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How Writers Conferences Can Afford to Pay Their Speakers (And Why They Should)

How Writers Conferences Can Afford to Pay Their Speakers (And Why They Should)

Mike Doane

When Phillip Pullman resigned his patronage of the Oxford Literary Festival, he took a stand for all authors. Think about it: authors are the bread and butter of lit conferences. The wait staff, the AV guys, everyone else gets paid. Why shouldn’t writers who are invited to share their expertise and provide valuable content to the organizers get paid too?

The challenge, the Oxford Literary Festival says, is that they are a non-profit. And that’s valid. Luckily I have a foot in both the literary and events worlds. I understand a bit of both sides.

Pullman says he didn’t mind speaking for free in the OLF’s early days. They needed help gaining traction and he felt an obligation for his own personal reasons.

What he’s pushing back against is that he’s not reaping the benefits of all his hard work and support. The OLF is now a profit center for its organizers.

Most conferences are. They’re designed to be revenue generators. Organizers pick up sponsors, they charge attendees, and they usually make out much better than breaking even. Maybe not in their early days, but a conference that’s been around as long as the OLF isn’t going in the red.

But don’t authors speak in exchange for exposure?

No. Exposure is not a currency. Let’s get this myth out of the way right now.

The thing is this… even though book consumption is on the rise, authors earn an average of $10,000 per year. That’s well below the poverty line and certainly cannot sustain regular speaking engagements.

It’s not worth the cost of exposure to attend. The ROI just isn’t there.

Speaking is a great way for authors to supplement their income (when they’re paid). It’s a great way for them to feed their families without having a full-time job on the side.

Why should literary festivals and book conferences pay writers?

Let’s get back to the conferences themselves. You’d be right to ask, “aren’t most of these events held by non-profits?” The answer would be yes.

Some are held by corporate groups, but most events are held by non-profits. Still, they’re a huge revenue generator for these organizations. Plus they’re often gaining membership dues and registration fees from attendees and speakers.

On top of this, many of these organizations take the content the speakers create and use it as internal content. They promote next year’s event with it. They sell it as educational webinars. They generate web traffic with it (aka more member/attendee leads and sales).

Who else creates free marketing materials for organizations they’re paying to be a part of? This is beyond volunteering. It’s exploitation.

How can organizations pay authors who speak at their events?

Look, I get it. Some organizations can’t afford to pay every speaker $5,000. But I don’t think that’s what Pullman and the Society of Authors is after.

Here are three simple ways organizations can pay authors without breaking the bank:

1. Complimentary Membership Dues, Registration, & Education

This should be a given. Sadly, it’s often not.

Organizers could offer every speaker complimentary membership to their organization, free registration to the conference, and free or discounted educational opportunities throughout the rest of the year.

Most conference organizers host supplemental workshops and classes throughout the year. What better way to give back to speakers than to invite them to these educational opportunities free-of-charge?

2. Travel and Hotel Expenses Paid

This is probably the most crippling expense for authors. Planes, trains, and room and board can get pricey when attending a speaking engagement.

You know, most authors would be happy to exchange their ideas and expertise for a little bit of exposure if they broke even on the opportunity. Since the conference would be nothing without content, this would be beneficial for both sides.

3. Revenue Share

Some non-bookish conferences pay their speakers this way already. They give authors free admission to the conference (really no skin off the organizers back), then guarentee a percentage of the net revenue afterward.

Let’s look at what this would look like for relatively small conference that pulls in a net of $50,000 (and yes, to put things in perspective, this is small compared to average events earnings). Say they have 10 speakers and offer them each 2% of their revenue. Each speaker would earn $1000. That’s enough to cover costs plus leave them with a little extra to take home.

Sure, 20% is a big chunk of the pie, but think of it this way. The organization is still left with $40,000 in revenue plus all that awesome content they’re going to use to increase memberships and attendance at next year’s event.

To top it off they’ve got some really happy speakers who are also authors with audiences of their own. Talk about a great way to gain some extra promotion.

Are the models above perfect?

Of course not. A combination of the three would be best. Or maybe something else entirely (if you think you have an answer, leave a comment below).

And there are still going to be variations. Keynotes for example will always get paid more than up-and-comers.

The important thing is that organizers, speakers, and even attendees to these conferences start to think about this issue. If authors aren’t getting paid, the renaissance is over. There wouldn’t be lit festivals without their content. And if they’re getting paid, quality’s going up. It’s a win-win for everyone.