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20 January 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 1:58pm

Should authors be paid to appear at literary festivals?

Philip Pullman’s resignation as a patron of Oxford Literary Festival over its lack of a fee for speakers has caused an outcry against festivals that don't pay for authors to appear.

By Danuta Kean

Next time you splash out £25 on a ticket to see your favourite author at a literary festival, do me a favour. Ask the organisers who takes a cut of the ticket money. Because, for a large number of these events, including those at the Oxford Literary Festival and, up until recently, Hay Festival, that does not include the writer you are paying to see.

And that matters, not just because the author will have worked for days preparing a talk or reading the work of fellow panellists, but because being paid with “exposure” rather than hard cash undermines the already precarious diversity in our literary culture.

Let me explain. Last year, researcher Mel Larsen and I published Writing the Future. Commissioned by the writers development agency Spread the Word, it was a year-long study into the representation of black and Asian novelists and publishers in the UK marketplace.

We had spoken to hundreds of published writers from diverse communities, as well a Black Asian and Minority Ethnic publishers. We also canvassed publishers, agents, university creative writing courses and literary festivals about representation of BAME authors.

The reason? Not only are these a pipeline for talent to get into print, like toilet venue tours for bands, they build a following for writers that should pump prime future book sales.

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They also ensure black and Asian audiences feel the UK literary world does not exclude them. Vital if books are to remain relevant to a society in which, by 2051, the BAME population will account for one in five people.

But our research among non-white authors found little sense of inclusion. Never mind getting on the platform, most felt they had yet to cross the threshold of the marquee.

It is easy to understand why. BAME writers are seriously under-represented on the lists of agents and publishers (most of whom estimated fewer than eight per cent of their authors were black or Asian, compared to the BAME population being 12 per cent in the UK).

Lack of significant presence meant non-white writers felt vulnerable to the pernicious use of the word “authentic”. One writer of colour after another complained they had work rejected by white publishers because it was not deemed “authentic”.

Black and Asian writers felt compelled to pander to white cultural stereotypes of their communities, placing racism and cultural clashes involving the veil, the bomb or the ghetto ahead of any other theme.

Nowhere was this narrow definition of what black or Asian authors have to offer more apparent than at literary festivals.

Mel and I decided it would be useful to survey the main UK festivals for diversity, stripping out the celebrities and US authors to see how many British-based black and Asian authors were present.

It was a good way to ruin Christmas. None of the festivals monitored for diversity – unless it was for an Arts Council-sponsored diversity event, which coincidentally tended to be the only panels featuring more than one non-white author.

So over the festive season Mel waded through 2,000 names from the combined 2014 line-ups for Cheltenham, Hay and Edinburgh. She found only 100 4 per cent – could be defined as BAME and UK based.

That is poor by anyone’s standards, but even worse, once we stripped out celebrities, poets, cookery writers and non-UK based writers our heads hit our desks in despair: only 1 per cent were British black or Asian novelists.

Let me say that again: 1. Per. Cent.

What does this have to do with paying authors at literary festivals? Well, quite a lot. Because, for a start, the failure to pay authors is part of a general de-professionalisation of writing and publishing which has militated against diversity.

We have seen the results in the trade over the past 10 years as unpaid internships found through family friends and contacts became the primary route into the business. A survey of the Society of Young Publishers undertaken for Writing The Future revealed that almost 40 per cent found their first publishing job through family contacts and unpaid internships.

With the odds stacked against poorer graduates with no industry connections, is it any wonder we have so few black and Asian editors? Editors who would better placed to challenge the use of that word “authentic”.

For authors the self-funding trend within publishing has affected what they are expected to do to build a career. Increasingly, they are must peddle their work like reality TV stars: blogging, tweeting and hawking themselves in the hope of “exposure” to create a fan base.

But as Boris Starling says, “You can die of exposure, you can’t pay the bills with it.”

How exposed writers feel is apparent from the latest earnings figures from the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society. It found that the typical income of a professional author in 2013 was £11,000. You’d earn more working the tills in Tesco.

So the money demanded by writers for festivals is not a sign of greed. It is a sign of necessity. They are not charities. They work for a living. Have you ever tried to get a plumber to work for exposure?

If they don’t earn from their work the only authors who will be able afford to subsidise festivals will be stellar named bestsellers with the negotiating power to demand top dollar from organisers.

Alternatively – and we are seeing this among the students on the creative writing programmes that have sprung up to prop up almost every university English department – they will need to be moneyed and either retired or on a career break to concentrate on their writing.

So more white, middle-aged and middle-class authors to speak to white middle-aged and middle-class audiences. Like unto like.

It is a vicious circle in which the same group of people will be talking to each other and excluding a far richer, more contemporary and diverse society. Would you pay £25 a ticket for that? I wouldn’t.

Danuta Kean is books editor of Mslexia. She is editor of Writing the Future: Black and Asian Writers and Publishers in the UK Market Place. She also writes for the Financial Times, Independent on Sunday and Daily Mail and can be followed on Twitter @Danoosha

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