Frankly, it was a triumph. Eight hundred people had gathered in the Barclays MegaCash Pavilion at the Hay Festival to hear me talk about my latest book. I was a little nervous, as I am accustomed to speaking to gatherings of about a tenth of that size. However, after a few minutes and a few laughs, I managed to relax, and the talk seemed to go pretty darn well. Afterwards, I signed about sixty books and then Tiggerishly bounced into the Green Room, where I was given six bottles of wine.
I approached the Artists’ Reception desk to ask about expenses, explaining that my round trip was 250 miles. What was Hay’s mileage rate? I can’t recall if the woman’s eyes bulged or narrowed, but they certainly expressed astonishment. Expenses? Mileage? She needed to ask somebody.
I watched her ask somebody. Somebody looked up to see who this nobody was. Somebody said a few words, and the woman came back and told me that I should email somebody else. I asked if there was a form, anything like that. A form? She didn’t think so.
As I drove home, I did some maths. Those eight hundred people had each paid £7, earning Hay a tidy £5,600. Compared to Hay’s turnover of £4 million and gross profit of £1 million, that’s not a huge sum, but it is certainly greater than a homeopathic ratio. Hay had probably made around £1,400 from me and I had got, er, six bottles of wine. I googled the wine to see what it cost and found it for as little as £8 per bottle. So 48 quid all in, and I bet Hay paid a lot less for it than that.
I know what you’re thinking – it was promotional activity for your brilliant new book! You can’t expect to get paid! Perhaps, but then the book had been published some five months before and the royalties on sixty books hardly make the largest of dents in that dread ‘unearned income’ column. What with the expenses hassle and the bottles of plonk in my boot, I felt increasingly ripped off as I watched the petrol-gauge needle – my car is that old – swing to the left as I drove down the M4.
But I didn’t curse Hay. They do what any business should do: keep their costs down. If authors are happy to receive cheap wine instead of money, then fair play to Hay. No, I cursed myself, and all the other damn fool authors like me who work for free.
Over the past five years, every writer I know has been told by their agent to ‘monetise the activity around their writing’. Give talks. Go to conventions. Judge prizes. Write reviews. Write articles. Go on telly. Go on radio. Go on Twitter. Build your brand.
The problem with all these activities is that nobody actually wants to pay you to do them. Instead, you are given vague assertions that it will be good for sales, good for your profile, and if you do all these things, then my son, there will be jam for tea.
Well, I’m now 41, have written 10 books over 12 years, and for me it’s tea time. The kettle has come to the boil, the Crown Derby is laid out, the bread is sliced and I need the jam right now. In short, I want to be paid for what I do.
In any other profession or trade, asking for money is not such a strange thing, is it? Next time you get a lawyer to drive 250 miles and then speak to you for an hour, try paying him with a few bottles of Spanish dry white and see what he says.
Perhaps lawyers are a bad comparison. How about comedians? After all, they drive around giving talks, some of which are amusing. I asked Al Murray, the legendary Pub Landlord, what he charges. The answer made me feel a bit funny myself. It’s 70 per cent of the door. Had I charged that at Hay, I would have made £3,920. No wonder comedians are so rich.
My experience at Hay was just one example of how I have effectively enslaved myself. I’m sure many fellow authors will identify with the occasion when I took two days to get to Durham and back, in order to talk to 14 people in a damp Scout hut, three of whom bought a book. Or how about the major book prize which wanted me to be a judge and read some 35 books over the summer?
‘Love to,’ I said. ‘What will you pay?’
‘Pay? Oh. Well, we give an honorarium.’
I had to look it up. It’s Latin. Apparently it means, ‘You should be honoured to be asked, but if you insist, here’s a groat and you won’t get asked again.’
Another offender is the BBC. Last year I was asked if I wanted to appear in a documentary on a subject I know a great deal about. It would not be too ludicrous to claim I am a world expert on this subject. The very nice producer asked if I could come up to Salford for the day.
‘Love to,’ I said. ‘What will you pay?’
‘Pay? Oh. Well, we don’t really pay.’
I nearly put the phone down. After much haggling, it got to £50 and, after a week, £200. By then, my dignity spent, my diary busy – ironically, I had one of those book things to finish – I declined. For £200, it was simply not worth the time spent on preparation and the day itself. I worked out I would be getting paid less per hour than a purchase ledger clerk in Reigate.
If I accepted every offer that pinged into my inbox, I would be working for free some two days each week. I know of nobody who can afford to do that. Producers, organisers, editors – these people are all paid. So why aren’t the authors, without whom there would be no literary festivals, talking heads on the TV and book-prize judges? These organisations make money from us, but we make no money from them.
It’s time we authors were paid, not in promises of better sales and high profiles, but in money. Yes, actual cash. Is that too much to ask?
Guy Walters has donated the fee for this article to himself.