Was the Artist Paid?

During the years that I’ve had my nose to the writing stone, I’ve learned that not only is the artist frequently underpaid or not paid at all for time spent engaging formally with other artists and audiences, but that there is a common and puzzling opinion that artists—who from this point I’ll refer to as writers, because I’m not qualified to speak from the perspective of those engaged in the visual or performing arts—should simply be flattered to be invited to speak to the craft and have an opportunity to promote our work.

The nudge I needed to write about the poor starving writer came from the list I looked through yesterday of the panels at this weekend’s When Words Collide conference in Calgary. This conference has had a steady growth in attendance and is a wonderful forum for connecting readers with writers of genre fiction.  One of the panel topics this year is “If Artists Starve We all Starve.”  Unfortunately, I’m not able to attend the conference but I hope to hear from people who will be there as to the commentary, given that panels most often simply reach a decision to respect differing opinions.

Early in my writing career, I was flattered when I was asked to read from newly published work or to talk about the craft in various venues and never asked if there was a budget for paying the artist, or even the offering of an honorarium. I was called up short by another writer who told me that each time I went out as a member of the writing community and neither asked for nor received an honorarium no matter how small, I was discrediting the value of time and energy spent by other writers as well. I can hear her voice clearly: “Betty, I tell some organizations that even if they can only afford to pay me five dollars, I will come and spend some time with them. When I’m asked by organizations that do have a budget but offer nothing for my participation I tell them to find someone else and hope that they will get the same response from a lot of other writers.”

The expectation that writers will go happily to any venue where there is an audience and the possibility that people will buy their books, seems to rise from the notion that we are only artists when we’re bent over the computer writing/rewriting/editing/querying publishers.  The rest of it is … well, just getting out there and selling our books. The business part of the job for which we are compensated by book sales. That we should be grateful for any opportunity to promote ourselves and our work. Every writer I know who visits a book club, reads in a school or at a library, or is a participant in a conference, spends time preparing for those appearances and most often gives far more than she takes away from the experience.

I don’t know a single author who doesn’t have a not-so-funny story about “payment” for appearances. On the other hand, every author I know also has stories about warm welcomes and generous gifts of appreciation. I have a fine collection of coffee mugs and book bags imprinted with the names of schools or libraries – I treasure these honorariums. I’ve also had bottles of wine, bouquets of flowers, and gift certificates. I have a friend who wins the prize with a $5 Tim Horton’s gift card as an honorarium.

But I’ve also traveled on my own dime, and mooched off friends or family to be part of an event for a handshake and a thank you.  I’ve attended book clubs where not a single member has bought a book and my payment was cheese and a glass of wine. I shrug those off, as most authors do, and take my payment in the knowledge that at least some of the members of the discussion group read my book.

All of this sounds terribly whiny, perhaps even surly, but I am tired of the level of “volunteerism” expected of artists. I want readers to know that although some of the events they attend pay the author participants fairly and treat them as honoured guests, this is the gold standard and often the compensation the artist receives is many rungs below the bronze level.

Perhaps I’ll lobby for a yearly” Take an Artist to Lunch Day.”  Meanwhile, though, I simply ask that whether you are a reader or another author at a literary event that you ask the question—and I dare you to do so publicly.  WAS THE ARTIST PAID?   Did someone at least buy her lunch?

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