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Sunday, 24 January 2016

The Bottom Line

An article on Philip Pullman in the Guardian over a letter penned in his capacity as President of the Society of Authors kicked off a cluster of blog posts. Warning of the likelihood that the professional author may become an endangered species; drawing attention to a recent survey indicating that the median income of a professional author in the United Kingdom is £11,000, with less than 12% of writers making a living solely from writing.
Stressing that “authors are the only essential part of creating a book and it is in everyone’s interest to ensure they can make a living,” pointing out that unfair terms of contract are a major part of the problem, especially where these impact on the royalty rates paid to authors. He added that there was an overwhelming case for fairer contracts for authors.

The most daunting landscape facing the author than any seen before has one constant, the “ignored, unacknowledged and compete dependence” of the great interests in publishing, the big commercial presses on the writers and their talents.

Pullman is not calling, for nor desires the destruction of the great interests, but asks simply for fairness in their dealings with the creators who produce the material they publish.

He took it  a step further shortly after with a statement reported in the Bookseller regarding his position as a patron of the Oxford Literary Festival over their practice of not paying authors who had been invited to speak, announcing his decision on twitter, he added that although growing from humble beginnings on a shoestring budget it had grown to a prestigious event with 500 authors and other guest speakers each year and a spokesman said they were sad that Philip Pullman had resigned and thanked him for his support and the many appearances he had made, but that a change in policy would make it impossible to maintain the Festival at its current size and diversity.

Pullman countered be calling on “simple justice” that authors should be paid, telling the Bookseller that everyone else involved professionally was remunerated. Citing a list of professional caterers, cleaners, marquee hire, venue rental for the lectures, etc.”

Other writers picked up the thread, Robert Harris tweeted and more put their name to a letter from novelist and critic, Amanda Craig to the Bookseller, citing Pullman’s resignation and calling on authors and publishers to boycott Festivals who expected authors to work for free.
A survey carried out in December 2015 by the Society of Authors showed most festivals pay £150 - £200 per appearance to authors, Oxford was not among them.. The letter highlighted restrictions on appearances within 30 days and 45 miles of the event, describing the conditions as extraordinary where no appearance fee is offered.

Nick Cohen took the matter further in the Spectator blog, Why English writers accept being treated like dirt; starting with an invitation to speak at the same festival Phillip Pullman recently resigned as a patron of.

Cohen, author of "You can't Read This Book, Censorship in Age of Freedom," The call involved a Free Speech event, was he interested and it would come with the usual Festival deal.

Having banged on about Free Speech (his own words) and being quite happy to bang on about it even more, Nick Cohen had one small query, did the usual deal involve the vulgarity of payment?

The answer said, a £100 if you had published a book in recent months, otherwise it was a free lunch and travel expenses; and the lunch is nice.

Cohen, twigged they were asking him to do it for nothing and declined. He replied with a link to Hollywood screenwriter Harlan Ellison’s rant about paying the writer.

Ellison offers an explanation why authors accept such treatment. Exposure; leading to recognition, sales and one day they will look back and see the work as an investment in their own future.
Cohen’s reflections on the work of the author strike a chord; the personal, emotional and physical investment in their work, it is who they are, the best they aspire to. The proudest moment of their lives; they find a publisher, the  book is published.

The majority of manuscripts are never published, even with the freedom of the internet, and nothing happens. Dreams of fame and fortune vanish like mist on a summer morning.

Fame and fortune are not the primary motivation of many writers, (both would be welcome) but to be read. For the reader to hold our work, hard copy or digital, paperback or eBook, to become as familiar with the characters as the author.

The dream of exposure, of connecting with the reader, talking to them and drawing them further into the world of the author’s imagination is a potent draw.

Cohen draws in the social taboos of English literary culture, he was offered the opportunity to speak, to plunge into the mission to civilise, spread the word and man the barricades, and then; spoiled it by behaving like a “knuckle dragging mercenary” asking to be paid for his work.

The reticence of the “Well brought up Englishmen” took years to overcome, fighting the nervousness of asking to be paid, tainting the art of literature with talk of money, felt sordid.

Recalling Philip Pullman’s recent resignation and his listing of the paid professionals, Cohen succinctly emphasizes that the authors - the reason the festival goers bought their tickets - were expected to work for nothing.

Bristol, Glasgow, Hay, Bath and Cambridge treat their authors well, Cohen takes it further, delving into British culture, where calls of ‘Diversity’ ring hollow in a culture that seems designed to exclude those at the bottom. The breaks come for those with the money. Not wholly true, there are exceptions who break out, but the job gets harder by the year.

Oxford Literary Festival have reconsidered their position and announced it will "meet with all interested parties to discuss how to achieve payment of fees for all speakers" starting with the 2017 festival.

The freedom of the internet has brought democracy to publishing, Writers who stumbled at the hurdles in the past have grasped the opportunity and are making their mark. Some have a greater immediate impact, soaring rapidly, others climb steadily with a workmanlike tread. Traditional or independent, behind the prefix we are all writers. Each with our own unique voice, but never solitary!

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