Writers’ festivals, writers’ fees

As the artistic director of Reality Bites Festival – a ‘boutique’ nonfiction writers’ festival based in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland – I’ve viewed ASA rates for writers with both disdain, and, more recently, as a benchmark to be referenced with professional pride. This year, for the first time (I’ve been AD for three of our seven-year history), I had the pleasure of typing ‘we pay ASA rates for panels and workshops’ on our author agreements. And while we’re not offering the going rate of $350 for an hour of an author’s time, but rather a modest $200 for a 45–60min ‘close up’ session, we have made the ‘unusual’ decision to pay our chairs. Moderating is a thankless task, in which the duck analogy works well: it’s all furious paddling – reading books, taking notes, formulating questions, linking concepts – to ensure a seemingly effortless and balanced conversation between panellists.

But back to those pesky authors, the staple of writers’ festivals, and the question of what their appearances are worth to a festival. The reason the ASA ‘bothers’ with pay rates is, the association says, because it ‘believe[s] that Australia’s generally poorly paid authors and illustrators should be able to call on some minimum standards of remuneration for the work they do’. I don’t think any festival director, of the big or small sort, would disagree with that sentiment, at least in principle. I’m not going to talk for the big operators – although I know from informal conversations they are far from bottomless pits – but squeezing writers out of their due is not what we’re about.

When it comes to remuneration, the talent has always been our first consideration, even if we’ve fallen short of ASA standards. After years of operating on a proverbial shoestring – last year we received no funding – we had the good fortune in 2014 to receive some ‘generous’ financial support in the form of grants from regional and state funding bodies, including Arts Queensland. In addition to paying our authors more, as well as our moderators, we have been able, for the first time, to pay our event manager and me a modest fee for the work that goes into putting together a writers’ festival. Like many small festivals, we are run by a non-profit organisation, and if there’s a minimum pay rate for festival organisers, then we’re falling even shorter in that regard.

That it is not a veiled admonishment to writers to be grateful for what they get because we’re all working for next to nothing. It does beg the question why we do it, though. If we’re not making a profit off the backs off writers then what are we, the festival organisers – that is, the directors, event managers, committee members, program coordinators, and the many volunteers that show up year after year – doing it for?

Well, generally, for the same reason that writers write – out of passion and idealism. Because we love books, we love literature, we want to discuss and disseminate new ideas, and be a catalyst for change. That is not a rationale for working for nothing – a fight our whole industry needs to take on – but there does have to be some give and take between writers and the festivals that promote them.

Ultimately, as well as the reasons listed above, writers’ festivals exist to promote writing and writers. We put authors in front of audiences who have not read their books. We market an author’s work to people who’ve never heard that author’s name. If most authors were to insist on what the ASA says they are worth, they would price themselves out of appearing at all. Appearance fees – and this is dependent on the nature of that ‘appearance’ – should be wholly weighed against the value to the author of reaching potential readers and (if we’re talking about money) having them hand over $30 to buy the book afterwards. Most authors I’ve dealt with appreciate this equation and there is always a handful of authors who donate their fee each year. It’s certainly not expected – I would never begrudge an author their fee – but it’s a gesture that acknowledges that we’re primarily in it for writing and writers, not ourselves.

Melanie is a writer and the Artistic Director of Reality Bites – a nonfiction writers' festival based on the Sunshine Coast. She is currently undertaking a DCA at the University of the Sunshine Coast where she also teaches creative writing and drama.

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