Should authors work for free?

I know schools are being stretched tight with funding and they must prioritise where the money goes. But, an increasing number of my author and illustrator colleagues are being asked to appear for free at schools who say they can’t afford to pay. Surely, one must ask,  isn’t the opportunity for students’ to connect with the world of books and writing  important too?

Recently, two children’s authors were asked if they’d visit a school to speak to students as a ‘marketing exercise’ for the author rather than a paid engagement.

Marketing exercise? Sounds good. Authors and illustrators have to market themselves nowadays – publishers don’t have the money to do it, except for their best-selling authors (who, you would think, hardly need advertising and marketing).

But, unfortunately, ‘marketing’ your name/book to a small school community or even to a large community does not mean kids will run home to their parents saying, ‘Can I please buy anonymous author’s book, Such and Such, Dad? Please, I want this book more than a Big Rooster dinner tonight, and Mum, it’s even cheaper than Big Rooster’.

Marketing one’s name is a slow, steady process of many, many hours of writing or illustrating, occasionally winning awards even, coming up with books that kids and librarians will love (and parents too) and being paid to visit schools because the librarians love your books and think you’re good value. And word of mouth sells books. Ask the marketing department in any publishing house.

A most enjoyable gig. Doing the Dinosaur stomp with Aleesah Darlison and kids

We rely on school visits and most of us love them with a passion – it’s a chance to connect with our fabulous audience and to engage with wonderful, enthusiastic librarians and teachers.

 But, like other professionals, our writing is our business and like other businesses, we are paid for our professional service.

Here’s what other authors and illustrators say on the issue…

“When I’ve done visits for a small fee on the proviso that I can sell books, the most I’ve sold is probably 5 or 6. With a profit of maybe $5 – $8 per book, it hardly works out profitable, when you consider the time it takes to prepare for the visit and all.

And of course if you can’t sell books after the visit, and rely on the kids going home to ask Mum or Dad to go to the shops and buy the book…… well, add up the royalties for MAYBE one or two sales and you get a grand sum of $1 – $2 dollars!!! Bet not many teachers would put in a days work for that!”

“No, please don’t do it for free. Even being able to sell your books doesn’t make up for it in principle. I’m sure they allocate money for other things, but some just have this idea you should be grateful to be asked! I used to feel guilty until I discovered that my local state primary school paid $700 for a man and his two sheep dogs to come and give a demonstration on the oval!!”

“Try to negotiate at least half payment as long as you can sell books
yourself would be my best advice.”

“It’s an interesting issue. I’ve had a particular teacher from a local
school hassling me for a while to do an author visit for nothing. In
the end I got fed up and said that teachers don’t teach for nothing so
why should authors?” 

“Lately, two writer’s festivals have asked me to be involved; both for
nothing. This irks me even more when festivals can pay some authors
and not others.”

“I had a request that was similar. In the end I didn’t do it as they ‘had no budget’ for me and it would have meant me taking the morning off work so I would have been losing money to do it. I did do one for free a few years ago for a small school through my local library (who have been amazing to me – hosted all my launches) but arranged to be able to sell and sign books on the day. Think I sold two books!

I know the teachers mean well thinking it’s a ‘marketing opportunity’ for us, but it hasn’t worked that way for me so far. My policy now is that I only do ‘freebies’ for my kids’ school and my local library. I send a quote for all others.”

And lastly, I asked Sophie Masson, award-winning author and an experienced school presenter about the issue – here are her words of wisdom.

“I think that the authors have made the right move in refusing the offer. Schools must not think they can get an author for nothing–after all no teacher would consent to give an hour’s free teaching, would they! I know many schools cry poor (and indeed many are) but there are many grants available for even impoverished schools to pay for authors: the ASA’s info page about their partnership program with the NSW Government, Authors in Priority Schools offers just such an opportunity (Ed: not available in other states). The local branch of the CBC may also help, and librarians’ association also can provide grants. For standard talks and workshops, I’d never do them for nothing, not even locally. 

As an aside, though,  when you’re dealing with local schools, particularly primary, where you do feel a sense of connection to the community, there are also creative ways you can get involved as an author, without charging yet also without doing yourself out of income.

For instance, I ran a competition at one of our local primary schools recently (the one my boys went to) which was centred around one of my books, the Boggle Hunters–the kids had to draw a boggle, and the three best creations got a prize (which I donated–a copy of the book and an extra thing.) There was a special event at the school then for the presentation. It was a big success, the kids loved it, so did their teachers.

I didn’t feel put upon but really enjoyed it,  the local media were intrigued and did a good story on it (which they wouldn’t have done if it had just been a talk) and the book got heaps of publicity. Plus it set no bad precedent about getting work out of me for nothing!”

Thank you, Sophie, and all the other concerned children’s books’ creators.

Here’s the link to the Australian Society of Authors‘ suggested Rates and Conditions for published writers and illustrators. The ASA states: These rates take into account the time and effort members devote to researching and writing and/or illustrating books and making public appearances in connection with promoting them. While members occasionally might allow their work to be used for less, we encourage them to regard ASA rates as an industry standard and, if possible, to negotiate fees higher than the minimum.

Have you had a similar experience recently? Do you have some advice on the issue? If you’d like to remain anonymous, do so.  Would love to read your comments.

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35 thoughts on “Should authors work for free?

  1. Great article, Sheryl!

    School visits help me pay my bills, feed my kids and survive as an author. In return, I put everything I have into my shows and do my darnedest to stoke kids into wanting to read and write more. I definitely earn my money! In fact, many schools say I should charge more.

    Authors doing ‘free’ visits undermine other authors’ livelihoods, devalue our already underpaid profession and help set the hideous precedent and expectation that schools can get ‘free’ authors. Schools don’t expect ‘free’ marker pens, cleaners, lawn mowers or teachers, so why should a profession that averages $11K per annum be singled out to be financially punished and guilt tripped?

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  2. That’s exactly what happened to Karen Brooks too in an earlier comment, Simon. It’s about being united with authors for the common good – if you undercut someone else by doing it for free or basement prices, everyone suffers in the end.
    And I do feel for teachers and librarians who dearly want to expose their students to the inner world of books and their creators – it must be horribly frustrating for them.

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  3. That learning curve thing is important , Simon. I did a couple of freebies after my book was published, just to get the feel of speaking as an author (and I’ve been a primary teacher too), but I only did it until I got the hang of it. Still learning from doing it, too.

    I know quite a few authors get annoyed when people who have not been published apply for school visits – it’s a delicate subject. I would never have gone into a school on the pretext that I was published, but I guess if schools didn’t care about that aspect, being cheeky gets people work. 🙂

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  4. I just wanted to add that I was also taken aside by an author to have the ‘rules’ explained to me. At the time I was a newly-published author and was willing to talk to anyone, anywhere about my shiny new book.This wiser author explained (as someone else mentioned) that doing free visits to schools and libraries would harm other writers.

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  5. True, Angela, and I’ve noticed at my local Brisbane City Council library they don’t pay the speaker. I wonder if it’s the same for other Brisbane City Council libraries. A few years ago I did a Writing Adventure workshop for kids at the Holland Park Council Library and they paid proper rates.

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  6. Ask yourselves this: How much do schools pay plumbers or electricians to come in and fix something? Do they ask them to do the job for the publicity value alone? No, I didn’t think so.
    Back in 2005 when I first started doing school visits, they were all freebies. I was learning how to speak in front of a group of kids, and I probably got more out of each talk than they did. However, as I improved my presentations and put in more and more effort for each one, I realised a single day at a school was costing me two or three days worth of writing time.
    So, I charge the ASA rates for school visits, and I believe they’re getting good value for their money.

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  7. The great advantage of having a speakers’ agency (Lateral Learning, in my case) is that when a school asks you to visit, you can just refer them to the agency and they will set the limits (like number of sessions and group sizes) so you don’t get unpleasant surprises at the school. Works great for me.

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  8. Libraries can apply for funding from their local council for author talks and workshops. It’s a legitimate opportunity for the council to contribute to the community at large as usually library sessions (in Qld) are offered to their members for free. This doesn’t mean, however, that the author should not be paid.

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  9. Thanks Sheryl, for raising this discussion. I know I’ve presented author talks in libraries for free. Schools have always paid me for creative writing workshops… Karen 🙂

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  10. What I’ve found interesting is that the more I’ve charged per hour, the more bookings I’ve received, especially during Book Week. If you charge pittance or do it for nothing, people will subconsciously devalue you. The more you charge, the more value they seem to place on you. It took me a LONG time to have the courage to do this but it REALLY does work. Of course, as we all know, we couldn’t possibly charge enough to cover the preparation and effort we put in to our visits, but charging a decent amount is so important.

    I rarely do presentations for free – just occasionally my own kids’ school and also at NYR12 based events – as an ambassador for the ACT, I made a charity commitment, but I still ask about book signings and almost always it’s possible. Recently I ’opened’ NYR12 at a low SES school (for free) and also offered some prizes to top library book borrowers. After doing that, the school asked to book me and pay my full fee for some workshops next term. Now, trust me when I say that if this particular school can come up with the money, anyone can.

    I do offer a discount on my fee if the school agrees to a book signing. I only do this because many are reluctant to host one, no matter how easy I make it for them to run. The sale rate for books varies from 2 books to 80, so I still think it’s worth it, especially if those books are going home with children and entering the lives of yet another family.

    The other thing I also want to say – which has been touched on here – is about ’qualifications’ to present. I think it takes time, even if you are an established or well known author to develop a good reputation when it comes to school visits. I’ve heard horror stories from TLs about some author/illo visits (yes, even from established author/illos) – and schools (quite rightly) not only want value for money, they want an effective, memorable presentation that will engage and enlighten their kids. If presentations are good enough to be covetable, authors and illustrators will always be booked and happily paid good money for. I constantly strive to improve and ’up’ my presentations, and make them (hopefully!) covetable, and I’ve seen a rapid rise in my bookings and fees as a result, so for those just starting on the visits road, don’t be discouraged if it’s tough to get well-paid bookings – it will get better!!

    Still a bit miffed that a guy with two sheep dogs on the oval gets paid more than me, though!! Maybe I’m in the wrong business…

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  11. I think people value what they pay for and any professional who provides a service should be compensated appropriately. We are artists and we care about children, but we also need to earn a living. I can’t imagine that is difficult for schools to understand. It’s unfortunate that so many are lacking funding, but if we do school visits for free, we are essentially paying them with our own lost income – time that could be spent writing or engaging in other activities to grow our businesses.

    Great article!

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  12. Thank you for that link, Sheryl. I liked what writer, Kath Morgan said on the forum: “The job of the visiting artist is to inspire.”
    I have also recently been asked to visit a school as a ‘marketing opportunity’ for no pay. This galls me as I am a highly experienced secondary and primary teacher of language with a Bachelor degree in literature and second languages, and I have never worked in a school for free, except in the capacity of ‘mother’. Are other experienced professionals also asked to provide free services in schools?

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  13. Lovely to hear from you, Steven, from that bar in Tuscany! 🙂
    Interesting proposition you raise about certification – but maybe a better way is when an author realises he/she was pretty crap at presenting an author visit and then tried learn how to do it better by watching others, or asking for help.
    I agree with you – in the end, we should stand by our Union, and accept only award rates.
    Mark Carthew (via the ASA Board) found this link that appears fairly disturbing, where in the UK there’s a push for authors to have qualifications to work in schools. This link is worth reading: http://www.nawe.co.uk/DB/nawe-news/proposed-qualification-for-writers-in-schools.html
    Enjoy the rest of your biking adventure and watch out for that vino in Volpaia! 🙂

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  14. I’m sitting in a bar in Tuscany, so everything I write should be treated disdainfully! An interesting debate we should never be having, unfortunately. My response is that of course authors should be paid for work, just like teachers, plumbers, doctors, etc.
    However, when you mention most other professions, the issue of qualifications comes into it. I may be ‘qualified’ as an author after having 20 books published, but am I good at standing in front of an audience and exciting them about literature? Perhaps, that’s where the ASA or CBCA or similar organisation can have some input – an ‘approved by’ course, or vetting procedure would be handy. I see many problems with this, of course. But, I feel one reason we get taken for granted is because we don’t have ‘a certificate’. Stupid, but true.
    I’ve been visiting 150 schools each year for over twenty years and have had the same agent for that period. My agent acts as a ‘vetting person’ by only employing ‘high-quality’ authors/performers that she knows she can sell into a school. She looked at my ‘show’ very closely before taking me on board. And, in those days, the NSW Dept of Education had a wonderful person, June Frater, who would assist in ‘certifying’ authors and school performers. Then they started charging for the ‘certification’ and it all fell away.
    A certification would certainly help emerging authors, who at present are pressured into doing free shows for the experience or promotion.
    But, in the end, we should stand by our Union, and accept only award rates.
    Back to the vino in Volpaia!
    ciao

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  15. You’ve opened an age old debate, which requires each of us to ‘think outside the box’. In this changing world of writing and publishing and children’s literacy the issue of author payment is different to what it used to be. More and more we are asked to be ‘experts in our field’ rather than celebrities. I wonder what that means re ‘fee for service’?…

    It probably begs the question what a 21st century author visit now means?

    Keep writing and telling those stories!

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  16. This also applies to illustrators and artists. I got so sick of being asked to visit for free that I started ‘happily’ agreeing – as long as all the staff agreed to work for free for the same number of hours that I was. It’s suprising how that makes them realize just what they have asked 🙂

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  17. Visiting a school is not and should not be primarily a marketing activity. Selling books can be valuable to all parties, because it gives kids the chance to read the books for themselves, but sales shouldn\’t be the primary motivator and it\’s a shame that schools suggest that. The purpose of having an author visit the school should be to enhance literacy learning.

    I charge ASA rates, and don\’t hesitate. I work pretty hard for that payment – I aim to leave the kids inspired to read and write and I always leave exhausted, having given it 110% I used to feel a bit guilty about the price, because I\’m an ex-teacher myself, but then I realised two things – firstly, most schools do have a budget for incursions, and a lot of schools don\’t hesitate when it\’s something more visibly impressive like circus acts or musicians; and secondly, on the odd occasion I have charged less or done a freebie for a special reason, what I\’m doing is often undervalued by the staff, who see it as a distraction rather than a valuable learning exercise. If money is being spent on an activity, many teachers are more likely to do pre and post visit activities and engage on the day as well.

    Lastly, the ASA works hard to represent creators and make sure we get a good deal. When we charge less than ASA rates we undervalue that work and ourselves.

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  18. If only I earned enough to do it for free but then, is it even appreciated? I pay for my children’s extra curricula lessons during school hours, does the school expect the music teacher to teach students for nothing? No way.
    On my web site I encourage schools who think they can’t afford it to fund raise, schools are doing it all the time, why not for something in-house, a free dress day at $2 per child should raise enough for an assembly sized author talk.
    Another option is to share with another school, especially if travel and accommodation are involved. I’ve done a few talks where that has been successful.
    Another course is to set up your own presentation and invite the schools to come to you. I’m doing this for Literacy Week, then it comes out of the excursion budget and if you time it right, they are keen to come (i.e. end of term)
    This is my job. I would never be so rude as to ask a trades person to work for nothing because of my budget or the school to educate my kids without me paying my dues just because it’s tight at the moment. I love school talks, they are fantastic but they are hard work and we should not do them for free.

    Good discussion topic Sheryl 😊

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  19. Thank you so much for this post, Sheryl. I feel quite strongly about this for a number of reasons. When I first started out writing, I did a few gigs for free because I felt that as i was getting a huge wage from my day job (academic), I didn’t need any more money and this was my way of giving back to the local community.

    After a few gigs, I was pulled aside by a well-known author and told off. He said to me that i was undermining not only the profession but other writers, after all, why would a school pay for one when they could get me for free? I was stunned and embarrassed and ashamed. What I thought was a good, altruistic act was actually undermining my writing peers.

    Since then, I have never done it for free and I have only ever been asked once if I would and I did not. I do, however, have an agent and she organises fees for me. Now that i write full-time especially (though long before this too), I am so grateful that author spoke to me the way he did. Every time a writer takes a gig for free, they undermine the profession and their peers – that really resonates with me. I have heard all the arguments above and know of instances where some authors were paid ridiculously huge sums while others, less known, were not – the imbalance was outrageous.

    I have also heard the argument that we should be doing it because we believe in a writing culture, in reading, in literacy and in the power of the imagination. Yes, all true. But I also believe in electricity and plumbing, and I wouldn’t expect either my electrician or plumber to work for nothing. That is an argument that attempts to sway us through guilt – I loathe it and find it a bit disingenuous. I also passionately believe in education but I never would have worked for twenty years as an academic without being paid! I still get paid for the work I do there, why wouldn’t I for speaking about writing or running a workshop?

    As others have noted, a great deal of work goes into those preparations, never mind travel and time out from other work – from writing. It’s an important subject you have raised Sheryl, and I am heartened by the comments here – I really believe that if a school doesn’t have a budget to pay, then they shouldn’t ask.

    Having said that, I do believe in giving back to the community and what Sophie did is marvellous. I have spoken at nieces and nephews schools in the past (and my kids schools when they were younger) – but I saw that as contributing as a family member and doing it for my loved ones as much as for the community. But they were special one-offs and not regular. As the author said to me years ago – respect the profession. Respect my peers. I do – you can’t imagine how much :).

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  20. All this reminds me of conversations nearly thirty years ago when I began writing. Then it was expected you did gigs for publicity. The ASA and many writers have worked long and hard to get an acknowledgement that speaking to kids is work and merits payment. I occasionally do a free session as part of a book promotion but the days of believing that the PR was genuine are long gone.

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  21. It’s a sad situation because many times the teachers would love to be able to pay to have authors coming to the school. But many small or rural school don’t get a lot of funding and what they do get is often allocated to sporting events (in my limited experience – but that’s not a bad thing either, I’d like to see more kids sporty, would just be nice to see more school funding for literature AS WELL). Seems to me, the Government should be allocating more money to schools for these kind of programs, because in the long run it’s the underprivileged or the kids under-exposed to reading and writing that will miss out. Reading (or I should say, lack of it) is still a big problem in schools in my opinion (although I must say Brisbane seems to have a lot of reading kids which is fantastic).
    Authors should definitely get paid for talks and workshops, I pay when I go to other workshops and they’re usually a LOT more expensive than schools are charged. Maybe to help with sales as well, schools could send home an order form with the notice about the talk, so kids could pre-order books and parents are aware which books are available on the day and how much they cost.
    Important issue you’ve raised Sheryl and a difficult one to address.

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  22. Great comments coming through!
    Taking up the idea that Sophie says about a reciprocal arrangement, I’ve done a cheaper rate author talk at my local school where I have a personal connection, and the librarian organised beforehand to buy 10 books as a class set, and children bought money to buy books. I thought that was pretty fair.

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  23. Most salient post Sheryl. Everything I’ve done so far has been for love not money even when I’ve costed out ridicoulsly low fees for schools. As an emerging debut author I take this with the good and the bad and do get rewards from the work in other ways. However I agree that authors /illustrators should definitely be compensated for their time and effort involved in preparing and conducting workshops/visits. It’s difficutlt otherwise feeding your family on love alone!

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  24. There’s another issue here: if you’ve been asked to come to a school, as I have, and I’ve said I need to be paid (and sometimes this seems to surprise the school no end), I can then find that the school has scheduled visits to other classes, back-to-back. And I don’t find this out until I get there … Not much you can do at that stage but go along with it – and be left hoarse and exhausted.
    Anyone else had this problem?

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  25. And of course, we’re not out here to bag teachers, we know what it’s like to do all that extra unpaid work that teachers do. Many of us have been (and still are) teachers but we’re all victims of a system that does not value literature as highly as it should.
    But, authors and illustrators have to rely, not on a regular wage like a teacher can, but on intermittent royalties from our books that range from 5% to 10% per book (yep, a pittance) and our author visits to schools. And it sure hurts when schools want us to do it for free.
    I like Sophie Masson’s suggestions though – seems like a win-win situation.

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  26. I would say yes sharing with children/young adults for free … children are gift and need the insperation … but for any other speaking engagement no if they are making money off of you then you need to be paid …

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