Nicola Macdonald speaks exclusively to Philip Pullman about the author fees debate that has rocked the world of literary festivals.

In January 2016, author Philip Pullman announced he was resigning as the patron of the Oxford Literary Festival. Ironically, for someone who achieved success with a series of epic novels, his announcement was made in less than 140 characters on Twitter.

Pullman’s resignation began a chain reaction of events that included an article by writer Nick Cohen entitled ‘Why English writers accept being treated like dirt’ and a call to boycott certain festivals by writer and reviewer Amanda Craig.

Pullman credited Twitter with bringing the issue to wider public attention, telling Access: “I think Twitter played a big part here. Being able to tweet that I’d taken this decision had a big effect. Without Twitter I think very few people would ever have heard about it.”

Pullman’s high profile, combined with the storm of protest that followed his tweet, elicited this statement from the Oxford Literary Festival: “Once April’s festival is over, we will meet with all interested parties to discuss how to achieve payment of fees for all speakers.”

Many of the authors who regularly attend literary festivals were somewhat surprised to find an issue that has plagued them for years finally being discussed in the mainstream media.

“The writers themselves have been making a fuss about how they are treated for years,” says Cohen. “But you were saying it in a bar, or you were saying it amongst friends; you wouldn’t say it in public.”

For years this issue has been the elephant in the room at book festivals, and Cohen believes he knows why it has taken so long for the discussion to reach a crescendo.

“Writers are very isolated. There’s no such thing as a writer’s union.”

It’s taken someone with Pullman’s, well, pull, to unite the widespread community of UK authors behind his cause. His decision to resign as patron came about due to a conflict of interests with his role as president of the Society of Authors, which had been campaigning on the issue for some time.

“It seemed that I ought to make a choice,” says Pullman. “I couldn’t support the Oxford Literary Festival any more.”

Financial planning
The Oxford Literary Festival’s official statement argued that, despite its historic setting, paying authors would be an extreme financial hardship.

“Given the limitations of the tight budgets we run to (the Festival’s last audited accounts show a loss of £18,000 in 2014), paying each speaker would require an additional 15 per cent in costs, or £75,000 for the 500 speakers,” the festival’s statement read.

It continued by stating that it is “supported by a loyal team of 40 unpaid volunteers and has no full time staff ”.

This reasoning for not paying authors is one that particularly irks Pullman.

“They still regard payment to speakers as a sort of burden or extra cost imposed unfairly on people whose only motive is the generous one of providing writers with exposure they wouldn’t otherwise have. Well, they’ve got their costing the wrong way round. It should be a fundamental cost, built in from the very beginning.”

The Oxford Literary Festival has in turn argued that not paying fees has enabled it to provide a platform for a large and diverse range of debut authors, and that any talks regarding authors’ fees shouldn’t jeopardise “the presence of [its] record levels of unknown writers for 2017 and beyond”.

This sentiment was echoed by Cathy Moore, director of the Cambridge Literary Festival, who told the Guardian: “We will have about 100 wonderful authors speaking at our spring festival this year and our audiences very much value their coming to us.

“We pay many of them and would like to pay them all; however, we like to balance this with other considerations such as showcasing new writers and writers who have important and interesting things to say but attract a smaller audience.”

Literary festivals have to tread a tightrope between paying authors, keeping ticket prices low and avoiding making a loss. The Edinburgh International Book Festival (EIBF) has paid all authors a flat fee for appearances since it first launched in 1983, something that director Nick Barley is extremely proud of.

“The book festival is passionately in favour of paying authors for their appearances,” he explains. “We pay everybody the same rate. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an international superstar Nobel Prize winner or a debut novelist, you get the same rate.”

Scottish festivals have long been hailed as trailblazers in the author fees debate, and the majority of the country’s medium-to-large festivals are part of an informal agreement to pay authors the same flat fee used by the EIBF.

It is arguably unfair, however, to compare English and Scottish book festivals, as many of the latter receive financial support from Creative Scotland, a body that receives both government and lottery funding.

More than 350 festivals take place each year around the UK, and Barley is eager for authors to remember that they are all ultimately working toward the same goal.

“Festivals are charities that are trying to encourage more writers and readers to get together. We’re not trying to get rich; that’s not what motivates us.”

Indecent exposure
An important factor in the on-going disagreement between authors and festivals is the aforementioned concept of exposure, especially for unknown or debut authors.

Writers can arguably gain free publicity and improved book sales through attending public events, which some festivals have used as justification for not paying fees. Many authors, however, argue that intangible ideas like exposure or publicity will never adequately replace a monetary fee.

“Festivals encourage you to sell books,” says Cohen. “But they don’t go out of their way to help you, so what if you don’t sell any books?”

In recent years authors have acquired far more avenues for self-promotion, with social media in particular functioning as a powerful tool for discussion, interaction with readers and self-promotion.

The lively Twitter debate surrounding Pullman’s resignation generated the hashtag #litfestshoutout, which specifically highlighted festivals around the country that pay author fees.

Many smaller festivals were particularly lauded, and some even entered the debate, eager to clarify their position. The Manx Lit Fest published a blog post entitled, ‘Paying what’s due, because it’s the right thing to do’ and Borderlines Festival in Carlisle tweeted: 

It is unclear where the debate will go from here, or whether the boycott movement will have a significant effect come festival season, but it has become apparent that Pullman’s resignation has triggered a seismic shift in the world of literary festivals.

It’s a rare case of one lone individual, albeit a famous one, taking decisive action and inspiring an entire community to speak out, make their voices heard and start an industry-wide discussion.

In Barley’s opinion, it’s perfectly okay to argue and debate the issue, as long as there is a dialogue.

“We have to talk to each other,” he insists. “Festival organisers and writers, we have to understand each other and learn what makes the other tick. We have to overcome this emerging feeling that one is getting rich out of the other, because I just don’t believe that’s true.”

Elsewhere in the events industry…
Although the main body of this feature concerns itself with the discussions taking place in the literary world, it is worth acknowledging that the issue of artist payment at festivals is relevant to large swathes of the events industry.

Andy Inglis, director of 5000 Management, has recently spoken out about the treatment of artists at Glastonbury.

When we asked Inglis for his reaction to the argument that bands can receive exposure at festivals, his response was unambiguous.

“That’s not an argument for not paying bands. It’s not an argument for anything. People who use that argument are idiots. The festivals wouldn’t exist without the bands. People should be paid for their work, it’s their job.”

Artists and authors trying to take a stand against festivals find themselves at a disadvantage due to the fact that many of their contemporaries would happily take their place and perform for free.

“Bands understandably want to do all they can to maximise their chances,” says Inglis. “Taking a moral stand against free shows isn’t likely to help their specific case.”

And surely even minimal exposure can sometimes have an impact on gig and album sales?

“There’s more chance of it happening if they play a festival than if they play the Xbox, but it’s only ever potential.”


This feature originally appeared in the March edition of Access All Areas, out now.