Writing Nowadays–Speaking for Free

Steven Harper PiziksRecently Phillip Pullman (author of THE GOLDEN COMPASS) resigned as president of the Oxford Literary Festival because he couldn’t stomach asking authors to appear there for free. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jan/14/philip-pullman-resigns-oxford-literary-festival-patron-pay-authors It’s sparked a conversation across the Internet, including a response from a literary festival that DOES pay its authors: http://manxlitfest.blogspot.com/2016/01/paying-whats-due-because-its-right.html

I don’t work for free, either.  I used to.  Oh, how I used to.  I begged to appear on panels at conventions or get booked at literary festivals, all for the chance to show my work around.  I’ve stopped doing that because I realized I was being stupid.  I was working for free.

Conventions and festivals mean well.  They operate on a small budget but still want a good festival for the attendees.  I get that.  Except when it comes to handling the stuff that actually gets people to attend–authors–festivals and conventions lose all sense of proportion.  They wouldn’t dream of asking the venue for free space.  They happily pay to rent tables, chairs, and other accouterments.  They willingly fork out money for mailings, computer server space, and advertising and publicity.  But then they say to the people who will actually draw a crowd, “We don’t have an honorarium in the budget.”


I don’t speak for free because public speaking is WORK.  I don’t teach for free.  I don’t write novels for free.  Why would anyone even THINK I would speak for free?  It’s like walking up to a doctor at a party and saying, “Could you diagnose me real quick right here?  It’ll only take a minute” or saying to a lawyer at dinner, “I have this legal problem.  Could you write up a quick writ for me?  It’ll only take a second.”  These things are work, and doctors and lawyers charge to do them.

“Well,” say festival moochers, “it’s not like speaking is hard or anything.  You just get up there and talk.”

Right.  Then why don’t YOU  do it?

Yes, I make it look easy.  This is because for 20 years I’ve spoken every day in front of the toughest audience in the world: special education freshmen.  Due to all this practice, I can hold an entire class of ADHD freshmen motionless with nothing but the sound of my voice.  A venue of adults is nothing–because I’m experienced.

I’m also extremely knowledgeable about the craft of writing, editing, and selling fiction.  I’ve written and sold 23 novels and dozens of short stories and articles since my first sale at the age of 13.

A lawyer will rattle off courtroom strategy quickly and make it look easy.  And it is–because the lawyer knows what she’s doing.  Doesn’t mean the service comes free.

When someone brings me in to speak, they’re getting decades of public speaking skill and decades of writing skill.  And it don’t come free.

“But you can sell your books,” say the moochers.  “You’ll make money that way!”

No.  First, you’re assuming I WANT to sit behind a table and sell my books.  I actually hate doing that.  I’d rather just sign them.  Second, I’d have to sell several hundred copies in order to make the day worth my while, and I’ve never been to an event where that happened.

“It only takes a little time,” whine the moochers.

Yeah, and?  The plumber charges by the hour.  The law firm charges by the minute.  The doctor charges by the visit.  I charge the same way.  Do not denigrate me by claiming my time is worth nothing.  My time is worth EVERYTHING.

“We just don’t have the money to pay you,” say the moochers.  “We’re barely making our other expenses as it is.  Even our president is a volunteer!”

Then maybe you should charge more for admission.  Or get some sponsors.  Or just realize that you can’t have speakers at such a low-budget event.

“But you’ll get exposure,” goes more whining.

Tell you what.  You talk to the grocery store, the electric company, and the mortgage people and get them to accept exposure instead of cash, and I’ll speak for exposure.

I once showed up at a local convention where I’d been scheduled to speak on five panels (that’s five hours of public speaking) and was informed that I owed =them= $30 to cover my admission.  It was only when I turned to walk out that they grudgingly allowed me free entry.  Later, the con chair denigrated me by name on Twitter.  I thanked him for the exposure.

And that brings me to final reason I charge.  No one, including event organizers, values something they get for free.  You get what you pay for, and an author who speaks for nothing is worth nothing.  Certainly they’re treated that way.  At festivals and conventions where I spoke for free, I’ve been ignored, pushed around, insulted, and denigrated.  This has never happened at places that paid me.  In such places, I was valued and respected.  (This isn’t to say all for-free conventions and festivals treated me badly.  I’ve met some very nice people at for-free venues.  I’ve also met some terrible ones.  Never have I been treated badly when I was getting paid.)

My one exception is libraries.  I can be had at a library for cheap.  Not free, but cheap.  I’m speaking at a library in Kent County this spring, in fact, for travel expenses and three figures.  Why?  Because libraries were my only source of books when I was a kid, and they set me on the path to being a World Famous Writer ™.  I still charge them, though.  And you know what?  I’ve never, ever had a library ask me to speak for free.  They always say, “What are your speaker rates?”

The moochers should listen to the librarians.

–Steven Harper Piziks

DANNY on sale now at Book View Cafe.

Danny Large



Writing Nowadays–Speaking for Free — 5 Comments

  1. Do you mean Kent County, Maryland, on the Eastern Shore?

    The volunteers for Kent County, MD public library system are truly wonderful and exceptional. So are the people who work in it. I spent lots of time with them all when we were there starting The American Slave Coast. I donated huge numbers of books for their great fund-raising book fair — and many of those books went straight into the libraries’ collections and on the shelves. Unlike my library system here, Kent County is always grateful for book donations and put them out there immediately. The system here only wants money, not books. The system is so large evidently cataloging has become too difficult, i.e. the system no longer employs catalogers as books arrived straight through the MARC system already cataloged. I.e. another iteration of willingness to pay for anything and everything EXCEPT the human labor.

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  4. Where ever, whichever Kent County, our public library systems are priceless and deserve everything any of us can do for them! 🙂