Philip Pullman’s comments yesterday about payment for authors appearing at literary festivals are important and we want to explain YA Shot’s position and the reasons behind it. This is a long post but it’s a complicated issue so please bear with us.
Different festivals (and the like) exist for different purposes and that naturally means different approaches to what authors receive in exchange for their time and effort. However, there’s never an argument for not paying if a festival primarily exists to put authors in front of whichever members of the public are willing and able to pay to see the authors speak. There’s never an argument for not paying if it is possible to pay. And there’s never an argument for treating this issue as unimportant: all festivals should have good – and effectively communicated – reasons for their approach that speak to an appreciation for authors’ time and value: whatever is being offered must be of tangible worth and authors’ value must be recognised.
YA Shot doesn’t exist to be a festival. Being a festival is a means to an end for us. The purpose of YA Shot is to raise the money (from ticket sales) and time (from ‘donations’ by authors) to run an annual programme of 25-35 free authors visits pairing local libraries with schools (priority going to disadvantaged schools) to foster a love of reading, inspire a passion for writing, and encourage aspirations to careers in the Arts. Our authors donate the events for this programme (if they wish – it’s entirely optional!) and YA Shot covers all their reasonable expenses and, where possible, provides two copies of their latest book: one for the school involved and one for the host library.
YA Shot exists for one core purpose: to bring authors together so we can make a real difference to library systems around the country and thus do something about the fact that access to books and careers isn’t equal – though of course it should be.
In our inaugural year, YA Shot offered a £50 ‘honorarium towards expenses’ and then paid any additional expenses authors had above this. However, this represents more than half of the money we can possibly raise through ticket-sales in a given year. We could only do it in 2015 because we got a one-year Arts Council Grant to help us get up and running.
If our purpose was to run as a festival, we’d manage. The rub is that the libraries-schools programme also represents more than half of the money we can possibly raise through ticket-sales in a given year. Plus there are obviously costs for running the festival and operating costs for all our activities and we also have a small ‘hardship fund’ to support the students who intern with us. As we discuss below, none of the organisers are paid at all at present so if authors were being paid, we’d also need money to pay the people who make YA Shot happen. The money the YA Shot festival raises isn’t ever going to be able to cover all this, but our priority is clear: the libraries-school programme.
Our budget is, in festival terms, tiny and on-going sources of grants are few and far between. We are going to look for corporate sponsorship but it doesn’t mean we’ll get it or that it will continue or that we’ll get enough money to do everything we’d like to. It’s especially difficult to find money when no one is being paid for the time it takes to apply for grants and approach sponsors. But we believe YA Shot does important stuff – stuff that needs to happen – so we will find ways to make that stuff happen even without enough money. We hope that eventually we’ll find a sponsor or sponsors who can see how much active good with do with very little and help up bridge the gap between ‘making it work’ and ‘making it work sustainably and without quite so much worry about where the money will come from every year’.
In the meantime, here’s what we’re doing. The feedback from our 2015 authors was that the ‘standard £50 honorarium-towards-expenses plus additional expenses if you have them’ system wasn’t fair as London-based authors effectively got to keep most of the money as payment for their time while authors from further afield only got expenses. As things stand we couldn’t possibly afford an honorarium plus expenses and the libraries-school programme that is the whole reason we exist. In 2016, YA Shot won’t offer a standard honorarium-towards-expenses but we will make sure that all reasonable expenses for all authors are covered. We will be asking if publishers can help us – at least a bit – but one way or another authors won’t be out of pocket. (BTW, the focus on this piece is on authors but we treat ALL our contributors equally: we make the same commitment to the bloggers, vloggers and chairs that complete our line-up.)
YA Shot invitations effectively say this: ‘Authors, please donate your time to make our libraries-schools programme happen and we’ll make sure you’re not out of pocket too.’ We’re not trying to keep the money the festival raises – we’re not even trying to put it straight back into the festival. The whole point of the festival is the schools-library programme. If the YA Shot festival couldn’t fund this, there wouldn’t be a festival at all as there are already plenty of absolutely amazing festivals-that-exist-to-be-festivals out there.
But here’s our promise. If YA Shot ever has enough money to run the libraries-schools programme, look after its interns, pay its organisers for at least some of their time, run itself and pay authors’ expenses and an honorarium, then we will. Of course if our authors say they’d rather the money go back into the libraries-schools programme, we’ll make sure we use it well, but that will be up to our authors to determine once we’ve made the offer: if we possibly can, of course we will choose to pay our authors.
Another important thing we need to stress is that authors and other contributors aren’t the only people at YA Shot not getting paid: no one involved is paid for their time at all. The librarians and Waterstones staff we work with either donate their time or they do the work as part of their job. Uxbridge Library, Hillingdon Council and Waterstones Uxbridge donate all our venue spaces and take care of all the associated costs of lighting, heating, staff, cleaning, etc.
Our interns aren’t paid but they can apply for expenses for the only times we required them to be at a set place at a set time (i.e. our training session and YA Shot itself) and they do get a little bit food money on the day of YA Shot. Just to reassure everyone, we only ask for a small commitment of time from interns: the minimum requirement is 20 hours of work February-October, attendance at a 2-hour training session and the day of YA Shot itself. Even so, we would love to give all our interns a small honorarium or bursary if we could.
At some point or another, we may have to look at paying the key volunteers who currently do more than 3 months’ unpaid work per year to make YA Shot happen, but we would stick with a voluntary model: our key people would do something like the equivalent of a month’s free work and then we would pay them for any additional work needed to run YA Shot. At the moment it’s our one big worry about the future: who can afford to volunteer a quarter of their working time, no matter how much they care about a good cause? To make YA Shot sustainable, we will either need a much bigger but equally capable, trustworthy and dedicated team of volunteers (this is our preference) or we’ll have to find an on-going source of additional money so our current team can afford to carry on as they are. However, the minute even one person gets paid, the equation changes. It’s one thing to pay no one. It’s another to pay some people and not others, even if you go strictly on the basis that those being paid are doing at least 10 times as much as everyone else.
Another issue is that the difference between our maximum potential ticket-sales and our yearly budget is £2-4000. Within our first five years, we’ll need to try to put aside a year’s worth of potential shortfall so we can buy ourselves a year, if we ever have to, to work out a new way to make ends meet if our current sources of additional money dry up. As such, we need some ‘rainy day money’ but we don’t want to squirrel away more than is absolutely necessary because the festival is not the point of YA Shot. We want to spend everything we can on the reason behind all our efforts: our libraries-schools programme. There are so many other things we could be doing and hopefully, in due course, we’ll find the extra money to make it all happen.
Returning to Pullman’s argument, here’s YA Shot’s position on all points.
- The YA Shot festival exists to raise money for our libraries-schools programme. It is a means to an end. We ask our authors for their time as a ‘donation in kind’ that, along with ticket-sales, creates sufficient resources to run the libraries-schools programme.
- We’re not asking our authors to work for ‘nothing’: we’re asking them to work to support libraries and young people who may not have equal access books or careers in the Arts. We’re asking them to be part of a charitable project that helps a completely different set of people to those at the YA Shot festival.
- We don’t think it’s fair to ask authors and other contributors to donate their time and be out of pocket so we commit to making sure all reasonable expenses are paid for both YA Shot and any libraries-schools events authors wish to donate.
- No one at YA Shot is being paid for their time: we’re all on an equal footing.
- The main thing authors get out of YA Shot is being there for the day itself – not because they’ll get enough book sales or publicity for the time to pay for itself, but because it all happens on one day (rather than spread out over weeks) so all the authors are in one place at one time with a large number of colleagues, friends, readers, bloggers, librarians and other members of the UKYA community. It’s a nice chance to network but, above all, it’s fun and all it costs is authors’ time… but that is being given so that the libraries-schools programme can happen so it’s time doubly well-spent.
- In 2016, we have a Cunning Plan (to be announced very soon) that will make YA Shot doubly important in terms of taking an active and visible role in the UKYA community. There will be an exciting extra reason to take the time and effort to be there. It’s still a ‘big ask’ for our authors, but we’re doing everything we can to make it worthwhile to them in as many ways as possible to show our gratitude for their generosity and commitment.
- And of course even though it’s only an ‘added bonus’ we do everything we can to maximise book sales on the day and publicity both for the event and for our authors as individuals.
- Finally, we do our best to look after our authors with care. We have lots of very lovely staff to help and we provide plenty of food and drinks throughout the day. We also put a lot of thought into low-cost touches to show our authors that they are valued. Our authors know that we don’t have much money – and they respect that we’re extremely thrifty – but they can also see we’re doing our level best with what we have.
So that’s the YA Shot model and all our thinking and reasons. We’re not trying to do anyone down here, we just explaining our position in relation to Pullman’s argument. We think it’s important to have very clear reasons for acting as we do – and to take the time to communicate those reasons so everyone involved can make an informed decision about whether they do or don’t want to be part of YA Shot.
Thanks for your time. If you like what we have to say and what we’re about, do check out what we’re up to on our website (though do note that this is currently being overhauled and will soon be much improved!) and, in the meantime, on the #YAShot and #YAShot2016 hashtags on Twitter. We have lots of exciting announcements coming up in the next week!
And, when it comes time, please do consider buying a ticket – or buying a gift ticket. These tickets go to local young people who couldn’t otherwise afford to go to YA Shot. We can’t afford to give tickets away because our priority is funding the libraries-schools programme, so this is our way of making YA Shot accessible to disadvantaged young people for whom it can be eye opening to see how welcome they are in the book community. This year we’re seeking to work with local schools and also the youth offending unit, but if anyone else has suggestions for where our gift tickets would do the most good, please get in touch!