Y at no cost to attendance. If an author wants to command a fee, he has to be able to move the needle. Otherwise, the organization is simply doing to author a favor by giving him exposure.

        The value of any product or service is determined by what people will pay for it. If conference organizers can get speakers for free, then the value of the conference speaker is zero. They won’t pay for something they can get for free. To break this equation, you must have a pre-built audience . That’s why the Clinton’s command large fees. People will pay to specfically hear them speak.

        • Brian Thedell

          Um, the premise here is that someone is asking for writing for free. All anyone here is really saying is, “don’t be afraid to remain unpublished if you feel you’re not being compensated properly.”

          Yes, there are plenty of events, functions, etc. where you can find a writer for free; if your event actually lends to a writer’s reputation or materially advertises for them, then it may be worthwhile to write without receiving money directly—something that is still payment.

          I think you think people are coming from critiquing an “I’m an entitled special snowflake” point of view or something. You’re wrong. This is about marketing, and how most writers (and creatives in general) are too timid and cowed to ask for fair compensation. No one is demanding to be paid for writing at gunpoint; we’re just suggesting, to ourselves and others, that maybe some of these projects DESERVE to go without writers, and if they can scrape up someone off the Internet to replace you, oh well you’re not actually out anything. If the exposure were “worth it” and were truly valuable as compensation, you wouldn’t even be asking yourself the question, you’d be saying “yes, Oprah! please feature me in a show on your private network.”

          Here’s something else I learned as a semi-pro photographer: even if you don’t need the money, if you are getting paid they automatically respect you more, and are easier to work with. If you agree to do the work for free, you have automatically assigned your work the value of “worthless” and you will be prioritized accordingly, even if your writing/art/whatever is literally the CENTER of their activity.

          • carl jacobs

            “I’m an entitled special snowflake” point of view or something.

            Well, yes. That perspective emerged from the whole “the arts are being cleased of all but the rich” narrative in the article. The unstated assumption on the part of the artist behind this thought is that someone should be funding his unrecognized genius until it becomes self-sustaining. But who is supposed to do that? There are many demands that artists be paid irrespective of the market because otherwise art will lose “diversity” or something. What is that but a demand for an audience that hasn’t been earned?

            • JabbaPapa

              At least a minimum reward should be provided by any professional person seeking reward for himself from any performance.

            • Brian Thedell

              You just don’t seem to get it at all. There is no government program, no coercion, NOTHING like that being discussed here. Most writers already ARE working a day job; if they give away their work for free, they will ALWAYS have that day job.

              Why do you hate capitalism? More directly, why do you hate capitalism when the person doing the selling and the hustling is an artist? I don’t think you’re a writer, and I don’t think you’ve ever encountered these kinds of situations as a creative person; people would likely ask for free work from a Nobel Laureate as much as they would from a local blogger nobody. And this problem isn’t just confined to writers, photographers, etc. As I understand it, doctors and therapists are VERY weary of people trying to get free advice on the golf course, at the gym, etc. “Oh but it’s just a second of your time,” and the person doing the demanding doesn’t seem to understand that if EVERYONE in his extended social circle got a free five minute consult, the doctor would have no time to make actual money. And while I’m not a doctor or lawyer, my day job is related to computers and I have an AS in the subject; my friends and family already know to never ask me for help with their computers—they don’t understand what I do to fix it, and they’re paying nothing, so essentially I assume all responsibility (“you changed my background five months ago, that’s why my computer crashed today!”) and no reward or appreciation. How is a writer any different from a computer technician? Keep in mind there are some self-taught “technicians” out there who couldn’t get paid if they tried, because they do more harm than good. So there’s your answer to “what about writers who don’t have TALENT?”

              Again, no one is saying it should be illegal for people to solicit and receive sub-standard writing for free. This message is more for writers with ANY talent or value; they know who they are. Indeed, if you can’t get published to save your life after years of trying, but someone wants your writing for free and that makes you feel good, go for it! But if you have any talent at ALL, and if you want to get a sense of satisfaction that DRIVES and INCENTIVIZES you to continue writing, it’s time to start demanding some sort of compensation; it’s time to participate in capitalism.

          • Nilzed

            No, they arent asking for writing for free. They are asking for writers to set aside their writing for the day, and come sit on stage and talk, for free. They are asking them to do so becausethey expect to make money sellngtickets for people to come listen. Why should the writer not get a cut, if they are well known enough to drive ticket sales?

        • Nilzed

          We arent talking about unknown speaker X though. We are talking about known speaker Y. We are talking about speakers that will cause some number of festival goers to buy a ticket and wait in line specifically to see, forgoing those X speakers to make sure they get into the hall for speaker Y. You dont have to be Clinton level to increase ticket sales, nor is anyone expecting Clinton level paychecks.

          Exposure is only a worthwhile payment for the X’s. If the festival organiser’s want brand Y level names, they should expect to pay.

          • carl jacobs

            What you say makes sense. If known speaker Y can drive marginal attendance or induce people to purchase tickets at a higher price, then he should be able to command a fee. My perception of the complaint on this thread however is that writers think payment should be received simply because writers speak. You have to provide value to get paid.

            In other words, unknown speaker X doesn’t get paid just because known speaker Y gets paid. This isn’t about some sense of “fairness.”

      • fojap

        I agree with you entirely. The problem is with people who ask for something and want it for free, not at all with the people who don’t want it.

    • Nilzed

      Gradually though, if well known authors who drive the punters to buy tickets do expect a cut of the money, just as the people who set the hall up get paid and those who sweep up after, that will become the norm. There will be those who ‘need the exposure’, but there already are plenty that the festivals need more than they need the festivals.

  • NoelBlack

    What are writers supposed to be paid for? Wouldn’t that be… writing?

    Why should someone pay them for plugging their book?


    • InRussetShadows

      It’s a festival. People pay money to hear bands or speakers. You pay the speakers. If it’s a music festival, you pay the bands. You speak as though you’ve never been to a festival or ran one. Heck, maybe things are different in the UK, but in the states, if you host a festival, you have to pay the talent.

      • Mc

        Sounds fair. After all, the Clintons, et al charge hundreds of thousands per vacuous speech that they deliver. A couple hundred Pounds per day for an author isn’t a great deal.

  • Youbian

    Well said. Most authors struggle on less than 10k a year

    • carl jacobs

      A man is not entitled to a comfortable living just because he is a writer. He earns what the market says he is worth. If he struggles on less than 10K, that means the market has judged the value of his writing at less than 10K. That isn’t necessarily a wrong outcome. If a man can’t earn enough as a writer to support himself, then he needs to get a different job to fund his writing.

  • The Knife

    When I became a consultant surgeon I did about 110 busy weekends on call plus loads of midweek nights for free, with lots of disruption to family life. That was the NHS deal until the new consultants’ contract in 2003. We often got paid much less than the older guys who did no on call at all. No other profession would have tolerated it. Nick Cohen is absoolutely right.

    • GnosticBrian

      Since when was being a professional a 9 to 5 weekdays only activity?

      • The Knife

        Since when was working for nothing acceptable? I did it for a long time. Professionalism is not the issue.

        • GnosticBrian

          I had always considered a consultant surgeon to be a profesional – someone paid a salary, not an hourly wage. Where did I say that working for nothing was acceptable? The worker should be paid the value of their work – that might actually be nothing in some cases; I’m thinking of the likes of Lin Homer.

  • faceshaker

    I remember going through the “why am I in this thing?” problem years ago. Was I in it for acceptance or fame? Or was I in it because I find some real sustenance in the act of writing? Those are the two main dynamics a writer may face in his (or her) career–whether that career gets off the ground or not. I chose the second question as an option because it provides me the solid ground when I’m out begging (submitting) for acceptance by complete strangers who may or may not be involved in some kind of racket. Money was never a consideration.

    These days, I look at the mad rush for publication as if publication is a “dog biscuit” for people literally crazed to be the first through the gate. Money? You’re kidding, right?

  • cmflynn

    What did Michelangelo get paid for painting the Sistine chapel?

    • OskarMatzerath

      As Michelangelo was personally contracted by Pope Julius II, he was paid a lot. Any time this was threatened by Julius’ absence, be that through ill-health or waging war, Michelangelo complained. A lot.

    • King Kibbutz

      Money. Lots of.

    • fojap

      The romantic era gave us this notion of the inspired artists that works for nothing. Until then, art was something of a craft and people got paid accordingly.

      • Nilzed

        The romantic era, a time when rthe richest men nolonger actually had to lead armies or help rule the country, and the richest women no longer had to physically run their households and produce food and clothing. So some turned to art to fill their time, and make use of their education. some of them got paid at the time, some of them are still famous for their work. But far more of them wrote just entertain themselves or get into someone’s bed.

  • King Kibbutz

    This has been the lot of young, highly qualified people for years now in Britain.
    Bad that it’s spreading, but good that established commentators get first-hand experience of the shambles that the British workplace has become in our thrusting economy.

    • Cis



      A fair wage for fair work, please, even for the less young and those without the “entitlement” meme.

      • King Kibbutz

        Yes young, highly qualified people have been expected to work for nothing, for a long time now.
        I’m a bit lost as to your meaning.

  • Amanda Craig

    I’m not so sure about the Hay Festival – following my open letter to the Bookseller this week asking authors to boycott non-paying literary festivals, it’s one of the least satisfactory according to many.

  • Michael H Kenyon

    Same for academics. Will you review the papers for the journals who don’t accept you in the hope they one day might? Will you review a research proposal? PhD? The whole academic publication business runs on this.

  • Ade

    Same for musicians…

    • Ralph

      Do musicians get paid to sit on the One Show sofa to tell everyone how good their new album is? I hope so but in general doing promotion part of their job be that pressers, book festivals, or free gigs.

      • Nilzed

        Except, according to this, those with an actual recent publication to promote, DO get paid, admittedly a rather token amount. Likewise, musicians currently promoting an album or actors currently promoting a movie,play or program are getting paid to sit on a television sofa or radio studio. Promotional appearances are part of their overall contract regarding that album/movie/program/play. Some get paid an appearance fee, some of them just got that much more in their overall payment. It’s the ones taking time from earning their current commission or advance (if they have one) who are asked to show up with, at best, minimal expenses covered.

        Generally, the writers and performers with name recognition enough to draw an audience and fans don’t need ‘exposure’, and they need to be paid for theticket sales they create. Nobody suggests Andy Murray come down and play a few matches at Wimbledon for ‘exposure’ and pro athletes only show up for unpaid events like the Commonwealth Games if the busman’s holiday is unlikely to interfere with a paying gig due to timing. Anyone willing to accept being identified as a writer in lieu of pay probably won’t draw any audience. Currently, in the arts, there are still plenty who don’t appreciate that the festival has to have recognisable names to succeed, and they are one of those names. People go well into their careers thinking they still need the sort of unpaid recognition that newcomers are glad of, as if the festival is doing them a favor, not the other way around. The tide is turning though.

    • telemachus

      Same for we poor bloggers who keep active sites like this afloat

      • vieuxceps2

        True Tele. You serve the same purpose as the Aunt Sally at the fair….

        • telemachus

          I think you should understand that in Port Meadow in Oxford, at the time of the English Civil War, the Cavaliers (soldiers loyal to King Charles I) were bored and formed a game with sticks and makeshift. The object was for players to throw sticks at the head in order to break the pipe
          This game became the aunt Sally and thus you understand that it was an early example of the forces of reaction trying to destroy the forces of progress and democracy

          • vieuxceps2

            Vairy inter-resting, Tele. The modern Aunt Sally serves as an object of scorn and derision and is gleefully knocked down.Indeed, that is its only function. Welcome to you, Tele.

          • Hugh

            Expertly copy and pasted from wikipedia as ever. What would we do without your keen historical insight.

          • Sue Smith

            …full stops (x 2).

        • Sue Smith

          Or being rammed from behind by a ship!!

      • aristophanes

        ‘Same for us…’
        Given that the article is about English, let us have some grammatical precision, please. Heap dustbins on I if u wil.

      • polidorisghost

        As a public relations low life you are already being paid aren’t you, and presumably what you’re worth?

      • 1e2c3a4w5

        Where can I find your blog?

      • JabbaPapa

        You’re delusional — as usual.

        • Sue Smith

          I expect he’s busy on the floor looking for the missing punctuation.

      • Sue Smith

        ..full stop.

    • rbw152

      Spot on. I was just about to write this myself! It happens all the time. Everyone except the poor saps sweating their nuts off on stage get paid. And we have to hump our own gear, pay for the petrol/taxis etc.

      If I didn’t like performing so much I’d not bother, really. It’s a complete rip-off. What is happening here is that venue managers are getting their main entertainment for free while happily benefiting from the proceeds. As a business model it’s lunacy – and we go along with it. Trouble is, if you don’t like it. some other desperate bunch of innocents will do it anyway.

      I’m not much in favour of more laws generally but I think we need some regulation here that sets out a contractual obligation for venues that want to put on live music. There should be a minimum fee at least. After all, the PRS will soon be breathing down your neck if you want to play the radio at work, so why can’t they do the same for live music?

      • 1e2c3a4w5

        But it’s not a complete rip off is it? You get the pleasure of performing and an audience, and you expect to be paid for it as well. There is only one way to find out what your services are worth in the market place…or perhaps you already have.

        • JabbaPapa

          From any objective point of view, what’s being complained about is fundamentally a form of illegal black market employment compounded by a refusal to remunerate the services rendered.

          OK, there are some really crappy acts whose only reward should be the odd fiver & free drink, but any venue offering stage time to even such as those should at least have a clear policy statement that those at least will be provided.

          No act, no matter how bad, is responsible — except in some very unusual conditions — for what happens onstage if they keep within the boundaries of the verbal contract, but the owner or manager of the stage is.

          These men cannot expect to have temp employees for free.