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Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Unpaid Gig

We know that society has decreed that we writers are our most authentically deep when kept poor and garroted. And that love of our craft, plus the joy of working loose hours in the ratty bathrobe are a fair trade for our poverty and lack of dental benefits.  
But guess what? Not unlike other humans the writer does like to be treated well from time to time. And, more specifically, for the purposes of this rant, we like to be treated well by the people or organizations for whom we are doing a favor.
As a fellow chump mentioned the other day, 2011 has been the year of the free gig. The economy is trash, our business in particular is circling the drain, and we feel extra sorry in a panicky way for schools and libraries and anyone else out there with an historic sympathy for the written word. So, when they call and say “Please,” we cave and say, “Sure.” 

And for that we are often (although not always) punished. 

I am not talking about the gigs that put their money in play to have authors hold forth from a podium, or lead their fellows in writing workshops, or hand out awards and eat the book club / school /  library lunch and gab amiably with banquet-esqe cheer. But the ones who ask the author to don hard shoes and show up for free. 

We're often willing to show for charities & good causes, believing that this is how community is built, or karma is balanced, or otherwise un-reached kids are reached, or in hopes that unpaid gigs lead to paid gigs, and perhaps circuitously, to increased book sales. 
Some freebie events go nicely, but a horrifying number of them do not. 
Nicely equals your arrival is anticipated and prepared for, appreciated and even sometimes celebrated. 
The not nice are the ones where you are not greeted or introduced and must gamely ignore the toilet paper stuck to your shoe, show your Happy-Harmless-Kid’s-Book Smile and introduce yourself -- feeling like you’re burping Tupperware to the leery or opening your grimy trench coat to reveal your collection of stolen watches going cheap.
Sometimes the guests did not know you were coming or why you are there... and they see your presence in their midst as an affront -- the pushy book peddler, fingers in the greasy til.
And you endure until allowed to scuddle away, feeling raw and sheepish at the end wondering how much lower you could possibly sink without going subterranean.  
And so, I learn again (and again and again) that too often, we are valued by how much we cost. Sadly, the moral of the story seems to be -- If you give it away for free, it must be worthless. 
Please remind me next time. 


The Pen and Ink Blogspot said...

I tried to attach a dollar to this comment to pay for services rendered, but the bill kept falling off the screen.
Lupe F.

Anonymous said...

Great post.

After too many bad experiences, I've gotten much more miserly about doing things for free.

Leigh Purtill said...

Amy, so true, so well-said, as usual. It's the same in all the arts, I think. I do a LOT for free as a teacher/choreographer/dancer.

Carol Tanzman said...

I share your pain! People may not realize how easy it is to make an event so much more author-friendly, (and worthwhile). Give the books a little push so we don't have to (free publicity = a book sale or two =a bit of author payment).

Sharon Creech said...

I get this completely. It's sad, but too often true.

Kerry Madden-Lunsford said...

Do I ever get this one, Amy. My favorite was the principal who wanted me to do a "do-over day" after doing nonstop writing workshops with kids for 5 five hours straight in packed groups of 40-50, because after school I only read and talked to the teachers about writing in a teacher workshop instead of making them write. And remember when we went on after Clifford? Actually, I think I just did - you saw the writing on the wall when the two-year-olds clamored for Clifford to come back. I sent JACK off yesterday.


Betty Birney said...

It was a shock when I first started out in the children's book author business to learn that I was treated best by people paying me and that I got very little appreciation for freebies. In fact, I found the MORE people paid, the more enthusiastic they were! That being said, this year I have done a lot of freebies (and have several more to come) because of the reasons you stated, Amy. And I'm coming away from that experience knowing I'm going to pass on a lot of these in the future. My time is worth a lot, at least to me!

Beth I. said...

Is this because of me?????
I totally get it! I'm an artist and teacher and I'm always expected
to do gigs for nothing just to be visible - at 55 years old
my work should be worth more than "it'll give you exposure". I've
exposed myself enough - especially on the west coast. I make less now than I did 35 years ago when I first started teaching. 13 years ago I was respected - very visible - University Associate Professor - director of a dance company - well supported - paid well for my work - I moved to LA and as one owner of the hottest dance studio in town remarked to me - sorry but you're nothing if you don't have TV credits - I responded - does PBS count? Amy - I am so so so sorry. I have always loved your work - Sarah read her fair share of the Goldman Koss books. Just brainstorming ideas for our event. Love you and miss you. So the end of this comment and the answer to my dilemma is I'm moving back to the east coast - already have invitations to work in Boston/JN studio, Boston Conservatory, UARTS, JUnlimited in Philly - will be living in DC.

Hope Smith said...

Excellent post. Sadly even the paid gigs can sometimes leave you roaming the campus to find where you need to be and there's not even a bottle of water for your journey. We have to pick and choose our freebies and we have to find the big payoff in a question, comment or the writing of one of the students -- It truly is priceless.

Alex Flinn said...

So true. The one I keep coming back to is the (very prestigious) local festival that invited me and several YA authors to speak for free. They apparently had a cocktail party the night of the festival but didn't invite us locals. Like, really? I speak for free, and you can't manage a glass of cheap pinot???

HOWEVER, I had the opposite experience last week. I never do free school visits because I've found that if I do, the kids aren't prepared, plus I don't have time to go to every school. A local school asked me to come, and I quoted them a very nominal fee (far less than what I charge for out-of-town gigs), just so they'd take it seriously. When I opened my honorarium, I found that half of it was a personal check from the teacher. I'm sending it back and telling them I'll do it for the half-fee next year if they want. The kids were great.

susan patron said...

How about drawing up a simple contract, outlining your expectations and stating your understanding as to number of presentations, size of audience, type of workshop to be offered, etc. Even if your visit is free or for a nominal fee, the fact of entering a legal agreement may help the host to see you as the professional you are.

Sarah Darer Littman said...

We often forget that our time IS money. That's one thing that being a freelance journalist has taught me. As my former MBA self would say, when we do freebies, we have to consider the opportunity cost of the time spent not writing.

Kathy McCullough said...

A good post for a new author to read. Thank you.

Alex Flinn said...

Susan, I actually TRIED to do that with the local festival, at least via e-mail, asking questions like, "Okay, you're not paying but you're going to publicize this and put something about it in the paper, right?" I basically started feeling like they thought I was being a prima dona, and it's hard to back out once you've said you're available (busy being the best excuse for not doing a free local gig). Of course, they didn't publicize it, and the only people at the session were my friends and the other authors' friends. And no pinot!

Amy Goldman Koss said...

Dahlinks, thanks for all the comments. WE ARE NOT ALONE!!!!!!!
xoxo Amy

Anonymous said...

As a former children's book publisher, I advised writers/illustrators not to do free gigs which, of course, excludes autographing books in bookstores. Writers/illustrators should not be confused with performers and if their books are not avilable at the library, etc., avoid the gig.

Eva M said...

As a librarian, I am SO grateful to the children's and YA book authors who have appeared at our libraries. Once we had the funds to pay you (and hopefully we will again), but for now, we're doing everything we can to connect books - and authors - with kids.
7 amazing YA authors presented an almost-free book panel discussion for and with our 75 YA Librarians last week (I was able to afford gift certificates to our Library Store as a tiny token of my huge appreciation). Wow, what a morning - the authors tackled issues large and small with hilarious and thought-provoking insights.
Our librarians went away newly inspired to get books into the hands of teens - and to purchase those 7 authors' books for their libraries (we added them all to the November order sheet).
So I thank you from the bottom of my heart for those free appearances! They mean so much to us.
Eva Mitnick
LA Public Library