The brochure for the Hay festival came the other day. I enjoyed reading it. I identified about seven events I'd have liked to go to, felt a little nostalgic for the fine food, the green wellies and the deckchairs, not to mention the books. Perhaps, I thought, once I've retired I might try to go every year. However, unless I write a bestseller, I probably won't be able to afford it. I can't go this year. I'll be invigilating exams and marking 112 scripts.
Yes, Hay is fun but I have some serious reservations about it. The main one is that they do not pay their writers.
My experience of Hay
In 2010 we launched a collection of stories about animals, in fact many of them from an animal's point of view, from the festival. We were in the biggest tent, which was almost full, early Friday evening. Richard Adams contributed a story, Virginia McKenna wrote a foreword and was the focal point of the the launch as the book supports Born Free and the book attracted quite bit of media attention at the bothbefore andafter the festival.
We sold exactly 70 books. This is deemed to be a good number. So any argument that a festival might put forward about increased sales for authors isn't all that convincing, even if one allows for unknowns. We spent a lot in order to be at the festival, and the book never covered those costs even though we still cherish the experience.
How festivals can pay
Surely anyone who has the organisational skills to bring about a whole festival ought to be able to budget for an author presentation and to cover that author's costs. Even making a profit is acceptable. Might this not even add to the profit already being made by the festival if this is after all about money? Might there be the danger though that this could put the cost up beyond what the public are willing to pay? After all, Hay is relatively cheap. Attending my seven events would not bankrupt me.
Could the publisher throw in a discounted book? They could still make a small profit and they could still pay a pro rata royalty. It would avoid the queue in the bookshop. Itwould be a guaranteed sale. Win, win, win?
The do it yourself festival
It is possible for an author to organise her own festival appearance at a festival - particularly at the various fringe events. Buxton and Manchester are good examples. There is a fee to pay, but this is one off and covers all events. The more events you organise, the cheaper this overhead becomes. You can get box office help for a small fee or use something like Eventbrite or Ticket Source. You'll need all of that marketing finesse that you use in promoting you books to get people along so that you cover your costs. At least, however, there would be a chance of getting some payment.
The truth of the matter
Writers should of course be paid. They should be paid for their writing. They should be paid for other writerly activities - such as attending literary festivals. Yes, there is the question of merit. The writer must earn her success. But isn't a festival such as Hay just as much about the writers as the readers and about the sponsors making money?