Supply and demand for authors

Most writers know that their chosen path is not going to make them a fortune. The exceptions are few – only a few are as successful as J.K.Rowling (a.k.a. Robert Galbraith, apparently after J.K.Galbraith, in her recent PR stunt with

) or 
or, in our world, 
or
.

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So it was with great sympathy that I read a lament by Guy Walters in the Literary Review about the expectation that writers will travel the country giving talks for free, on the basis that it might just increase sales. He contrasts writers with comedians – apparently Al Murray asks for and gets 70% of takings at the door. Mr Walters calculates that the Hay Festival took £5600 from ticket sales at a talk he gave, for which they ‘paid’ him half a dozen bottles of wine.

I know nothing about the Hay Festival’s finances. But there are two problems with wanting to get paid for book talks.

One is that event costs are high. I’m currently organising the 2nd Festival of Economics with the Bristol Festival of Ideas. Participants are paid expenses and a small fee, because on principle we believe they should get paid something whenever tickets are charged for. But ticket sales alone do not cover the costs of the expenses and venue hire; we need to raise a few thousand pounds in sponsorship to break even. (Almost there, but please get in touch if you’re interested in sponsoring us!)

The second is that there are lots of authors. Lots and lots of them. The well-known ones can presumably charge a high fee, like the well-known comedians, but the lesser known ones have virtually no market power. It’s supply versus demand and then some: like so many other creative sectors, superstar economics apply here. This is a common phenomenon with experience goods, whose quality is unknown before they have been consumed. This means consumers flock to the writers/performers whose reputation is already strong enough to guarantee enjoyment, rather than taking a risk on the unknown. To them that hath, shall more be given.

I do think writers should have expenses paid by event organisers, and a fee even if token when the audience is paying. There’s never any harm in asking. But most writers have to take part in the events for enjoyment, and a scintilla of extra public recognition that might help sales, and not for cash.

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