After the news that the Oxford Literary Festival has finally decided to start paying authors for their participation, I don’t think anyone will mind me sharing Susan Hill‘s blog post (archived from 2008, but nothing much has changed), on how much money the organizers of literary festivals can make. No disrespect intended for those festivals that share some of this lucre with participating authors, but for the rest, now read on:
Psst. wanna earn a few bob ? Then start a Literary Festival. It`s one of the best kept secrets in the world – litfests make a lorra lorra money for those who run them. Let us exclude Councils who start them in order to give their towns and cities a higher profile and who want to show off the place a bit and up the visitor numbers. No, it is the privately run smaller Litfests which are a licence to print money. Recently I happened to talk to 2 people who had been involved in them. One runs hers from her own large stately home, the other has just started one from a small but affluent and literate village. Why do you think someone like Charles Spencer runs a litfest ? Because it makes money of course.
Here is how it goes. If you own the venue, you`ve a head start since you don`t have to pay hire charges. If you offer accomodation, as a perk to the writers, of course you have pay your cleaning and housekeeping staff a bit more. But after that you`re laughing. But surely, you have to pay your helpers, all those people who run the office, move chairs about and fetch authors from the station. Oh no you don`t, you have students, arts graduates and other people who want to mingle with the Famous Authors. You don`t have to pay them anything, except maybe with a free lunch, because they`re absolutely queuing up to do it, it looks good on their CVs. They would pay YOU. for the privilege of helping.
Next, you ring and e-mail round all the publishers and ask what Top Names they have on the road flogging a new book. It is the Top Names who are going to make you most of your money. You can charge £15 – £20 a head for Sebastian Faulks or Ian McEwan easily and you put them in the Main Hall. That holds 500, with 50 standee students at a fiver each, at the back These are the authors who really bring in the punters and with luck, those punters will then also book up for the filler-authors. These are the lesser-known or mid-list or obscure-subject writers who are thrilled to be asked to do a lit fest. Like the Free Helpers, they would pay you to come. The only downside is that have to put them in the Library which only holds 30 and you can`t charge more than a fiver or seven fifty. Still, that`s an hour, half an hour for the turn-round, four filler-authors a day minimum…it starts to add up doesn`t it ?
The publishers pay the travel and accomodation expenses of the authors so no money for you to spend there. If you do not have room /inclination for them to stay in your Stately home, you book them into local hotels and B and Bs.The publishers pay but you, the organiser, can ask for a cut from the hotelier for filling their rooms for a few nights. They`ll give you 10% easily, maybe more.
So what else is to pay for, out of the ticket money that is now pouring in ? Office expenses and advertising/marketing. But you ask the publishers to help with that. You also ask the Arts Council to give you money. After a year or two you ask them for some more because your festival is successful so you want / need to expand your offices. The AC will probably give you a nice chunk of dosh for this, maybe as much as 100K, with which you do indeed move your office into the restored Stable Block or Garage. But as you own both, and the house, you are increasing the value of your own property very considerably, at someone else`s expense.The public`s actually but never mind a little detail like that. Now also comes the moment to try and get major Sponsorship from a national newspaper – if you can`t manage it because they are all already sponsoring your rivals, at least a local chain of papers might cough up. This is all Marketing and Advertising and PR for them so they write it off anyway. So that`s your expenses sorted. The rest is pure profit – but when people start making money, naturally and understandably they want to make more. Of course, selling the books ! Now you either set up your own bookstall and take all the profits, or you generously invite a local bookseller to take the franchise. This is a whole lot less hassle for you and you ask him for 20% of the profits, settle for 15% – plus a Site Rental Fee in advance.
And while you are at it, you would love a load of free books wouldn`t you ? OK, first write to every major publisher saying you are running A Lit fest and asking to be put on all their lists for Review and Publicity copies. That`ll get you a very nice load of re-saleable books per week. (Don`t forget to register as an Amazon /ebay powerseller.) In addition to this, you ask the publisher of every author coming to talk to send you 6 free copies of their book. Why do you need 6 ? You don`t, stupid, you may need one for an interviewer of the author to read, but the publisher won`t ask, they`ll just bung the 6 along and the re-sale of those all adds to your amazon income. If you don`t want the bother of amazon, try to find a second hand dealer or private library supplier who will drive down, pick everything up, and give you a nice cheque – saves all those jiffy bags and running to the post.
If you decide to launch out into catering for the punters, then make sure you take a percentage of every sandwich and cup of tea plus the usual Site Rental lump sum. They charge a fiver a sandwich at these things you know. You do the math.
And of course do not forget the highlight of your Festival, the Grand Literary Lunch. Make this exclusive. Only 150 tickets, at £45 a ticket. ( £60 if you can get Alan Titchmarsh as the Speaker.) Outside caterers will do this for £20 a head. But you make a good deal from the outset that you will be doing the drinks separately. This is one of the best earners of the week. Wholesale mid-price wine (don`t serve gut-rot, no one will come back next year), trainees from the local catering college to serve it -and give an especially warm welcome to the non-drinkers, because the mark-up on elderflower presse is astronomical.
In addition to a very nice profit all round, your bonus reward is the warm-glow of knowng that you are Supporting the Arts, Culture, the Book Trade and the Local Tourist Economy. And remember, the people who go to litfests are extremely nice and law-abiding ,as well as being ones with disposable income to spend on their chosen hobby of Going to Litfests and paying through the nose for it. If you ran a pop music festival you might pack in thousands and charge the earth but look at how much mayhem they cause. It would take you a month to clear up, and would more than likely involve the police and the Public Health Officials. Litfest people are quiet, polite, clean, drug-free and they pick up their own litter and take it home with them in plastic bags.
What are you waiting for ?