This week, Philip Pullman, the patron of the Oxford Literary Festival, resigned because, he said,

“that his position as patron of the festival “sat rather awkwardly” with his role as president of the Society of Authors, which has been campaigning for authors to receive fair payment at literary festivals.”

Naturally, this has ignited something of a debate on Facebook and Twitter, with many authors feeling strongly one way or the other, each for their own reasons.

Like most of marketing, this is a case where there’s no one single and definitive answer, but I have an opinion…

It’s important to recognize that festivals and conventions aren’t the same thing. Bouchercon, for example, is a convention. The national organization is a registered nonprofit, and it has a board (of which I’m a member). Each year, though, there’s a Local Organizing Committee that operates largely independently.

Festivals are normally smaller, and usually have a standing organization (often also nonprofit) behind them. Also, conventions have members (including Bouchercon; when you register to attend, you’re buying a membership for a year), whereas festivals have attendees (or ticket-holders).

The reality is that few public (as opposed to professional development events) book events pay participating authors. There are a few I’m aware of that reimburse (some) expenses and some that don’t charge authors an attendance fee, but more often, if you go, it’s on your own dime.

Pullman argues that authors “are the only ones who are expected to work for nothing” at these events, and proceeds to recycle the messaging that’s been floating around lately about not working for publicity.

Well, hang on there, Mr. Pullman.

First of all, he’s speaking as though this applies to every book event, which is absurd. Second, he seems to be completely forgetting that readers factor into the event equation. Third, last time I checked, writers write for a living. They don’t participate in panels or socialize in bars. And last, he apparently discounts marketing completely when it comes to books, which is simply stupid.

Look, I wish authors got paid to attend all book events. Believe me, it would make my life a lot easier. But they don’t. Are the reasons for that sound? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. But if you’re not going to any book events because you’re not paid to do so, you’re making a mistake.

Events, just like any marketing tactic, are a matter of return on investment (ROI). For any given event, you have to ask yourself (and, ideally, a spreadsheet) what’s in it for you. Questions I use to evaluate events on behalf of clients include:

  • Are there panel opportunities? If so, will you get to be on a panel?
  • Is there an on-site bookstore? If so, how many books are normally sold?
  • How many readers (as opposed to writers) attend?
  • Is the audience in line with your reader demographics?
  • How much does it cost? (Including registration, travel, and on-site expenses like the aforementioned bar)
  • Do you want to go? (This one can’t be quantified on a spreadsheet, but it’s a valid question.)

Don’t get me wrong, and I want to be absolutely clear about this: I believe writers should be paid, and paid well, for their work. For their books. People should buy books, and authors should make money from that transaction.

If I wanted to be upset about something, though, it would be the tiny percentage of book sales authors receive and the often draconian contract terms, not the fact that few events offer honoraria. Events are an important marketing tactic. You don’t need to go to all of them, but don’t write any of them off just because authors aren’t paid to attend.