Following a very public decision by Philip Pullman to step down as patron of the Oxford Literary Festival because of its refusal to pay fees to participating authors, other British writers are uniting to support his move. An open letter to The Bookseller by novelist and critic Amanda Craig has attracted 29 signatories at the time of writing, including such household names as Joanne Harris and Bel Mooney. That letter states: “For too long, authors have been persuaded to give our services to the public for free—even though the public is paying in good faith to see us. We are the only people in festivals who are not paid, and yet without us the festivals could not exist. Writing is a vocation but it is also a profession, and it is time we all stiffened our spines, dug in our heels and said No.”
The Society of Authors (SoA) has carried the statement by Philip Pullman, who is also its president, in full. He declared: “The principle is very simple: a festival pays the people who supply the marquees, it pays the printers who print the brochure, it pays the rent for the lecture-halls and other places, it pays the people who run the administration and the publicity, it pays for the electricity it uses, it pays for the drinks and dinners it lays on: why is it that the authors, the very people at the centre of the whole thing, the only reason customers come along and buy their tickets in the first place, are the only ones who are expected to work for nothing?”
This is absolutely not the first time this issue has surfaced. Back in July 2013, I ran a piece entitled Are literary festivals little more than money-grubbing scams?, detailing authors’ complaints about similar issues. There, I quoted Susan Hill’s beautiful dissection of the book festival game, which outlined exactly how lucrative and easy to do book festivals can be for their organizers. That said, those organizers seem to be just as reluctant now as they were then to share the take – if Pullman’s decision and the support it’s attracting are anything to go by.
The Oxford Literary Festival, however, seems to go even further than most. As the SoA explains, “as well as providing no remuneration to speakers, the OLF records the performances and uses them on various platforms unless the author opts out. Such subsidiary rights should be reflected in the fee an author receives. The OLF also demands that the authors it engages do not appear at another event in a 45 mile radius within 30 days, saying that ‘If this occurs tickets sales are affected to the detriment of all’.” The SoA duly notes that “This is a bizarre restriction, especially since the author sees no profit from the sales of those tickets.” None-paying book festivals often excuse their practices by pleading the recognition that an author receives in a festival. In this case, the OLF appears to want to deny writers even that.
OLF director Sally Dunsmore said in her statement on the issue: “We have over 500 speakers each year. If we were to change our policy, we could not put on a festival as large and diverse as Oxford’s which supports and promotes the work of both bestselling authors and of those at the outset of their writing careers or with a smaller following.”
One suspects that those authors would appreciate being supported with actual cash. Meantime, this standoff looks set to run and run.
Image credit: Here.