I have spoken at too many festivals, conferences and events to count. I have also been involved in organising a strand of the Edinburgh International Book Festival and have given free advice to two people setting up new book festivals. I have organised a major writers' conference myself and am planning to do the same around publication of Write To Be Published. I know what makes a good event for authors and readers. And I don't too much care about anyone else. As far as I'm concerned, writers and readers are the important people in this, granted that we also need supporting people. Including the event organiser.
So, here are my points, aimed at organisers and with huge respect for what the best of them do, including many school librarians.
- Authors earn a very small percentage of the profit on a book sale, not a percentage of the cover price, but of the price after the publisher discount to the retailer, often 60% or more, is applied. They might earn 40p per book, if the supplier doesn't have a high discount, and sometimes less. (Depends on cover price and discount.) If you sell 30 copies of their book, which is optimistic, that's £12 for the author for the whole event, which they won't receive for around six months. So, sod book sales as a compensation for you offering no fee.
Sometimes we might do an event for nothing but if you have to ask this, ask yourself why you have to. Are you charging the audience? Why can't you manage to pass some of that to the author, the person with the talent on which this event is based? I have also found that when events are free, more things go wrong - audiences cancel and people don't think they are getting something worth having. Having said that, we do do things for nothing and sometimes that's fine. But there has to be a good reason and it has to be our choice.
When the author is paid £150 for an event, which in the UK is the recommended fee - though not usually achievable by festivals, with Edinburgh being an honourable exception - that may seem like very decent earnings for an hour. And it would be if it was an hour's work. But it's not.
Here's what happens to me when I get an invitation which I accept:
- You and I have an email conversation, which over the time leading up to the event may take 1-2 hours of my time, because you very properly want a biography, pictures, details about whether I eat prawns, details about my arrival, details about the contents of my event, a blurb for the programme, a photo, discussion about who is supplying the books and how. Actually, let's say three hours.In fact, the more and better questions you ask, the more time it will take - Catch 22. Or I pay my assistant to do this because I should be writing.
- I spend some time - say another hour - organising to be away. I sort out dog-sitting, food for the house, family, book train tickets. Get stuck on the Trainline website...
- I plan the actual content of the events. Planning can be anything from twenty minutes if it's a school event that I do hundreds of times, to ten hours or more if it's a new event which you've specifically asked for - such as for a conference talk on a particular topic with powerpoint.
- I print out leaflets and order forms and handouts, as appropriate.
- I pack, including several bits of equipment which are different for each event, and travel to the event and back again, which is never going to be less than a day. A day during which I can't write, or not meaningfully.
- I have inevitable costs during the journeys, some of which I don't charge even if you're kindly offering expenses.
My point is, please:
- Every author is different, with different needs. So, read my Inviting Me To Speak page on my website and just ask me about anything you're not sure of. Ask, for example, what I need in terms of food. Or else provide it anyway. I totally love the school librarians who give me a plate of sandwiches, a kettle and a SILENT ROOM after an event. One even lent me an ipod. I could have married her. (Note to organisers: I now have an ipod, thank you!)
- Understand that I can't make scintillating conversation to you or your colleagues between events, or in your car between locations. I do not want you to take me to lunch between events instead of paying me, or even as well as paying me. I want you to let me eat my lunch with my eyes and my ears shut. Once - O. M. G. - I was taken unwillingly to lunch and then asked to PAY because their budget didn't stretch to it. Bloody hell. I could barely speak to them. (For clarity, being taken out at the end is lovely - quite different, because although I'll be tired I'll not have to focus again that day. And, again, every author is different. I just find my head spins and I don't talk well when that's happening.)
- If I am doing two events, please let me go and get some fresh air in between. Otherwise you will not like me.
- Don't ask me to deliver three events in one day. (Except in exceptional circumstances.) I will be crap. This is NOT like teaching three lessons in a row - I have done that, too. That's a doddle in comparison. No, this is like - no, is - performing on stage on your own for an hour, followed by an hour, followed by another hour. Humans can't do it and remain even vaguely pleasant.
- Note that I once fell asleep at the wheel of a car travelling at 70 miles an hour on a dual-carriageway because librarians had asked me to do too much. I nearly died and so did a load of other people.
- Never. Ever. Ever. Never tell me that it's ok not to pay me because I will be able to get some writing done and you won't ask for a cut of the "profits". PROFITS? Don't bloody make me laugh. (This happened to me recently. I said no.)
Sometimes, school librarians in particular go to great lengths to provide lovely home-made cakes and things. This is incredibly sweet of them and much appreciated but it's actually not necessary. My point is just that I don't have demands for luxury or anything, just a bit of gentleness and the understanding that what I do is important to you and exhausting for me. I love it, but it's exhausting..
So, please sell books. That does not mean put them on a small table in the corner of a little-used cupboard where fire extinguishers used to be stored. It means display lots of them in all their glory, tell customers that they will be there, provide lots of time for people to buy them, TELL people to go and look at them and consider buying them and generally puff the idea of owning glorious books.
- Always give the author an introduction. Say nice things about us even if you haven't read our books. I have had people forgetting my name, people saying I need no introduction and then not giving me one, and I've had fabulous introductions. I once arrived on the stage of a large theatre to cheers and whoops from the huge school audience - they probably hadn't read any of mny books but the librarians had got them excited. That's fabulous. It creates an energy about the event from the start.
- Study the author website. It makes such a difference when you know a bit about us.
- Let an author have a few minutes peace before the event starts to collect her thoughts. Get the head teacher out of the way - now is not the time for a marketing drive.
- Provide a good space for speaking. I don't like people looking up my nostrils. I also don't like lunch trolleys being wheeled through when I'm telling a story.
- DO NOT MARK BOOKS DURING THE EVENT.
- Do not spring unexpected tasks on me. "Oh, I thought you'd like to come and say a few words to the remedial class on your way to lunch" is not a good idea. With all respect to the remedial class but they deserve more than a few words.
- Oh, and if you've got local press coming, which is a lovely idea, do NOT let them interrupt my talk to take photos. I once lost 10 minutes of my talk because local photographers couldn't wait till the end. Totally lost momentum.
- Edited to add: do NOT
stealdeduct tax from my invoice. An invoice is an invoice. I pay my own tax and the tax people do not need me to pay them twice. Universities and councils are the culprits here: I'm waiting for the refund of wrongly deducted tax from a certain University where I spoke in MARCH. Am livid.
But it's not just my event: it's yours, too. And part of its success comes down to your preparation, enthusiasm and understanding. So, let's do it. Let's make great events together. It's one of my favourite bits about being an author, which is why I say yes so often.
EDITED TO ADD: to give you an example of perfect event organisation, next week I'm going to the High School of Dundee on Monday and Chesterfield library on Friday night, to chat to a group of teenagers and adults in a fab-sounding reading group. I am 100% confident that these will be exemplary. Just a few minutes ago, my assistant passed me an email from the Chesterfield organiser saying that they'd have sandwiches for me before the event and that they'd take me out for a bar meal afterwards, as the guest house has no catering facilities in the evening. That's very caring and wonderful of them. They've thought it through AND they've told me in advance. Both Dundee and Chesterfield are fully paid events and I am sure that many hoops were jumped through to sort out the considerable costs to school and library. I love you, organisers of both events and I am looking forward to giving your audiences the best experience I can.
PS - I knew there was something I'd forgotten to tell you. (A draft of this post accidentally disappeared and I tried to remember what I'd lost.) Yes, I thought I'd tell you about the time when I rejected an invitation after reading the first two words:
I just kind of felt a bit unwanted, you know? :-(