It is striking that, while the administrators, the catering staff, the ticket collectors, the marquee companies, the stewards, the plumbers, the booksellers and the technical support, who all contribute to making the festival run, are paid wages, the authors (and, at children's festivals, the illustrators), those who are at the very heart of what the festival is about, are often paid with a free lunch or a few bottles of wine - and even when they are actually paid money, it's generally a nominal sum. Unless they happen to also be a Big Draw or a Celebrity Author. It has been argued (for example, by Claire Armistead, here) that those authors who aren't a Big Draw or a Celebrity should simply be grateful for the exposure - they aren't who the audience have come to see. They gain publicity and profile from their association with the festival and that's their reward. But I think this misses the point. Audiences come to festivals not just for the Celebrity Author but to discover new writers, new voices, to hear something inspiring that they weren't expecting - to browse among a curated set of the latest talent. The new authors are worth every bit as much to the life of a festival as the older, established ones - and I'd like to bet that the people that come back again and again do so because of the new writing they've been exposed to more than the familiar stuff that they always knew about.
But I don't want to rehash the arguments over festival fees. What seems to me more interesting is the question of who really benefits from festivals? And the answer is, by some considerable margin, not individual authors but the publishing industry. Which begs the question, why are publishers not paying for their authors/illustrators to attend festivals? Are we aiming our ire at the wrong target?
It's clear that many small and even large festivals wouldn't survive if they had to pay all their authors fair fees. But it could be argued that the industry they are really benefiting is getting a pretty cushy deal: free (or at the least very very cheap) promotion for hundreds of their books and authors, as well as a massive coming together of industry insiders in a congenial location where deals can be done and networks strengthened with booksellers, journalists, bloggers, authors - the kind of event that if it was an industry conference (which it almost is) would cost them thousands of pounds per delegate.
And the publishing industry is not short of a bob or two (profits of the biggest companies are in the millions, and margins are as high as 10%, compared with the general retail trade at 3-4% and bookshops at around 1% or lower (see here for figures).
So really, what the debate over author fees raised for me was not how mean the festivals are, but the wider question of how a whole industry can justify running a profit on the basis that every single contributor to the basic commodity it sells - the editors, the publicists, the computer support, the receptionists, the printers, the CEOs, the cleaners, the van drivers - is paid an appropriate wage, but the writers and illustrators are paid amounts that mean that, on average, they are working for less than the minimum wage.
When I go to schools, I am sometimes asked how much money I make as an author. I generally reply with another question - how much money do they think I get for each of my books that sells? Guesses generally range from about £5 per book to £1 or £2 per book. They are all utterly flabbergasted when I tell them that it's often less than 10 pence.
I can't think of another mass commodity industry that works like this, apart from the music industry. In all other areas, the core people involved in producing the commodity at the heart of any industry, whether it's a newspaper or a dishwasher, are always waged. And music is slightly different, because its arguably performance that is at the heart of most music rather than recordings - and when a musician is performing, they are generally paid an appropriate wage.
I don't know what the answer is - but I do wonder if we need to get more angry about this. I wonder if we need to be agitating more forcefully. I wonder if the Society of Authors ought to be lobbying publishers and saying, look, you may think there is an inexhaustible supply of would-be writers who want to be published so much that they will accept any kind of deal, but unless you start offering proper returns for the business of writing, returns that however they are organised (royalties or retainers) deliver proper decent hourly rates of pay, we, your published authors, mid-list and celebrity alike, are going to start refusing to write for you.
So, Philip Pullman and Joanne Harris, and all the other well-known authors who have been putting pressure on festivals. How about it?
Cecilia Busby writes humorous fantasy adventures for ages 7-12 as C.J. Busby. Her latest book, The Amber Crown, was published last year by Templar.
"Great fun - made me chortle!" (Diana Wynne Jones on Frogspell)
"A rift-hoping romp with great wit, charm and pace" (Frances Hardinge on Deep Amber)