Leicester’s Everyone’s Reading took place earlier this month and whether you’re organising a writer’s event for a literature festival, school or writers’ group, here’s some pointers on how to make a success of it.
What do you want your writer to do?
Plan ahead so when you contact the writer, you ask “could you run a workshop and then give a talk about being a writer to Year 9?” rather than, “could you come to our literature festival?” Some writers love meeting people, pupils and chatting about writing. Others won’t be tempted out of their study unless they know what’s expected of them so they can prepare and practice their social skills beforehand.
You will get more out of your writer if they know how long they will be reading for, whether there’s a book signing session or you expect them to give a workshop. Although writers do make things up as they go along, it doesn’t always make for a successful event.
Do not ask the writer to attend for free
You wouldn’t ask your plumber to fix your leaking pipe because of the benefits to his business of being able to say he fixed your leaking pipe. So don’t expect a writer to give up precious writing time, pay their own travel expenses and give a reading/ talk/ workshop for nothing. You get what you pay for.
If you’re a not for profit organisation or educational establishment with a tight budget, be upfront about what you can afford. The Society of Authors recommend a fee of £150 for a writer’s event and The Arts Council of England suggest fees are based the average wage. Some writers will charge more, however, many may consider negotiating. Remember the fee doesn’t just cover the writer’s time at the event, but also travel and preparation so if you skimp on the fee, the writer will skimp on preparation.
By all means point out that the event is being organised by unpaid volunteers who are offering their unpaid time to help out so the writer will be the only person being paid, but don’t expect the writer to volunteer their time free. If the audience is paying to attend the event, the writer should be offered some payment.
If you are organising a writer’s event and the writer is the only person you expect to turn up for free, why are you organising the event and can you do it without the writer?
Unless the writer lives within walking distance, be prepared to at least contribute towards travel expenses. Check how your writer will travel: not all poets drive so research train and coach fares. It’s worth considering setting a budget so you can agree to pay standard class travel and then if the writer wants to upgrade to first class, they can pay the difference. Be clear about who is booking tickets, otherwise you and the writer will think someone is doing it only to find no one has done it.
Instructions on how to get there
If you don’t provide a map and/or directions, be prepared for your writer to phone, “I’m at such and such a street, where are you?”
Whilst major venues and universities are signposted, schools and bookshops are not. Generally signposts are created by people who know where the destination being signposted is, rather than by people who don’t know where they are going, so signposts are not as helpful as they should be.
If your writer is arriving by public transport, meet them at the station or bus stop.
Catering and Accommodation
As a bare minimum: a small jug of water and a glass so the writer can keep speaking.
If your event straddles a lunch time or dinner time, at least have a list of nearby eateries. Again, you should be clear whether you expect the writer to pay or whether you will pay, and if the latter, consider a budget approach rather than simply dragging your writer along to McDonald’s.
If your event requires an overnight stay (or the writer is using public transport and can’t travel back the same day), be clear about who is paying and what is being offered. The budget approach offering to pay the equivalent of a local bed and breakfast and allowing the writer to top up the difference if they wish to make alternative arrangements is the most flexible way forward. Also be very clear about whether you expect the writer to book their accommodation or whether you will do it. Offering a writer overnight accommodation as a guest of a volunteer or writers’ group member may be a solution but only if the writer is happy with this.
Do not say lunch is included and then only provide coffee and a pack of three custard cream biscuits (this really happened).
If you are providing a meal, check your writer has no special dietary requirements. Having completed a form, which I returned three weeks before the event, to say I am vegetarian (that’s proper vegetarian, not finicky eater masquerading as a vegetarian), I wasn’t impressed on being shown a buffet of ham or chicken sandwiches and tuna and sweetcorn vol au vents. I sent the organiser out to get sandwiches from the local shop.
If you ask your writer to turn up first thing in the morning to do a talk in assembly, then do a talk or workshop for each class in the morning, wittily entertain staff over a buffet lunch, do more talks or workshops for each class in the afternoon and then have a wrap-up meeting with the head teacher at the end of the day, don’t be surprised if the writer spends both morning and afternoon break locked in a staff toilet cubicle.
Selling Books and Promotional Activities
Do at least send a press release to the local press and put up a poster, preferably in advance of the event. Audiences don’t materialise, you have to tell them the event is happening. If the audience is captive, eg a class of children told to attend, at least tell them in advance who the writer is and why they are there.
Allow the writer to sell books or at least give out some promotional items.
Paying the Writer
Most writers will submit an invoice for payment. Don’t automatically deduct tax – most writers are self-employed or freelance so will deal with their own tax.
It is not the writer’s job to learn your organisation’s internal procedures for getting paid. Your organisation’s internal procedures are internal to your organisation. The writer is external to the organisation. You, not the writer, are responsible for checking that the Finance/Accounts department have the information they need and any required internal forms are completed.
- Plan ahead – if you don’t know what you want your visiting writer to do, your writer won’t know what to do either.
- Communicate – what you want, what fee you’re paying, what expenses you will pay and what you expect the writer to pay for.
- Catering (and accommodation) – at least provide drinks, if an event spans a lunch or dinner be clear about what you are providing and what you expect the writer to pay for.
- Pace the event – a writer is not a robot so build in some lack time if expecting the writer to do more than one consecutive event on the same day.
- Pay – be clear about what the writer has to do to get paid, do not automatically deduct tax and check you have followed any required internal procedures.
Writing may be a lonely business, but writers do talk to each other and if you try and organise an event without preparation, without being clear on what expenses you were and weren’t paying, tried to get away without paying a fee or paid the writer only after extensive chasing and the threat of the Small Claims Court, other writers will get to know you as a lousy literature event organiser before you’ve even approached them.