Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The Simple Guide to Caring for an Author

It really is simple. Organising a festival or other event is not simple but looking after your author(s) is. Simple it may be, but important it absolutely is. It makes the difference between us being able to perform with energy, passion and positivity, or us collapsing at the end in a quivering, possibly furious, heap.

My simple guide
1. Pay us. Please. We don't have salaries or wages; we've taken a lot of time to prepare, to travel, to wait for the event; we are also experts in our field. Whether this is the first time we've done a talk or the five hundredth, we are an expert about the book or topic you've asked us to talk about. We are also adults; we pay taxes and bills. And most authors are not at all well paid. Occasionally, for reasons of our own, we might do something for nothing: but you must NEVER expect it, and never ever ever cover up your inability to pay with phrases such as: "Our budgets have been cut," "Other authors are doing it for nothing," "It's a good cause," or - the worst - "It will be great for your profile."

2. Make space for us. There should be a room where authors/speakers can go before and after the talk, a place where we can leave our coats, go to the bathroom, and escape from the audience afterwards. (I recently spent two hours between events dodging desperate questions from aspiring writers from my first talk of the day, who simply wouldn't let me sit, eat, drink or breathe. Some were delightful and apologetic; I wanted to help them all; I couldn't - my blood sugar was plummeting and no one noticed.)

3. Feed and water us. No, we don't need champagne and smoked salmon - though obviously I wouldn't spit it out. Just offer us something, anything. Please.

4. Plan the time-table properly. With gaps.

5. Give us a few moments peace before we do our talk. However relaxed we might be or seem, we still need those moments to clear our heads, breathe a few times, and remember what we are going to say. Do not bring a local dignitary to meet us at that point. Or a photographer.

6. INTRODUCE US. It's hard to explain the difference between having someone say a few glowing words that we couldn't say about ourselves, and having to introduce ourselves to a bemused audience. Recently, I was introduced as, among other things, "She's been shortlisted for a few things." Well, actually, I've won a few things but I couldn't say so, could I? It means that the audience ends up never knowing - except that on this occasion, a fellow-author who was speaking after me was generous enough to put the record straight.

7. At the end, wind up the questions and thank us, saying something nice if you can possibly bring yourself to do so. Not long ago, an organiser had told me she didn't have any spare staff to do intros or thanks. As it turned out, she was actually IN my audience, but still didn't find it in herself to say anything at all to me, either privately or publicly. Now, I happen to know that the event had been a good one, because many in the audience contacted me afterwards, and because you can tell from people's faces, but that young woman sat there and said nothing. Nor did she mention either thanks or praise in any of the emails I had to deal with from her afterwards, which were mostly about invoices and expenses.

8. Do not deduct tax from our invoice. If you do that to me (and I specifically state on my invoice that I am registered self-employed) I will a) charge you a £75 admin fee and b) send a swarm of especially nippy wasps to your garden and ask them to stay there until the tax has been refunded.

9. Be prepared. The better prepared you are, the better the event will be. This is not just about the author but about the whole audience. So, think ahead and discuss with the author in advance - but try to avoid reams of disjointed email correspondence. A simple question, "What do you need?" goes a long way. Trust me: the answer will be reasonable. Very few of us are actually prima donnas; we are simply trying to create the conditions that will allow us to deliver a brilliant event for you.

10. Be sensitive. All writers are different. Some are nervous and look nervous; others look calm but are churning inside. Err on the side of caution and just be nice to us. You don't have to fuss, you don't have to jump to attention, you don't have to treat us with kid gloves. Just try to imagine that you are doing what we're doing: about to face a strange audience for an hour, for an event which is really important to our careers. We're on our own, we're vulnerable, we are the ones who will suffer if it all goes horribly wrong.

11. If in doubt just ask. Honestly, most of us are lovely. Despite my crabbitness above, I think I'm as lovely as possible, too. I only get crabbit when people get so much wrong and make all my hard work a) harder and b) unappreciated.

Random points:
  • Photos -  if you are having a photographer, schedule this so it's not immediately before the event. Or during, as has happened to me on several occasions in school events - by which I mean that the photographer arrived mid-event and I had to stop in the middle of my favourite story about surgery without anaesthetic...
  • Recording - do not do this without asking and do not spring it on us at the last minute. Discuss in advance. I will not let a full event be recorded but I don't mind extracts, as long as I see them first.
  • Book-selling - never expect the author to do this herself. This has happened to me before, once at a well-known book festival to which I will never go again. (That isn't the only reason.) 
It has to be said that most events are well organised and most organisers that I've come across are dedicated, fantastic, kind and thoughtful. Unfortunately, it's the others that sometimes stick painfully in my mind.

Yesterday, Danuta Kean blogged about this very effectively. A load of us have been discussing the whole issue and we want to set the record straight. If you know anyone organising any kind of author event, do send them our way.

Thank you. You've been a lovely audience.


catdownunder said...

Write a thankyou note afterwards! I took a bunch of kids to meet one of our local authors once. He was Principal of a teacher training college as well and had some mobility issues. He turned on tea and biscuits and answered ALL their many questions. I am proud to say that every single one of the eight kids I took wrote their own thankyou letter without prompting from me. He told me later, "I'd do it again for them, especially when I found out how much they appreciated it.

Claire King said...

What a fabulous, brilliant post. I am going to print this out and keep it as ammunition for next year (when I'm hoping to be invited to things, paid of course).

Whirlochre said...

Strange how some people's idea of hospitality arises from an inhospitable swamp...

Kristin Pedroja said...

Horray! I was hoping this would be the result. Excellent post - although most of these sound logical. How would organisers like to be treated?

I'm glad you mentioned photos, recordings, and bookselling; I have been guilty of the latter, though always asked the author if he/she wanted to bring books to sell as our one local bookstore (Waterstones) was unhelpful.

Thanks for this, Nicola. Will be forwarding to others.

Vanessa Gebbie said...


It astounds me that after three years of sticking to my guns and not doing anything unless there is a fee/expenses, while with a small indie press, now I am with a mainstream press the only invites thus far are those that require me to pay to go - with my time, for free, or with real money - getting there, and finding food and drink.
It is a real eye-opener and very poor.

Nicola Morgan said...

Kristin, I should clarify: what I meant was actually requiring the author physically to sell the book, as in dealing with the money. It's just that it's impossible (for me, anyway) to do maths while chatting and signing!

Vanessa, that's very interesting. I'm surprised, actually. Seems wrong and shabby. Hmph.

Kathleen Jones said...

This hits the spot perfectly Nicola. But it isn't just festivals/groups that expect you to do things for nothing - publishers often expect you to 'publicise your book' for no fee at book signings, festivals etc. The dilemma is you either turn up at your own expense, or risk selling fewer books! Currently giving talk for expenses only. Sigh ......

JO said...

This isn't even a tiny bit crabbit - it is simply being reasonable.

How hard can it be to treat people with respect? Speakers are not commodities, imported simply to fill a space in the schedule. It's not that difficult to put yourself in someone else's shoes and think about how to make the whole thing easy for them.

Nicola Morgan said...

Kathleen - tricky one. I *do* think it's acceptable to do events for no fee during the publication whirl - say two weeks around pub date. But publishers should pay expenses and make sure you are well looked after. Also, most festivals do pay a fee and I'd question any publisher who put you forward for one that didn't.

Jo - yup.

Anonymous said...

A subject close to my heart as both an organiser of a festival and performer at other people's.

1. Pay - I have to say think this depends on the festival. Not the Oxford Literary Festival ('scuse plug) was set up as an anti-festival and really does have no budget/is run by people who have no money. We invite participants but are always (I hope) 100% up front about the fact there is no money when making the invitation. Our ticketing policy is transparent to go with this - some events are free, others have a minimal charge that goes 100% to local bookstores. I have performed at a variety of events and festivals and been paid for doing so only twice - in one case at a mainstream literary festival that had sponsors where I was compering the evening's events and speaking on a panel about publishing, in the other case I was at a gallery and the event had Arts Council funding. I have never been paid for spoken word or heard payment talked about for spoken word except for headline acts at the very biggest events. It would be wonderful if that did happen more, and the fact that it doesn't happen perpetuates the idea that spoken poets are somehow "not as serious" or "lack the depth" of their on-the-page contemporaries who appear at paying festivals when the reality is 1. the Arts Council just doesn't take spoken word seriously and 2. festival organisers likewise, not helped by comments from those in authority like Geoffrey Hill. So, until we reach the headline level, there really just isn't the infrastructure in place for spoken word to be paid in the way there is for on the page authors of all disciplines - and this perpetutaes the divide, as do, I think, generic calls for payment without examining the difference between art forms and why some are paid more than others (because such calls lead to comebacks of "I wasn't talking about..." whereas we *should* be talking about all forms of writing rather than furthering the divide and the notion that poets, especially those who deliver orally, are a fringe). But I do have experience of high ticket value events that don't pay - Literary Death Match, for example, charges £10+ per ticket, gets crowds well in excess of 100, and pays the four participating authros, often drawn from far and wide, nothing.

2-end - these go without saying. And I heartily agree that those of us that run non-paying events should treat their writers even more like gold dust.

BucksWriter said...

Hi Crabbit

Another well reasoned and highly useful post, thank you.

I have almost twenty years of experience as an event manager and most of your requests are just basic good manners on the part of the organiser. Speakers are an event's most valuable asset (even if it is the travel and the food that people moan about, sigh) and they deserve to be sensitively hosted as an important guest as well as properly compensated for time and expenses. It's all about relationship-building and an ounce of consideration goes a very long way.


Linda Strachan said...

Excellent post, Nicola. These issues come up time and again. we jsut want to be treated with a little reapect for us as people and good manners are not a lot to ask!

I ahve to say that the majority of events are great and organisers are amazing, but some...! I think the trick is to try and make sure of the details as much as possible in advance, but that can never be 100% successful.

Just because we are enthusiastic about what we do does not mean people should try to take advantage.
Part of the problem is the misconception that authors are all loaded rather than the truth that most earn way below the minimum wage. Some imagine we make the cover price on a book so that if they sell a dozen books we have actually made some money out of it and that should be instead of a fee!

I also think authors need to be firm and professional about payment. Too many I speak to are hesitant to demand fair pay for the job they are doing and allow themselves to be beaten down into accepting much less. Thank heavens for the Scottish Book Trust and their recommended fee.
But the analogy with plumbers is a common one- Do you know one who would come out for free?

It is understandable when events have small budgets but tell us up front and allow us to decide if it is a cause we want to support and don't get upset if we say no!
Would the organiser go to another place and work for free just because they are asked? Would a teacher expect to work on their day off for no pay? Most writers do not have a guaranteed wage to fall back on.

I am amazed when schools don't consider that we are human beings who need the normal comforts like food and drink etc, especially if you have just travelled for an hour or two to get there.

I love the 'inhospitable swamp' comment, Whirlochre!

Michele Helene said...

Thank you so, so much for posting this Nicola.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Nicola. We should all print it out and use it as our "rider" (i.e. list of demands) next time we're asked to do something. :-)

I especially agree with "Make space for us." In the last month I've done two full-day speaking events (workshops) when previously, the longest I had spoken for was about 1.5 hours. There is no comparison in terms of the energy it requires, how your throat feels at the end of the day, etc. What makes it worse (and this is not a criticism of the lovely people who want to talk to you) is that you also have to talk through all your breaks, answering questions, etc. because when coffee or lunch was served, we all had it together. For one of them I just walked outside and around the block a few times just to not talk for a few minutes! :-)

Re: getting paid, the first thing I ever did was for free, because I was just bowled over to even be asked—and I even incurred expense getting to the event. It left me out of pocket at the time, but it was the best decision I ever made, because it's led, one way or another, to every other speaking engagement I've got, and they've all been paid. But it is definitely only something I'd do at the beginning, when you have no track record, so to speak, and you're more interested in opportunities. I would also be wary of people who tell you "it'll be great for your profile" or other such things—in my experience, only people running events that won't help *anyone's* profile say things like that! :-D

Tam said...

This is bang on the money, as always. As you say, we may do free events from time to time but that's at our own discretion and shouldn't be assumed to be the norm.

Out of the World Book Day events I did this month, where I took my baby because he's too young to be apart from me for long, my favourite event by far was with the bookseller who had listened to my plea to allow lots of breaks for cuddles\feeding and plied me with tea\chocolate, as well as taking us out for lunch. I wish it was always like that.

If I'm doing an event for my publishers, free or otherwise, they usually send someone along to look after me and offer to pay expenses.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post Nicola, thank you.

I commented on Danuta's post yesterday, and now as I read yours, it occurs to me that some of the best gigs I've appeared at have been the ones organised by the independent book sellers. They have a vested interest in selling lots of tickets, in drumming up great PR, in getting bums on seats to see, hopefully, somebody fabulous talk about something interesting. After all, if it goes well, they'll create a buzz and sell plenty of books - and that makes us all happy!

I hope everyone, authors and event organisers, reads your post and takes note ...

Helen said...

I second what Linda said about the Scottish Booktrust. It is very useful to be able to tell event organisers, "This is the going rate."

Unknown said...

I hope you had a good experience at the Write to be Published workshop sponsored by the Edinburgh Book Store. You were great and I got so much out of it.

Melinda Szymanik said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Melinda Szymanik said...

Brilliant and incredibly useful. I shall be sharing this post widely :) Thank you

Carole Blake said...

A piece that really needed writing and will be invaluable to many: thank you. Many of these points are relevant when dealing with literary agents as speakers too. I once went to a writers' weekend where I was booked from 10.00-5.30 with 15 minute one-to-one appointments with writers. No gap except 1 hour for lunch (in a building far away), no prior warning, no water provided, no loo breaks. Then 10-12.30 the same, the next morning in a room on my own: everyone else had left. I was exhausted, hoarse, brain dead & left with an aching back. This happened 2 years running, despite my complaints. I was told: 'Oh, the writers will be so disappointed if you cancel' so I did the appointments. But I will never go to that festival again.

Carole Blake said...

A piece that really needed writing and will be invaluable to many: thank you. Many of these points are relevant when dealing with literary agents as speakers too. I once went to a writers' weekend where I was booked from 10.00-5.30 with 15 minute one-to-one appointments with writers. No gap except 1 hour for lunch (in a building far away), no prior warning, no water provided, no loo breaks. Then 10-12.30 the same, the next morning in a room on my own: everyone else had left. I was exhausted, hoarse, brain dead & left with an aching back. This happened 2 years running, despite my complaints. I was told: 'Oh, the writers will be so disappointed if you cancel' so I did the appointments. But I will never go to that festival again.