How do Irish literary festivals treat writers?

Free speech, yes. Speak for free? No. As British literary festivals come under fire for not paying authors, Sarah Gilmartin finds out the state of play and rates of pay here

 Michael Longley  at the Mountains to Sea DLR Book Festival. On the Irish circuit, fees can vary significantly for both authors and event moderators, but most do pay. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Michael Longley at the Mountains to Sea DLR Book Festival. On the Irish circuit, fees can vary significantly for both authors and event moderators, but most do pay. Photograph: Cyril Byrne


“Writing is a vocation but it is also a profession, and it is time we all stiffened our spines, dug in our heels and said no.” The British writer Amanda Craig vented her frustration at the treatment of authors by literary festivals in a recent letter published in the Bookseller. Signed by 30 writers, including Joanne Harris, Francesca Simon and Linda Grant, the letter called for authors and publishers to band together and boycott events that offer no fee for writer participation.

Last week Chocolat author Joanne Harris brought the issue back into the spotlight by pulling out of an unnamed literary festival in Britain this summer. It follows Philip Pullman’s resignation as patron of this year’s Oxford Literary Festival after he deemed it unacceptable that authors appearing at the event were “expected to work for nothing”.

In recent months, authors on Twitter have been using the hashtag #litfestshoutout to highlight those festivals who treat their speakers well. As the Irish literary season gets under way with Ennis Book Club and Mountains to Sea this month, it will be interesting to see whether similar issues crop up for the many local and international authors featuring at events on these shores throughout 2016.

Joanne Harris is on the 2016 Listowel Writers’ Week programme this coming June, which offers authors an average fee of €200-€500 plus travel and accommodation expenses, according to programme organiser Máire Logue. “We feel strongly that authors should be paid a fair fee and expenses for appearing at festivals,” says Logue. “We treat authors the same way we would treat someone coming in to our homes. Listowel Writers’ Week has been taking place for the past 45 years and we take pride in knowing how it works.”

Listowel is funded by the Arts Council, Kerry County Council, Fáilte Ireland and corporate sponsors such as Kerry Group and Mark Pigott, in addition to a patronage scheme from local businesses and proceeds from ticket sales. “Our fees in general do exceed those outlined in the minimum practice guidelines for literary festivals by the Society of Authors,” says Logue. “Our priority is to ensure that all our authors have a very positive experience. We ensure our authors’ books are on sale at their event and venue, as well as in the bookshops throughout the town.”

The British-based Society of Authors stipulates that negotiations for festival appearances are “a matter for individuals”, but their guidelines do offer a breakdown based on freelance salaries that range from £100-£600. According to the society, an author’s travel and accommodation expenses should also be covered, ideally in advance of the event. Author courtesy and transparency surrounding event logistics are required. Authors’ books should be on sale at the event and the manner in which they will be sold made clear.

Book sales are often touted as a way that authors make money from festivals, but they depend on bigger audiences and whether an author has a new book out at the time of the event.

“Some Irish events would yield a bookseller 100 to 150 in sales,” says Bert Wright, curator of the Dún Laoghaire-based festival, Mountains to Sea. “Other times it may be 20 to 50 books and sometimes less than 10.”

Lack of information

With more than 350 literary festivals in Britain and Ireland annually, Wright says there is a frustrating lack of information shared between events: “I attended an Arts Council symposium a few years ago and most of us were agog to hear how other festivals operate. There were some common elements, but also a reticence born of maintaining competitive advantage. You do hear authors moaning about some UK festivals where they are either not paid, poorly paid or paid in kind with cases of wine.”

Other factors aside from fees can also grate with authors. Harris spoke out against contractual obligations including donating free copies of her book, being expected to grant film crews unlimited access, and an exclusivity clause forbidding her from appearing elsewhere within a certain time frame.

“Authors also hate weak organisation, bad or noisy venues and, most of all, small audiences,” says Wright. “Part of the difficulty is that the rate of growth has outstripped the development of standards but that may change now that the stars – the authors – are beginning to cop themselves on about pay and conditions. Matt Haig recently withdrew from the Dubai festival on human rights issues and that may have a serious knock-on effect for what was regarded as the ultimate author’s gig.”

On the Irish circuit, fees can vary significantly for both authors and event moderators. Sources involved in a number of the bigger festivals say it can often be a matter of protracted negotiations. A former speaker at Mountains to Sea received a €300 fee for participating in an event, but points to fellow writers who have received less.

Consensus comes in how writers are treated by festivals in Ireland, with most participants saying that organisers are respectful and considerate. “When it comes to the circuit over here, speakers are usually treated well,” says Sarah Davis-Goff, co-founder of Tramp Press. “With a few notable exceptions, authors are paid to show up, and there’s a small travel budget too. Nobody is going to get rich out of it, but even a small honorarium is incredibly important as an acknowledgement that writers should be paid for their work.

“Festivals here are small, intimate, and well-run, which means they’re a lot of fun to attend,” says Davis-Goff. “Anne Enright spoke a while ago about the Irish literary scene and what makes it so special: there’s no VIP room here, and that’s especially true at festivals. Even if there’s a green room, there’s a feeling that we’re all on stage together.”

Public funding

Ennis Book Club Festival, which hosts its 10th event this weekend, gives a fee of €150-€250 where panel discussions are concerned. “We sometimes ask writers to take part in a panel and then to moderate or host another, which of course requires a great deal of preparation,” says director Liz Kelly. “In this case, the writer is remunerated for multiple events up to €1,000. This would be exceptional, though, as Ennis is voluntary and our public funding, in relative terms, is quite low.”

Ennis also covers travel, food and accommodation expenses, including flights for international writers. “The fees reflect the fact that we value all writers regardless of where they are in their careers,” says Kelly. “We also open a book shop stocking participating authors’ books so there are sales too from which authors benefit and book signings that add to the fun.”

One author appearing at this year’s festival in Ennis is Henrietta McKervey, whose debut novel, What Becomes of Us, was published to acclaim last year. Her second novel, The Heart of Everything, is due out this month, a family saga that has been likened to the work of Maggie O’Farrell. McKervey says that her experience of book festivals in her first year as a published author has varied, with Belfast Arts Festival being the biggest and best paid of the ones she attended.

“Whether that’s about budgets or just the exchange rate I don’t know,” she says. “I was on a panel with Marian Keyes and Stuart Carolan and hearing them talk about their work to a very, very full house was great. I was on first so I got to listen to them without fretting that I’d have to speak afterwards.”

McKervey says she enjoys the panel discussion element to festivals. “They can be very interesting as you get to talk to other writers about how they work. And let’s face it, it’s nice to get out of the house too.”

As organiser of the London Short Story Festival, the Belfast novelist Paul McVeigh sees the issue of paying authors from both sides. While the contract Harris was asked to sign was “unreasonable no matter from which perspective I look at it,” says McVeigh, her assertion that authors are the only workers at a festival not getting paid is wrong: “Without volunteers LSSF could not have happened and I’d say that is the same for most festivals, including the big ones.”

Industry standards

But authors attending festivals should get paid for their time, according to McVeigh, who was once asked to travel six hours to a festival and return the same day, for no fee. “The organiser was genuinely shocked when I asked if they would pay my travel and I never heard from them again,” he says. “Not offering a fee contributes to a climate whereby the idea exists that not only should writers not be paid but we should be grateful to work for free. There will always be things you do for free, for your own personal or professional reasons, but that should not be an industry standard.”

Cormac Kinsella, who does publicity for both Ennis Book Club Festival and Cúirt International Festival of Literature, says that in an ideal world authors should be paid but he accepts some festivals don’t have the budget for this. “My advice to authors would be to look at each invitation individually and weigh up the pros and cons. Pros such as profile, circulation, book sales, networking potential and fun. Cons are time away from the desk and potentially not a good return in terms of coverage or sales.”

The literary organisation Words Ireland is developing guidelines for writers’ fees at festivals in Ireland (and guidelines for how to work with writers in general) on foot of an Arts Council review of literary resource organisations in 2014.

One member of the Words Ireland team is Valerie Bistany, director of the Irish Writers Centre, who says writers are entitled to proper fees and conditions when invited to participate in festivals. “Philip Pullman’s recent decision to stand down from Oxford has sparked a debate which we are watching with interest in relation to our own context. We consider the fair treatment of writers to be a priority area of focus for 2016 and have plans to begin a conversation with our literary community in this regard.”

Without citing exact figures, a spokesperson for the Arts Council says its experience shows that fees vary from festival to festival, with some offering a flat fee to every writer, while others offer a sliding scale depending on event or author.

The Arts Council does not support literary festivals that do not pay writers. “For our main funding programmes, a criterion of support is the extent to which the organisation demonstrates good employment practices and reasonable pay for artists and other employees,” says the spokesperson.

In its 10-year strategy published last year, the council prioritises five goals, with one of these centred on the artist. “The goal is to advance the living and working conditions of artists,” says the spokesperson. “The council emphasises the fair remuneration of artists in our overall investment strategy, its funding programmes and schemes, and in our partnerships and working relationships. In literature, we will be doing work to get a better picture of how writers are remunerated across the board, using this information to advocate for better pay and conditions, and ensuring that this is achieved.

“We’re not aware of anything as drastic here in Ireland as what Joanne Harris experienced, but that’s not to say that authors do not end up being out of pocket by the time a festival appearance, or a reading in another context, is over and done with. There is still work to be done to ensure that writers are remunerated properly, and treated equitably.”

A list of Irish literary festivals in 2016, compiled by Liz Coffey

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