Let’s Talk About Payment, People (authors and other creatives)

She started it~ not me, daring to bring up the taboo topic of money, and urging authors to accept payment for their work.

c hope

C. Hope Clark, founder of the award-winning Funds For Writers, posted this on her Facebook page several days ago.

She brought it up, but it’s a topic I’ve been pondering as well, in regards to author programs and presentations. I approach it from both sides of the desk; as an author who charges fees for workshops and presentations, and as a librarian who plans and schedules programming.

I recently spoke with a woman who’d spent a great deal of time researching a topic I thought would interest the population I serve as Senior Services librarian. She’d spent hours on research and putting together a 45-minute power point she presented at a local college. I approached her about doing the same program for our library, and she readily agreed. When I asked if $25 would be enough compensation, she looked surprised, then whispered “This is the first time I’ve been offered payment for a program.”  It was the whisper that got to me; this creative woman who was not used to being compensated for her time.

The same thing happened a few years ago, when I hired a yoga instructor for a morning of workshops at the small library I directed. When I offered $100 for the three sessions, she gratefully accepted, before confiding that another library hadn’t paid her anything.  I suggested she begin charging a reasonable fee for her professional service. While I expect that library was not thrilled to discover she was charging for her programs the following year, they did agree to pay her.

Just in the last month, I’ve had two authors ask me if they should be charging for programs and presentations, and if so, how much. My reply of “sometimes,” and “it depends” was probably not all that helpful. To clarify, this is my advice, based on the authorship of five traditionally-published books, six years of teaching workshops and doing presentations, and experience as a librarian.

Is this a book-signing or a presentation? If you are an author doing a book signing, do not charge. A bookstore or venue hosts the book signing with the understanding you’re there to sell books and benefiting from those sales.  However, I learned very early on from a well-published mentor who hates book-signings as much as I do, to offer a program instead of just sitting behind a table, hoping people will stop and buy. I’ve done “mini writing workshops” at a Barnes & Noble store and a couponing workshop at a university book store, offering the option in place of the straight book-signing that was requested. My co-author and I also offered a fun and entertaining letter-writing workshop at the same Barnes & Noble. I never expected either bookstore to pay me, but was pleasantly surprised when the university store did. And yes, the programs netted more book sales than previous “book-signings” I’d done.

That said, if you’re an author, but can’t offer a quality, entertaining presentation, please don’t tell a librarian you’re doing a program, only to talk about your book for less than five minutes, then ask everyone to purchase it. That’s not a program, and yes, this really happened to a librarian I know. The librarian was mortified that she’d advertised a program, while the clueless author didn’t seem to know the difference. Five minutes about your book is not a presentation. Half an hour reading from your book is not a presentation, either. It is a book-reading, which is often part of a book-signing, and I wouldn’t suggest charging for that, either.

How experienced are you? Are you an expert in your topic? Is this your profession? If you are just starting out doing programs and presentations, you might want to offer your services for free just for the practice, for mileage only, or simply for the opportunity to sell your books afterwards. I’ve been a writing instructor for community colleges for nearly six years and am used to being compensated for classes in that area of expertise, so I have no problem asking for some sort of compensation when I teach writing elsewhere. As for my couponing workshops, I lived and breathed the couponing lifestyle for over 30 years, wrote a weekly newspaper coupon column for three, penned a book on the topic, and appeared in a documentary on couponing. I’ve earned the title of coupon expert and the fee I charge for my entertaining and educational two-hour workshop. That said, there are times when even the most experienced speaker or presenter will offer their services for free, whether it is as a ministry of sorts or a way of giving back. There are some libraries and groups I didn’t charge, but I made it clear that it was an exception, not the rule, so they wouldn’t spread the word about the “free speaker.”  I’ve also never felt comfortable charging a fee to speak to those who are grieving, but the same mentor who suggested I do programs rather than book-signings informed me he had often done speeches for a “love offering,” which means having a basket out for any donations. When he and I spoke together on the topic last year, the love offering that was divided between us was quite generous. I plan to utilize this method at some future speaking engagements.

For you other creatives, if you’re an artist offering painting classes or a yoga instructor offering yoga sessions, and this is how you make your living, you have every right to request compensation for your time.

What is the venue?  Are you presenting at a retirement center, for a women’s group, a school or library? Do they have a budget for programming or speakers? Do they typically pay their presenters? Did they request you as a speaker, or did you approach them with a program idea, and if you did, did you make it clear you would be charging for your services? Compensation, or the lack of it, needs to be clarified from the first contact or you might be put in the awkward position of having to ask for a fee after you’ve already agreed, only to discover, uncomfortably, that the expectation was that you would speak for free. There are many groups that will gladly accept your free speaking and presentations. Some count on unpaid speakers. Christian Women Clubs pay their trained speakers but depend on the ten-minute unpaid feature speakers that precede them.  I’ve spoken for them several times, mostly for the opportunity to meet some lovely community women and speak on topics that interest me.

Some groups can’t afford to pay, others just like to save money wherever they can. A few might be taking advantage of you. Sometimes your pay comes in making connections for a future paid gig or the opportunity to sell your books.

So, is C. Hope Clark correct in her assessment that one author not taking compensation erodes the careers of other authors?

In the case of the author with the dubious five minute “presentation,” my answer would be no. There was no value in it. Had she requested payment, I believe the librarian would have been entitled to a refund.

Now I’m stepping behind my librarian’s desk to answer this question from another perspective. Through my employment, I am privy to an e-mail list that goes out to Iowa librarians who sign up for it. Through this list, librarians can share tips, ideas, and ask for help and solutions to dilemmas common to libraries. This is also where they share information about authors and presenters. Knowing that libraries (and community groups, women’s groups, and churches) do face stringent budget constraints, free presentations and speakers are extremely enticing. I understand that, and I’ve taken advantage of free programs myself, particularly when the presenter offers the service as a volunteer. Our library depends on volunteers. I also know I’m much more likely to get the “go-ahead” from my director if the fee is less than $25.

That said, there are some programs I hope to bring in that would cost our library (or Friends Group) over $100. I know the presenters and the intrinsic value of their program. But if someone approached our library with a similar free program, I’d be hard-pressed to convince my director that we should pay anyone $100.

As a librarian and author, I’m privy to the fees charged by other authors for their presentations. One author will visit any library for free, as long as she can sell her books. She charges an appropriate fee to speak to other groups, but she claims a soft spot for public libraries.  Another charges a $25 flat fee, no matter how far she travels, though she does prefer libraries coordinate with each other so she can visit more than one in a single day.  Yet another charges mileage only.  I know of two authors who charge $100, plus mileage, to do a one hour presentation. Recently, I was asked if our library would like to coordinate a visit from an author whose programs have been well-received at other libraries. That author charges $350, plus mileage.

Are those authors conducting programs for a minimal cost hurting their writing peers? If they do a good job (and they do, I know these women and have seen their presentations) I can guarantee that they are going to get far more speaking gigs than the author who charges $100 for a similar program.

But is their program similar? Most of the programs are related to the topic of their own book. Some are programs relating to their personal writing experience, surely not the same presentation or the same experience of another author.  I can think of only one instance when I was informed, after a request for my couponing workshop, that I was no longer needed because another couponer had offered to do a free program.  Did the woman understand that she was sacrificing quality and quantity for money? Because surely this other presenter did not have the vast experience, the published book, the documentary appearance, and the prize I give at the end of each presentation? I wasn’t about to argue with her, or offer my program at no cost, devaluing myself or the hundreds of hours I’d put into developing such a program.

And maybe that’s the point of this diatribe. If budget constraints mean a librarian has to choose between two similar author presentations, they will surely choose the less expensive. Outside of the famous, the perceived value of author presentations in general is bound to be diminished. But what distresses me even more than is that a writer, artist, or other professional creative, by not charging even a minimal fee has lost sight of their own value. That a woman would whisper the lament of never having been compensated for her services, or that one professional (a librarian) would just assume that another professional (a yoga teacher) should offer her services for zero compensation. The yoga instructor surely may want to, as a form of volunteerism or ministry, which was the case for a woman I recently contacted about a program. “I’ll do it for free, to help out my library,” she said, after I asked her how much she charged.

But I asked.

Consider this; on that e-mail list I mentioned, a librarian was lauding the praises of the author who charges $350;

“She’s expensive, but she’s well worth it.”

My question: are you?