There’s been a big kerfluffle going on about authors getting paid to speak at events, whether solo or as a panelist. I’ve been seeing a series of different perspectives on this issue The Passive Voice, a very useful site that highlights articles around the web on publishing in general, and indie publishing in particular.
The debate was already in progress in the media and online, when author Philip Pullman took a stand in January 2016 and resigned as a Patron of the Oxford Literary Festival because they don’t pay their authors. This rather enflamed the debate because Philip Pullman, the author of the bestselling novel, The Golden Compass, is something of a marquee writer.
I have experience on both sides of the fence. I’m an author, albeit a fledgling one. I’ve also organized and run dozens of technical conferences. I’m a member of the Washington Science Fiction Association, which runs Capclave, an annual science fiction literary convention held in the Washington DC area. I have also spoken at numerous technical conferences and literary conventions.
So, I’m a big fan of the following principles.
Yog’s Law: Money flows towards the writer.
David Gerrold: If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing for money.
I have to qualify this a bit. My general rule of thumb is: If you make money, then I make money.
I’m talking about significant money. A typical convention, especially one hosted in a hotel, can easily cost 20 – 40K or more to put on, much of which has to be paid up-front (hence the reason most events have early bird pricing bargains to encourage attendees to sign up early). Committing money up-front requires assuming risk; those who take the risks should rightfully make more than those who don’t.
The average convention doesn’t really make a profit, or at least not a significant one. At best, they make seed money to make it easier to sustain the event in the future. In fact, most SF conventions are run as non-profit organizations. So I don’t expect to be paid in cash. It’s eminently reasonable for authors appearing on panels and conducting workshops to attend the event for free, and conventions generally do this. There’s usually a minimum; I believe Capclave awards free attendance for appearing on three or more panels or running one workshop. A good workshop is considered to require much more effort than being a panelist (this is true, by the way, trust me on this).
Generally, program participants get free attendance and the attendant validation of being promoted as an author by the convention. Guests of Honor generally receive more money because they’re draws. Usually this devolves to paid expenses, such as hotel, airfare and meals. For SF conventions, with their low ticket prices, this is generally the max. In fairness, Guests of Honor also get much more in the way of promotion but are also generally booked for many more timeslots than other authors at the event.
As an aside, most regional SF literary conventions have a weekend price of $60 or so, which can be ameliorated by earlybird pricing. Even Worldcon, which ranges from 4000 to 10,000 attendees, is priced at around $250 for a much larger event (likewise ameliorated by earlybird pricing).
Now, in the world of technical events, ticket prices are much higher. For those events, it’s quite common for keynote speakers and people who are legitimate draws to be paid a speaking fee, and sometimes a significant one.
Even there, you have to make some judgements. If George R. R. Martin is speaking at local SF conventions like Capclave or Ravencon, his expenses will be taken care of, but even he won’t be paid a significant speaking fee. The budget just isn’t there, but the promotion opportunity is still very real, even for Martin. On the other hand, if Martin is the keynote speaker at a high-priced Hollywood screenwriter conference, then he might very well expect a speaking fee.
I can’t judge whether Phillip Pullman was right in pulling out of the Oxford Literary Festival. I don’t know what the event’s budget was or what, if any, profit was made. Philip Pullman is sufficiently prominent that he might very well command a reasonable speaking fee. Many other authors, myself included, would not.
I think authors need to look critically at their potential as a draw, the size of an event, the budget of an event, their own potentially uncompensated attendance costs (hotel, airfare, meals, etc.) and the level of promotion provided by the event. After that, it’s a business decision, tempered by realistic expectations based on a sober assessment of an event. I don’t think authors should automatically assume that the world owes them speaking fees for being a program participant. If that’s what you think then, well, I’m happy to take your slot.