Sunday, December 20, 2015

On the Subject of Fair Compensation for Authors

Me showing some Aphrodite-ness
at the LHP Con in Indy 2014.
My friend and peer, Taylor Ellwood, posted this article that I thought several of you might find interesting. (This is the  second part of his open letter.) The condensed version is that Taylor has made the choice to respect himself and his work by expecting festival and convention organizers to pay him fair compensation (beyond free entry) for the events where he speaks. He makes the point that he is footing the bill for transportation, lodging, and food in order to present at and market these events. He further encourages event organizers to be clear in their expectations and compensation policies for featured speakers. Finally, he encourages all authors/speakers to take a stand and demand fair compensation, thereby changing the way these Pagan and esoteric events do business. (Please, please read the letters for yourself. I am only hitting the high points here.)

I applaud Taylor's decision as it relates to himself, and I have my own thoughts to share on the topic where my own presenting and event-organizing is concerned.

My Experience as an Author and Speaker

I have to admit, as much as my pride would like for me to seem more grand and in demand, that I have never been paid for an appearance at a Pagan festival or convention. I have never had my travel or lodging covered, either. The best that I have experienced in terms of compensation is free entry to the event and the ability to sell my books at no charge. That is the BEST, but I think it should be the standard minimum.

I'm not sure that I will ever be offered more compensation than this due to the nature of my writing and the somewhat limited audience to which my work appeals. I write about Traditional Witchcraft and Aphrodisian interests. Neither of those has a very broad base within the Pagan world. I'm a pragmatist, though, and I understand the principles of supply and demand when it comes to event organization. Mid-list authors (and actors and artists) just aren't compensated as generously as the "stars" of the genre.

My Observations of the BIG Conventions 

I'm talking here about the Comic Cons and genre-cons that pull in 20,000 - 80,000 attendees over the course of a single weekend. You know, those monstrous events with hordes of cosplayers. I've attended a few with my daughter (who loves anime), and I've even worked at one. (I was Naomi Grossman's personal assistant at the Lexington Comic and Toy Convention in 2014. At the time, she was pretty much only known for her role as Pepper in American Horror Story: Asylum. She had just been signed for AHS: Freak Show, but couldn't announce it yet.)

These conventions, if you haven't been, have a handful of honored and featured guests, a ton of other guests, some panel discussions, some workshops, and lots and lots of shopping. Pagan conventions, if you haven't been, also have a handful of honored and featured guests, lots of mid-list or unknown authors and speakers, lots of workshops, and a little shopping. Both types of events cost about $300 for the weekend (give or take).

I can tell you from up-close experience that the BIG cons generate thousands and thousands (and THOUSANDS) of dollars, and everybody gets paid something. I got paid to be a PA, even! But they have also monetized the ever-loving snot out of every aspect of the experience. The authors and artists and actors who were NOT Carol from The Walking Dead, Cpt. Kirk, or that voice-actor you love from Full-Metal Alchemist made pretty much all their money from autographs and photo ops. The more that people came to see them personally, the more money they earned. And I'm not sure that most of them made anything from the con's ticket sales. They ONLY made money from their fans.

I bring this up because Pagan cons/fests don't have the same dynamic in terms of monetizing the experience. Authors don't charge for book signings, let alone signed photos and other swag. They don't charge you $10 (or more) to take a selfie with you on your own phone. Indeed, you might just find Oberon Zell-Ravenheart sharing mead and telling stories at YOUR campfire. Pagan events have a culture that is relationship-based far more than it is money-based.

My Experience as an Event Organizer

I organize events at Midian Festivals and Events near Bedford, Indiana, USA. I have been an organizer (now Director) of the Babalon Rising Thelemic Festival since 2009, and it is the largest event I help organize. (BR hasn't yet reached max capacity, but we anticipate that being about 500 people total --  including all organizers, presenters, musicians, dancers, volunteers, and paid registrants.) We are not a large event, and we don't particularly aim to be. We are a Thelemic event, and it is our goal to provide a quality festival experience for Thelemites of all ilks, orders, and inclinations.

I'm hesitant to share too much about BR's financial details, but I will share what I think is relevant for this conversation. We are a private, commercial (meaning that we are NOT "non-profit"), small business. Our directors and organizers have never taken a salary, and everyone who has ever had any major hand in the running of the festival has invested a fair chunk of money into its operation. We do it for Love (and certainly for Will) but not at all for money. The festival's main financial goal is to provide an amazing experience in the current year and have some seed money to get started for the following year.

We always offer free entrance to any presenter who provides 2 or more workshops (and only charge $20 -- which is the fee we pay for land usage per person) for 1 workshop. Furthermore, we always offer free vending to ALL attendees, which allows authors the chance to sell books. (Starting in 2015, we also offered all presenters the opportunity to sell their books at our HQ table. This is a free service provided by me and the admin team to help our authors.)

We have only ever been able to cover the transportation, hotel, food, and speaker's fees for ONE (and in some rare years, TWO) authors/speakers at a time. These are our keynotes or guests of special honor. We genuinely wish we could pay every presenter, but to do so would bankrupt us in the first year -- unless we also raised our rates to $300/attendee, but then we know we would see diminished registration (and I'm not sure that even that would give us enough funds to offer more than a token amount). It's a catch-22 for us, you see. 

What we end up hoping and needing is to have authors and speakers from the Thelemic community who enjoy the festival and want to share their experience with their fellow attendees. It's an intimate setting, and most of our speakers are long-time attendees and friends of the festival. Is that nepotism at work? Maybe so. But we aren't an exclusive club. We bring in new folks every year, and we offer everyone a seat at the table. 

We also do (or make space for) things that you won't see at many other events. Our attendees present their own games, performances, shenanigans, rituals, and impromptu discussions at all hours of the day and night.  We are a different sort of event, and I know that even if all mid-list authors/speakers boycotted BR and other events that can't offer compensation, BR would be only minimally affected. I don't mean disrespect to my fellow-authors by saying that. I know this without a doubt, just as I know that BR would continue even if the current organizers -- myself included -- stepped down en mass. (We needed to "take a break" in 2013, and a grass-roots, community-driven campout sprang up in the place of BR for that year! This festival demands to be had.) For us, maybe more than for other events, our attendees are the greatest power behind the festival -- moreso than the authors or the organizers or the musicians.

So, what does this mean for how BR compensates authors?

Well, it means that we would love to offer our speakers more money, but we just aren't always able. When we can, we do. We choose where our funds go based on a few harsh realities: 1) who our attendees ask for, 2) which authors bring in NEW paying attendees, and 3) who has been loyal to the festival. Yeah, I know that last one also smacks of nepotism, but it's a factor. If you've played or presented at BR for years, you're devoted to the cause, and THIS year you might not be able to make it without a little help, we have done what we can. Frankly, even then, we don't have much money to smooth over difficulties. Maybe a little money for gas -- or helping arrange a carpool. (We've done both.) Maybe we pick up your tab in the kitchen or offer you food vouchers up to a certain amount. (Again, we've done that.)

We will continue to offer free admission and vending to our speakers, too. I know that doesn't sound like a whole lot on the surface; but like Taylor mentioned, I too have had to pay for the privilege of speaking at an event. In February of 2015, in fact, Taylor and I were both at a well-known convention. Only one of my workshops was accepted for the schedule, so I owed fees upon my arrival. I shared a hotel room with a friend (and OTO Brother), and I carpooled with another friend (and OTO Sister). I packed a picnic basket and cooler full of food, and I ate out only once while I was there. (And my Brother picked up my tab, if I recall correctly.)  It was an expensive weekend for me, all in all, but it was a good experience, as well. I got to connect with a couple of my readers, I got to bond with some members of my fraternal order, and I saw a little behind the curtain of how a Pagan Con works.

Here are two things that I did find insulting about that experience. It's not that my food, transportation, and lodging were paid by me. The organizers didn't know me or my work, and it was my first year there. I saw my costs as an investment.

What hurt my pride a bit was that there was no opportunity for me to offer my books for sale. They had a table with a few of the authors' works, which I understand was a courtesy service for a select group. I'm not sure what it took to be part of that group or why I didn't qualify. Other authors paid high fees for merchant space. Neither was an option for me. 

And ... I actually ended up presenting THREE workshops, which should have equaled free admission. Another presenter (and friend) couldn't make it due to illness. Her cancellation got lost somewhere along the way, and they still had her on the schedule. I stepped in and presented both of her workshops. I presented them very well, in fact, and I got great feedback on them. But, no, I didn't get anything knocked off my admission. I barely got a "thank you." That stung. I don't need to be paid, but I want to be valued.

In my mind, free admission and table space for book-selling are non-negotiable, and they are very easy to provide. Even if an event can't spare cash for an honorarium, airfare, hotel, or meals, they can at least  NOT CHARGE the author and give them a chance to recoup some of their expenses via book sales. 

What does this mean for me as an author and speaker?

I'm an A+ speaker. I really am. I get great reviews and feedback. As awesome as I am, I know that I will continue to be undervalued as a con/fest commodity.  In all of my presenting, I have never had more than one or two people (per event) say that they registered and paid to see me. I have had it happen, and it is a heady moment when it comes. But I am not bringing an event much money. I'm a "value added" sort of commodity. A "bonus feature."

I'm a mid-lister. Like Naomi Grossman when I sat at her side in Lexington, enough people know me to make it worth my while to show up and give them something of value. (And enough people don't know me to make it worth my while to show up and introduce myself.) I've got to work hard to promote myself and my writing. Fair or unfair, that's the commercial nature of writing and speaking.

Do I hope to some day be a shining star -- a darling of the Pagan/Magical speaking circuit? Hells yeah! The trends will have to shift for that to happen, though. Either Aphrodite or Traditional Witchcraft are going to have to get really popular for enough people to feel passionately about what I offer to make me a commercial draw for an event. For now, it's enough that I have that passion and get to share it from time to time with others.

I'm curious, though ...

What thoughts do you have on this topic? As both an author and an event organizer, I naturally see this topic from a couple of different perspectives. Where are you coming from?

Authors/speakers, do you feel disrespected if you only receive comped attendance to an event? What makes it "worth your while" to present at a fest or con? 

Organizers, could your event handle the financial impact of comping, transporting, lodging, feeding, and paying a stipend to more authors? How do you show your authors that you love and respect and appreciate what they provide to your event?

Attendees, how do you feel about possibly paying higher registration prices to ensure more speakers are receiving adequate compensation? Do you enjoy being exposed to new authors and new ideas at events enough to pay higher fees?

Maybe you have a suggestions for compensating authors in a different way? What "outside the box" solutions do you see?

Post in the comments!

Ready ... Go!


Readings By Dru Ann said...

I love your take on things! I too read and agree with Taylor Ellwood's letters and yet, I am in your shoes so to speak as a presenter. I am an author but my real love is crystal singing bowl meditations which is not something that is popular or necessarily understood at festivals. I did get the opportunity to be featured at 2 festivals this season. I was comped my entry, my partner's entry and given a vending booth. For me, as a new author and presenter this was an awesome opportunity. I presented 3 workshops at each festival and it was pretty successful for me. Sure I'd love one day to be paid to present but for now, starting out I'm good with the comp entry and vending booth - it is the least someone should get who has published books or cds and is giving 3 workshops. Blessings, Dru Ann (

Shauna Aura said...

Great post, and a lot to think about. As an event planner, I'm in your shoes; sometimes I can barely pay the fees to rent a venue. As an author and presenter, I also can't pay out of pocket to travel and teach any longer. As an event planner, I know that raising prices just means less people will attend. But then the question is, how do we actually bring in more abundance into our communities so that these events become sustainable, so that we can pay people (presenters, and organizers!) just compensation for their work?

Letting presenters in for free and offering vending place is definitely a baseline, I agree. I'm really glad for the conversation.

Unknown said...

On the vending space question: I know of conventions where comping vending space is complicated, either for state/location reasons (requirements for documention, etc.), or because the convention relies on vendor fees for a substantial portion of its budget, and comping vendor fees makes that complicated very quickly (in terms of paperwork, good relationships with all the vendors, and sustainability of the event.) There are also issues of making sure vendor tables are staffed throughout the vending hours, because empty tables discourages people from checking the existing ones out, weirdly.

Likewise, sometimes there's limited vending space, and the convention wants to get the maximum value from it, since it helps fund other parts of the convention: if you reliably have more vendors who want to buy tables than you have space for, comping some of them is a really hard call if you're being fiscally responsible about the event.

I do think it complicates things for authors who have a small number of books, and are presenting. I've seen this solved different ways, but often more than one method won't work for a particular convention and community.

- Authors are offered a chance to share a table by the convention, and to work out staffing it with each other. Pro: yay, possible sales. Con: need to trust the other (possibly unknown) people to do their shifts, handle the money and items appropriately, and there's time and effort to divide up the money at the end.

- Authors who know each other form a collaborative, sign up as a vendor, and sell their books that way. Different from the above because the authors have some existing degree of knowledge of each other, so the practical management is maybe less stressful. Pros: Yay, selling without being stuck at a table all the time. Cons: Requires a bunch of coordination, and at least one person willing to be primary contact with the convention. (This may have been the one you saw, fwiw.)

- Convention handles sales for presenters. Pro: yay, sales, and authors don't have to coordinate themselves. Con: For small conventions, it can be really hard to find volunteers you trust/can train/are reliable to handle money, and staff a space for an extended period of time. Sometimes solveable by having limited hours or combining functions (like having sales handled from the registration desk, if there are people there handling money throughout the event anyway.)

- Convention arranges with a local store who was already vending to handle book sales: Pro: Established business, they were already going to be there. Con: They have to keep the money separate from their own, there's record keeping, they may not be willing to do that, or without some kind of cut on the sales, which is also complicated.

Laurelei said...

Dru Ann, Shauna, and Unk ... You've all made really great points! Thanks for adding to this conversation. =)

Brandy said...

I appreciate your work! Let's talk about Aphrodite - she used to be more popular, I drew big crowds at PCON to Aphrodite talks 20 years ago.