A joint venture

These days, if you want to be a children’s author, you need a gig. An act. A routine. You need to perform. Clocking up the miles as you try to promote your book to audiences of (hopefully) avid fans. You engage with your readers like never before.

Following the recent explosion of the live experience in just about all other art forms, books have followed suit with an increased and spectacular intensity. Fortunately, festivals are everywhere. But they come at a cost.

The punters often pay to attend, but authors rarely get a cut of the box office. Should they? Where does all that money go? Is someone getting rich at authors’ expense?

Well, it’s not me. I founded the Telegraph Bath Festival of Children’s Literature in 2007 with my wife, using all of our own money. We staged nearly 150 public and school events over 10 days and attracted more than 10,000 paying visitors. And we lost a hefty five-figure sum. Ouch. By the time we handed over the festival to Bath Festivals to run three years later, we were in better financial shape—but still nursed a loss from that disastrous first year.

When authors attend a festival, I think they enter into an unspoken agreement with the festival organisers. We, the festival organisers, go to great expense and effort to stage a festival which will provide you with a platform on which to meet your public and sell your books. We take the box office receipts to help pay for our own expertise, venue hire, staging, lighting, sound, brochure, ticket services, refreshments, staffing, security, insurance, publicity and marketing. We spend a year planning it, worrying about every unsold seat and missing PowerPoint presentation, and live it for duration of the event itself.

No festival organisers are out to fleece authors. They just want to put on a show. And authors benefit hugely in terms of exposure. These author/reader experiences plant seeds in the minds of the book buyers of tomorrow, and that is worth a lot in my opinion.
We’re all part of the festival deal. It’s great that festivals exist, but they need everyone to only take the piece of the financial pie that rewards their contribution. We’re in it together.

John McLay is the founder of the Telegraph Bath Festival of Children’s Literature and author of The Dragon’s Dentist (Orion)