Tavistock Heritage Festival

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Ian, Myfanwy and me at the Tavistock Heritage Festival

I’ve banged on often enough about literary festivals and the ridiculous scam that they so often tend to be.

As an author (I know, I’m repeating myself), I have to justify every festival or gathering I go to on its merits as a worthwhile marketing event or whether it’ll bring in more money than I have to spend to go to it. It’s not rocket science: I’m self-employed. I have to make things pay because if I don’t, I’ll lose my house.

Last time I was at Tavistock, with Myfanwy Cook - thanks to Chris Chapman for the photo

Last time I was at Tavistock, with Myfanwy Cook – thanks to Chris Chapman for the photo

Now, some authors get huge advances and can afford to go to lots of festivals free of charge. That’s nice for them. Actually, though, almost all those who get the most money don’t pay. The famous names you see at the bigger literary events are paid by their publishers to go. There’s a fundamental illogicality there: if you are earning a small fortune, your smaller expenses will be covered by someone else, but if you’re earning very little, you will have to pay for yourself.

Some years ago I was asked to give a talk to a local Probus club. These are good little organisations who serve the interests of retired folk. They meet every so often to have a good lunch and chat about their old careers, before having an after-dinner speaker lull them into a mild doze for a half hour or so. I like Probus clubs. They tend to pay reasonable amounts. Not huge, but reasonable.

I asked the organiser what the fee would be, and he was deeply offended, pointing out that Probus was a charity. Which is fine. But I’m not. I have to earn a living. He was asking me to give up a day of my working life to meet with him and his colleagues, plus another (at least one other) to write a talk that would be entertaining and witty. For those two to three days of work and travel, he expected to pay nothing. To put that into perspective, almost all the Probus club members would be retired accountants, solicitors, or private school teachers. All would earn more from their pensions than I do as a professional writer (which is why I cannot afford a pension, sadly). I was not sympathetic.

Some literary festivals will be good to authors. Some will allow them free entry to the festival. Sadly the ones that used to cover the cost of travel and/or a hotel room for an evening are now few and far between. Still, some do so. The AsparaWriting Festival for aspiring authors does, for example, and pays a fee too. Some festivals are at last considering paying a share of profits to attending authors. This is all good. However, there are still too many festivals which expect authors to pay to attend and won’t cover any expenses. Which makes it enormously difficult for authors to attend.

Ian Mortimer and I outside the great doors to the church

Ian Mortimer and I outside the great doors to the church at Poitiers

For example, I am lucky to see 11 pennies from a sale on Amazon. The retailer expects and demands an 80% discount from publishers. Publishers pay based on net receipts, so my income is slashed by whatever the retailer demands as a discount. So, in order to travel to, say, Bristol, I have to cover the cost of the train trip (about £50) and the cost of the hotel board (perhaps £300 for a weekend) as well as the entry to the festival itself (which is never less than £100). So, for the pleasure of losing a weekend with my family, I’m expected to pay somewhere in the region of £450-£550, depending on the distance and the cost of the festival. At £0.11 per book sale, that just doesn’t work. There is not a festival in the land that would produce 4,000 sales. So it’s worse than uneconomic.

However, there are some people who don’t just appreciate the problems. There are some who go out of their way to be efficient.

On Friday 24th I gave a talk with my great friend Ian Mortimer. We were at the Tavistock Heritage Festival for three or four hours, talking to the people, giving a two-up conversation on stage, and hanging around afterwards to sign copies of our books with the delightful BookStop from Tavistock (yes, there still is one independent shop in Tavistock!). And not only were they welcoming, generous with their beers, and keen to provide accommodation, they also paid up on the following Tuesday.

Festivals like that help enormously. They help authors to keep the wolf from the door.

Thanks, Tavistock!

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