I applaud Philip Pullman in his decision to resign as patron of the Oxford Literary Festival because it refuses to pay authors to attend and speak. He was right to say that writers should be paid. They are not on salaries and are not paid for work away from their desks (and often not then). Pullman protested that “Everyone at a festival is paid – the electricians, the people who put up the marquees and the people who sell food – except the writers, which seems ridiculous.”
Publishers do put pressure of their authors to attend so that they can sell copies of their books and raise their profile. Fair enough, but why should not writers be paid by festival organisers for their time and effort in preparing and giving talks or lectures? Some festivals, usually the smaller ones, are exemplary in insisting that all their speakers be paid – festivals such as the Sherborne Literary Festival and the new Dorchester Literary Festival, both down in my neck of the woods. They look after their speakers and treat them right. Bravo for them.
But it is shameful that the country’s big four literary festivals: Oxford, Cheltenham, Hay and Edinburgh, have erratic or stingy policies about payment of their speakers, without whom there would be no festival. Some writers receive nothing and others get bottles of wine. A very few receive top fees. These four festivals charge a lot for their tickets and should be able to afford payment to the creative people who write the books. It is a well-known fact that the vast majority of full-time writers can scarcely make a living from their words.
I think writers should boycott festivals that don’t play fair and don’t pay their speakers. Perhaps, if we all make enough fuss, some of the public who buy tickets might decide not to go to festivals where writers are treated so shabbily. I have always enjoyed the Oxford Literary Festival where I once had the privilege to hear Seamus Heaney speak and to meet him afterwards. However, in the future, I shall find out the policy of the festival directors regarding payment of their speakers before I buy tickets for events.