I recently gave a poetry reading where I’d been paid no appearance fee and no one but the event organizer bought a copy of my book. (I don’t know whether she really liked it or was just embarrassed; I suspect a bit of both.)
So I’d spent my entire Saturday afternoon to make $13.95. Actually less than that, since I buy copies from my publisher. Plus, it was a three-hour round trip; while grinding my teeth on the drive home I did some hard thinking about how presenters should approach poets to read at their events.
1. Mention money early in the conversation.
I can’t count the times someone’s invited me to read and never even brought up the subject of money. I always say, “It sounds like an interesting event, and I’m available that date. What compensation are you offering?” Often they start to sputter and mumble, as if I’d asked if I could come read in my Donald Duck feetsie pajamas.
If you have no budget, say that right up front; then I can factor that in when deciding whether to accept your invitation. BUT NEVER SIMPLY ASSUME AN ARTIST IS WILLING WORK FOR FREE.
2. If you can’t pay an appearance fee, find other ways to compensate the poet.
If the reading’s a grassroots, volunteer-run affair, take up a collection. After all, the audience hasn’t paid admission; most people can afford to drop a few bucks into the hat.
If the presenter’s a non-profit organization with a low (as opposed to no) budget, even a twenty-five or fifty-dollar honorarium—gas money and a meal–would be appreciated. Or board members and volunteers could solicit tax-deductible donations from local businesses (restaurant or bookstore gift certificates, fruit baskets, and so on.) in lieu of cash.
“What about bookstores?” you might ask. “You don’t make any money there.” Well, that’s not exactly true; you make whatever royalty off each copy of your book the store sells. No that tiny bit of cash isn’t the motivation to read at bookstores. But the store will have the poet’s book propped up near the door, prominently displayed for a month or so, and that visibility is a form of compensation. And besides, people who run bookstores—especially independents—are heroes, and authors need to do everything we can to support them. Support what supports you.
3. Encourage book sales.
In advertising the event, presenters should point out that the author will have signed copies of books available for sale. (It's amazing how often reading announcements don’t mention this.)
Repeat this while introducing the poet. Tell people that buying art is the most tangible way to show your support for artists. Tell them that books don’t mess on the rug or ask if they can get tattoos when they turn six. Tell them books make great presents and encourage them to buy an extra copy. Heck, tell them they can buy a bunch and cross a half dozen people off their holiday shopping list. Don’t be shy.
I do a lot of gigs at series that include an open mic, and I realize many of the regulars come mainly for a chance to read their work. It’s probably not reasonable to expect those folks to buy a book every week. But remind your audience that never isn’t often enough.
Poets, it's time to take a stand.
Some people get wiggly when a poet talks about money; they seem to think we should be happy to read for free as long as someone can scare up a dozen people to sit on butt-numbing metal folding chairs and listen. No one expects a mechanic to change their oil for free or the vet to worm their dog, but it doesn’t occur to some folks that a poet is like anyone else who’s put in time and effort to learn and practice a craft. They have a right to expect financial compensation for it.
In my opinion, poets who feel “uncomfortable” at the thought of seeking pay for their work should ask themselves one question: is poetry a hobby they’re willing to subsidize out of their own pockets or are they professional artists running a small business? I'm not criticizing those who simply enjoy sharing their poetry and don’t really care about making money. But there's no getting around the fact that when poets routinely give their work away they undermine the efforts of those who want to be compensated for their time and talent.
After all, if poets don’t value ourselves as working artists, if we don’t take ourselves seriously…who will?