Putting a Price on Writers Who Read

Diana Abu-Jaber

Giving a public reading, for most writers, involves a good deal of anxiety, a powerful dose of pride in one's work, and the cool relief of getting through the experience without humiliation. Payment often comes in the form of applause. But for those writers whose names regularly appear on book jackets and prize announcements, public readings can mean big business—and big paychecks.

Popular fiction writer Jamaica Kincaid, whose novel Mr. Potter was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in May, charged Portland State University $12,500 to give a reading and attend a couple of receptions last April. Her last-minute, first-class tickets from New York City to Portland added approximately $2,500 on top of that. Whether Kincaid earned the money is a matter of opinion, but her bill illustrates a trend of high-profile writers with escalating reading fees that many small universities and organizations can't afford.

"The fee scale for writers in this country ranges from two thousand dollars for a well-respected poet to over a hundred thousand for a high-profile, celebrity writer," says Megan McMorran, literary curator for the Arts & Lectures reading series. Hosted by Literary Arts, a nonprofit literary organization in Portland, the series last year presented Booker Prize–winning novelist Peter Carey, NPR's Fresh Air host Terry Gross, music critic Greil Marcus, and British fiction writer Jeanette Winterson, among others. McMorran admits many writers are out of her range. "The fees continue to rise, and it's hard for nonprofit organizations to bring the big names," she says.

Steven Barclay makes a living by bringing big names to the public. In 1996 he started his own booking agency, based in Petaluma, California, with a strong emphasis on literary writers. His list of clients includes Russell Banks, Billy Collins, Michael Cunningham, W.S. Merwin, Robert Pinsky, David Sedaris, and Amy Tan. When considering the question of literary worth and the price tag attached to it, Barclay says, "The variables are infinite." When an immensely popular author like Toni Morrison, for example, charges fees of $50,000 to $60,000 per event, she does it partially "to discourage too many events," he says. "It's a way to contain things."

Barclay says the notion of the author-as-celebrity has been around for a long time, but the big book tour seemed to come into its own in the mid '80s when authors like Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney were sent on huge multi-city tours, all based on the popularity of their first novels. "[Publishers] are much more measured about tours now," Barclay says. And even though he agrees that reading fees have risen, Barclay believes that they're essentially "keeping up with inflation—but not out of sync with reality."

Some universities and nonprofit organizations, however, have different fiscal realities, and their public reading budgets are unable to absorb the costs of expensive writers. The Loft Literary Center, the 28-year-old nonprofit in Minneapolis, hosts the Loft Mentor Series, featuring such writers as Robert Bly, Rick Moody, and Bharati Mukherjee. Jerod Santek, the Loft's director of programs, says that writers should be paid more than they are for their public appearances. "But I also know the realities of being program director at a nonprofit literary center who simply cannot pay what most writers should be paid," he says. "We are extremely lucky that there are so many writers out there who believe in the spirit and the mission of our organization, who accept a lower fee than, say, what a university would be able to offer them."

A nonprofit organization like Mountain Writers Center in Portland, Oregon, doesn't have a lot of money to offer individual authors and must depend on some creative thinking to book high-profile writers. Sandra Williams, the organization's director, says Mountain Writers works through a "cooperative network" of sponsors instead of paying authors on a per-event basis. "We offer a package to make the whole trip worthwhile to the writers," she says. Williams asks authors what sorts of events they're willing to participate in—from community readings to public workshops to classes—and schedules a variety of appearances in the area so that sponsors can pool their resources. This system gives the author a greater range of exposure to a reading public and allows a sharing of the cost among the sponsoring schools and agencies.

But this is a rare arrangement: Williams admits she doesn't know of many communities that have the same sort of arts networking in place. And at colleges and universities that don't participate in a cooperative system or have large private endowments to tap, reading budgets are small.

"We're somewhat limited in funds, as you might imagine," says SUNY Oswego's writing program director, Brad Korbesmeyer. Oswego is one of the smaller campuses in the New York state university system, located in one of the poorest counties in New York. "Each year we receive about two thousand dollars from the Arts Programming Board [funded by student fees and donations] and that's usually broken down between three writers," says Korbesmeyer. "I'd say our payment ranges from two hundred fifty to a thousand dollars per author. We try to pay the lower end to authors who are traveling from shorter distances." At Oswego, authors are usually responsible for their own expenses.

Some writers, like Annie Proulx, who won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for The Shipping News in 1994, are philosophical about payment. "Everyone knows that state universities are poor.… As far as I am concerned it depends on the situation, the place, the mood, the invitational body." If the reading involves travel, there can be incentives other than cash. "Sometimes barter has been involved—the payment is low but there are regional perks such as an overnight camping trip in some fabulous natural environment such as Black Rock Desert." If it's an invitation in Wyoming, where Proulx lives, she will usually accept it gratis.

"There seems to be the idea that literature should be free, and I agree with that to a large degree," says the Loft's Santek. "I love free readings, whether at bookstores, cafés, literary centers, colleges. But there also comes an expectation that the writer should be eager to do all these readings and appearances for free.… One writer told me, 'I wouldn't mind appearing for free if I knew that at least here were ten people who bought my book, but then I find only one of them has.'"

A few authors, like Whitney Otto, whose first novel, How to Make an American Quilt, was a New York Times best-seller, make a practice of returning money to the schools where they speak. "As long as my expenses are covered, I almost always donate the fee back to the school," says Otto. "I've been fortunate enough in the past few years that I haven't needed the money."

PEN/Hemingway winner Dagoberto Gilb was recently paid $3,000 for an appearance at the University of Nebraska. "I don't think it's so bad to make money, and making money as a writer isn't bad either," Gilb says. "I am not born rich and have taken an enormous risk to be a writer. I don't like to do readings for my ego, don't like the weird attention it brings. For my income, yes. People who are asking 'too much' shouldn't be asked to visit."

Billy Collins is paid an annual salary of $35,000 to serve as the U.S. poet laureate. Charles Frazier was recently paid an $8.25 million advance from Random House for his one-page book proposal for the follow-up to his best-selling Cold Mountain. In the literary marketplace, fees are moving targets. And the public reading—an event that involves both the printed page and the personality, the work and the image—is, as Literary Arts' McMorran points out, a hard thing to put a price on.

Diana Abu-Jaber is a writer-in-residence at Portland State University. Her second novel, Crescent, will be published by Norton in 2003.