The Price Still Ain’t Right

A concerted campaign against writers being asked to work without payment is gathering pace on a number of fronts. We take the temperature of the current debate.

A concerted campaign against writers being asked to work without payment is gathering pace on a number of fronts. We take the temperature of the current debate.

Two years ago in ALCS News, we ran a feature entitled The Price Ain’t Right by freelance journalist and publishing analyst Danuta Kean, in which she cited numerous examples of professional writers being asked to work without payment. She concluded: “There is a danger that movements against the devaluation of our labour become little more than moaning clubs in which we berate the situation without challenging it at its roots.”

In January, Philip Pullman, President of the Society of Authors, issued such a challenge. He resigned as a Patron of the Oxford Literary Festival because they do not pay authors, explaining his actions thus:

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?

The following month, author Joanne Harris announced that she was withdrawing from an unnamed book festival “for the first time in her life” due to the unfair demands of the festival organisers. She called for an industry-wide standard to be introduced for festivals to follow, tweeting: “My publisher’s PR says that these iffy contracts have been cropping up a lot recently. I say it’s time we drew up one of our own.”

In the weeks since Pullman and Harris announced they were taking a stand, a concerted campaign against writers being asked to work for nothing has gathered pace on a number of fronts. ALCS News sought updates on the current situation from Nicola Solomon of the Society of Authors; Nick Barley, Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival and Bill Armstrong, actor and scriptwriter who wrote a piece for ALCS News in 2014 entitled Free is NOT an Option, about the expectation on TV writers to work without payment.

Nicola Solomon: Chief Executive, Society Of Authors


Last year we conducted a survey and issued practical guidance for engaging authors and ‘Minimum Practice Guidelines’ for festivals. Following our survey and the debate fuelled by Philip Pullman’s resignation, we’ve been contacted by many organisers and welcome the generally positive response to authors’ right to be paid and treated fairly. It was particularly heartening to see that many festivals also believe authors should be paid and issued statements in support – including Huddersfield, Manx Litfest and Marlborough.

Pullman’s resignation prompted Amanda Craig to call for a boycott of festivals which don’t pay speakers. She said, “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 at 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 SoA supports those who choose to take collective action in the hope of improving terms for all, but we do not suggest a blanket boycott. We encourage all authors to consider what they are being offered and the benefits they will gain and make an informed decision about the fees, terms and treatment they are willing to accept.

Meanwhile, on Twitter, authors are using the hashtag #litfestshoutout to highlight those festivals who treat their speakers well – and there are many.

We have continued to work with all festivals, funders, publishers, agents and other parties to improve terms and treatment for all and are delighted that several festivals – including Oxford – have now committed to pay authors from next year. Our Minimum Practice Guidelines are being referenced and used. For instance, Barnes Children’s Literature Festival, which is in its second year, told the press that:

The festival is committed to paying all participating authors and illustrators a fee in line with the Society of Authors’ guidelines, as well as covering costs for travel and accommodation. We really value the time and words of all our visiting authors and illustrators, and want them to have as good a time as our audience.

Authors, working together, have changed the thinking and practice for the benefit of everybody.

Nick Barley: Director, Edinburgh International Book Festival

No one can deny the popularity of book festivals. When the Edinburgh International Book Festival started in 1983 we were only the third such event in the country: now there are over 300 across the UK. The demand just keeps growing and in a world where not so long ago the death of books was being forecast across the media and the publishing industry, that’s something to be celebrated. But, as with any success story, the success of these festivals, and the benefit – both economic and reputational – to authors is being questioned in the media at the moment and it’s only correct that festival directors should be held to account, just like the directors of any other charity.

The strength of a book festival is not only the quality and variety of authors it invites, but also the quality and variety of audience it attracts. The festival is a conduit between the two and has a responsibility to them both. I believe that, if it can, a festival’s responsibility is to pay authors for their attendance. Not every festival is able to generate this sort of income – Edinburgh has always paid invited authors, and mediators, for every appearance at the Festival, and we also make sure that an author’s travel and accommodation costs are covered. Currently that fee is £200 per one-hour event, whether the writer is sharing a stage, or on their own, whether they are a Nobel Prize winner or a debut novelist, a world-renowned political figure or an unknown illustrator. That equality is important to us. With over 800 participants, some making multiple appearances, this commitment represents a considerable chunk of our expenditure, but it’s a cost we believe is vital to the running of our festival.

At Edinburgh we pay our staff, every single person who works for us, whether it’s selling tickets, selling books, picking litter, managing author hospitality or guiding audiences in and out of theatres. Everyone gets a fair wage for the work they do. Book festivals need authors, but I believe that authors also need book festivals and the exposure to readers, media and publishers that they can offer. The relationship between them should be one of mutual benefit and appreciation.

Bill Armstrong: Actor, Scriptwriter & Member of The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain

Since I wrote my article for ALCS News in November 2014, much has happened.

The WGGB has published Free is NOT an Option Good Practice Guidelines. These have proved a valuable resource for writers, many of whom were unaware what they had a right to expect. In some cases where a producer has initially insisted there was no money, a writer has directed them to the guidelines, after which they “managed to dig up some money”. The WGGB has published a ‘Right to Pitch Template contract’ on its Resources page. A simple document that can be downloaded and used without the need for expensive legal fees, it gives a producer the right to pitch a writer’s work. The WGGB is in discussions with the major broadcasters to get them, as a matter of course, to ask whether or not a producer has the right to pitch a writer’s project.

The WGGB met last year with a number of producers, agents and business affairs people from several independent production companies. We were pleasantly surprised to find they wholeheartedly supported our campaign. The representatives we met were committed to nurturing good working relationships with writers and were fed up with being undercut by unscrupulous, irresponsible and myopic companies that refused to pay writers fairly for their work.

The WGGB’s Free is NOT an Option campaign received unanimous backing from the TUC conference in September. A statement of its aims has been signed by MPs, members of the House of Lords, writers, directors and actors (see the Free is NOT an Option campaign statement).

In response to a parliamentary question about the Free is NOT an Option campaign, Culture Minister Ed Vaizey replied, “I am aware of that very important campaign. I find it absolutely astonishing that many independent production companies, which make millions and millions of pounds, cannot be bothered to pay a decent wage to people who contribute to their work. I will certainly work with the honourable lady to encourage them to do so.” The WGGB has subsequently met with the minister, at which time he reaffirmed his support and willingness to help us.

Much remains to be done but not a bad start.

  • Read Bill Armstrong’s ALCS News piece here.
  • Read Danuta Kean’s ALCS News piece here, along with her invaluable advice designed to help writers decide if the price is right.