June 3rd, 2012

Writing and Money, Part 3

This is the third part of my writing and money series. This post gets waaaay into the minutia of reading in public and getting paid for it/not getting paid for it. If this isn’t your life right now, or it has been for years and you’re totally used to it, this won’t be too interesting, but it might be valuable if you’re getting started with the readings and are simultaneously terrified of appearing greedy and getting taken advantage of. This is just what I’ve been able to surmise the past few years–feel free to chime in if you have more or better info than I do!

Doing a reading. The Canada Council has nice clear guidelines on what readers should be paid when the CC is funding the event. tTey fund a lot of readings, so their guidelines are often taken as standard and used even when they aren’t the funders. A solo reading (I’m the whole show–I have to make it worth it for the audience to have shown up at all) is $250; a shared reading (with one or more others sharing the load) is $125. I’ve occasionally been paid a little more or a little less than these rates, but they are typical of readings that pay.

 Many readings, however, do not pay, and are totally legit. Anything that happens in a bookstore, for instance, is sorta thought of as book-sales promotion and is thus pretty much never paid. But they sell books, which is kinda the same thing. By the same token, book and journal launches, and certain independent events put on by your publisher won’t be paid–again, it’s all promotion. In truth, you might give exactly the same reading at a “promotional” event in a bookstore that’s free and unpaid, and at an “entertainment” literary festival where the audience has paid admission and you’ve been remunerated for your work. That’s just the way it is sometimes–be grateful for both opportunities and don’t think too much about it.

 Libraries, schools, colleges and universities usually pay something for readings, and in general they really should as they have budgets for just this sort of thing. I wouldn’t name a number though–it depends on too many factors. Once, a teenager wrote to me on Facebook to say he liked my work and would I please come visit his writers’ group? Of course I was thrilled and emailed the librarian who ran the group to ask if I could stop by next week and chat with the teens. She insisted on filing the proper paperwork, which took 6 months, and paying me $300. I was fine with that! But I’m also fine with doing a reading for a teacher-friend who doesn’t have the budget to pay me for whatever reason. Reading to the young is really rewarding–they ask the best questions. Always worth keeping in mind…

 Reading series that happen in bars typically don’t pay or simply offer writers a cut of a “pay what you can” bucket, which usually at least covers your drinks. Of course, such series also occasionally have drink tickets too! And there’s a few bar series that do have funding or charge admission or have some other way of paying writers–that’s always a nice surprise, too.

 When should you do a reading for free? Whenever you want to and are comfortable with it. Unlike publications in the previous post–where you basically have one chance to get the story into print and don’t want to blow it on something lame–you can do as many readings as you have free time. However, pretty much everyone in the universe has limited free time, for reasons of work or childcare or commuting or whatever, so you’re going to want to at least try to choose reading invitations you know you will enjoy, will have an audience, will expose you to co-readers you find interesting, or whatever other vectors you desire. Do ask around to find out if a particular reading series is poorly run–you don’t want to find out when you show up that they don’t advertise or properly organize the space, etc. etc. That’s way worse than no dough. Seriously, ask other writers, ask *me* if you’re invited somewhere you’re not sure about–we all have a duty not to let fellow writers waste their time.

Be *very* careful on out-of-town readings where they don’t pay travel expenses. It’s tacky (and odd!) to nickel-and-dime on in-town gas mileage or bus fare (though if you truly can’t afford it, I guess it’s worth mentioning to the reading organizer). Beyond the city limits, though, you should be recompensed for whatever expenses it takes to get you there. Otherwise, you’re not just working for free–you’re actually paying for the privilege. With gas prices these days, think really hard before you commit.

It’s surprising how many novice reading-organizers don’t think of travel expenses–sometimes I think they honestly have no idea where I live when they email me, but I’m not sure why they assume it’s in the same place as they do. But nervous as I am about appearing grabby, six simple words help a lot: “Do you have a travel budget?” You convey that you are sensitive to their budgetary constraints, but also that they need to be sensitive to yours. It’s up to them to offer to give you some $$ to fund travel, arrange a carpool, whatever they need to do to get you there–or explain why you should essentially donate your time and your bus-ticket-buying cash to get there yourself.

I always assume that if I was at home, I would be feeding myself so I don’t feel alarmed if I have to buy my own dinner while on a reading-related trip. If you’re being “hosted” by a specific group or association, they may take you out (this seems to happen at universities especially–which makes for a good evening both food-choices and conversation-wise). At a very few big-deal festivals, per diems are offered to buy your meals, but that’s quite rare. More common at festivals are communal meals for the writers and volunteers and/or a “hospitality suite,” which is basically a room full of snacks, drinks, and comfy chairs. All of these things are pretty great, but shouldn’t be expected–bring some cash and some granola bars wherever you go, and hope for the best.

If you were at home, though, you wouldn’t have to rent a bed for the night, though, so expect accommodations to be covered. These may not be plush, mind you–in the literary community, there’s nothing wrong with “billeting,” which is essentially crashing on a stranger’s futon. Even there isn’t anything wrong with that, you might still not be comfortable with it–speak up if you aren’t, and try to work out a solution. Maybe there’s someone in town you’d feel more comfortable staying with because you actually know them, maybe the organization hosting you can spring for a hotel, or worst case scenario, there’s always the last train home after the reading!


I’ve mainly run out of topics in this area (money and writing) that I’m sufficiently knowledgeable about–I’ve thought about it and I simply don’t know enough about how people besides me fare on book advances, film options, etc., plus there are a number of things I’ve never experienced, like translations and foreign rights sales. If you or someone you know has that experience, I’d certainly welcome guest posts. Otherwise, we’ll put this series on a hiatus until I learn something new!

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