Pullman resigns from Oxford Lit Fest over author pay

Pullman resigns from Oxford Lit Fest over author pay

Author Philip Pullman has resigned as patron of the Oxford Literary Festival in protest at its refusal to pay authors.

He announced his resignation on Twitter, saying: “Because of the Oxford Literary Festival's attitude to paying speakers (they don't) I can't remain as a Patron any longer. I've resigned.”

He added: “They never have [paid], and I've long tried to persuade them to, but they won't. Time to go.”

Pullman told The Bookseller he'd been appearing at Oxford Literary Festival for 20 years and had never been paid for speaking at the event. Pullman's role as president of the Society of Authors, which has been campaigning strongly for authors to be paid at festivals, made it "awkward" for him to continue as patron of the festival, he added.

"...In the early days the Oxford festival was a small-scale and much more informal affair, run on a shoestring," he said. "In recent years it’s become much larger and grander, putting on an air of being ‘prestigious’ and ‘exclusive’ and flourishing its large array of corporate sponsors. It seems contradictory to me to lay on lavish ‘black tie dinners’ and at the same time claim that it can’t afford to pay speakers."

He added that he "disapproved very strongly" of the festival's demand that authors should not speak on the same subject or do any signings within 30 days or 40 miles of the festival event. "That’s equivalent to saying ‘we’re not paying you, and we’re not letting you get paid anywhere else either'," Pullman said.

A spokesperson for Oxford Literary Festival said they were "very sad" Pullman had decided to resign as patron, but that it could not run a festival "as large and diverse as Oxford's" if it changed its policy on paying authors to speak.

"We are very sad that Philip Pullman has decided to resign as patron of the festival," the spokesperson said. "We are grateful for the support he has given over the years, and for his many appearances at the festival. The Oxford Literary Festival is a registered charity which does not receive any government or public funding. Each year for the festival to take place, substantial sponsorship and donations have to be raised."  

The statement added: "We are proud that for the past 20 years we have been able to put on a festival featuring a broad range of fascinating authors from the UK and overseas at various stages in their careers. We have over 500 speakers each year. If we were to change our policy, we could not put on a festival as large and diverse as Oxford’s which supports and promotes the work of both bestselling authors and of those at the outset of their writing careers or with a smaller following.”

However, Pullman said it was a case of "simple justice" that authors should be paid for appearing at literary festivals.

"Festivals pay everyone else who’s professionally involved," he told The Bookseller. "They pay for the electricity they use, they pay rent for the lecture halls they hire, they pay the people who supply the marquees and the toilets, they pay the publicists and the professional administrators, they pay for the drinks receptions, they pay the people who cook and serve the ‘black tie dinners’, they pay the people who design and print the brochures and the programmes, they pay the people who do the cleaning. Only the authors are expected to work for nothing. Many of us have had enough of that."

Last December, the SoA revealed the results of a literary festival survey which showed most festivals pay £150-£200 per appearance to authors. However, Oxford was not among them. 

The Bookseller has seen a letter sent from Nicola Solomon, SoA chief executive, to Sally Dunsmore, the director of the Oxford Literary Festival in December, saying the SoA survey uncovered some “very concerning feedback” about the event.

The letter said: “We are concerned to hear reports that Oxford does not pay fees to authors. We understand the constraints you face but other festivals do manage to pay authors in these circumstances… An event involves time and preparation and authors deserve to be paid just as much as every other professional who contributes to the event.”

The SoA also criticised Oxford’s request that authors do not speak at another event within a 45-mile area in the same 30 day period as the festival.

“We find this request extraordinary, particularly in the context of an appearance where no fees are being offered,” said the letter.

Another concern was the festival’s request that authors give permission to be recorded for the podcast library because “most festivals do not request such rights. If any rights are to be taken they should be negotiated and an additional fee paid”.

Several authors praised Pullman’s resignation on Twitter, including Robert Harris, who said: “Good for you, Philip. It's time writers were given a fee for these events, like any other speaker.”

Children’s writer Shoo Rayner tweeted: “Well done @PhilipPullman, worse is Oxford Literary Festival's restraint of trade terms - no signings in 30 days within 40 miles- cheek!

Last week Pullman warned writers could soon be "an endangered species" in an article about publisher-author relations. He told the Guardian that authors were operating in a "savage and hostile" landscape in spite of the fact that publishers - whose "editorial standards are not what they were", in Pullman's view - have "no creative power whatsoever".