Would you work for nothing?

From Fourth Estate's website Recently, The Guardian reported Philip Hensher’s lambasting by a Cambridge academic for refusing to write an introduction to the professor’s forthcoming guide to Berlin literature. Not in itself particularly newsworthy you might think but it seems that other writers are getting a tad fed up with being asked to take on a multitude of tasks for no pay. It brought to mind a Barbara Kingsolver essay I’d read years ago about the punishing publicity schedules that publication brings, the loneliness of low rent motels, the exhaustion of readings and signings often at several different locations in a day. It made me think about what we readers expect from our authors. How are they to write the publicity pieces, judge literary prizes with thought and care, appear at a multitude of festivals, talk to us as we ask them to sign copies of their books – all unpaid – and still find the time plus the mental (and physical) energy to write the books that we anticipate so eagerly? Apparently, the average earnings for an author last year were around £26,500 – but that’s the average so Ms Rowling, Mr Brown and Ms James’ haul will be included in that calculation – without the big hitters the median is closer to £12,000 so for most giving up the day job isn’t an option. I know that many readers love to meet their favourite authors and it can be riveting to listen to a writer explaining the thinking behind the novel that so entranced you but perhaps we’re asking too much, both in money and time.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting no publicity at all – that would be ridiculous – just a gentle reining back of expectations. As for academics, as H pointed out, they’re paid a decent salary, not to mention a comfy pension, so can afford to write for free – authors’ incomes are often low and always unpredictable, their future precarious. Professor Webber described Philip Hensher as ‘priggish’ and ‘ungracious’ – it seems to me that those words could more accurately be used to describe himself.

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