Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Political Football in A Teacup

I’m off writing a long way from the internet right now, but just learned I’m being used – for, I’m pretty sure, the first time – as a political football, with Questions Being Asked and everything.

So. To bring everybody up to speed:

About a month ago I was asked if I’d go and talk in Stillwater Library on a Sunday afternoon. The request came in from Greater Talent Agency, who book my speaking engagements. I was asked to give an hour-long talk, which would also be broadcast on Public Radio. This would the first in a series of talks by local authors in libraries outside of the Twin Cities.

As anyone who’s read the FAQ (which was written in 2002, thus the Clinton reference) or has been reading this blog for a while knows, if you want to hire me to come and talk somewhere, and people do, I’m expensive. Not just a bit pricy. Really expensive.

The main reason I got a speaking agency, ten years ago, was because too many requests for me to come and speak were coming in. And the speaking requests were, and are, a distraction from what I ought to be doing, which is writing. So rather than say no, we’ve always priced me high. Not Tony Blair high, or Sarah Palin high (last time I read about them, they’re about $400,000 and $150,000 respectively). But I’m at the top end of what it costs to bring an author who should be home writing and does not really want a second career as a public speaker to your event.

So if you want to pay me to come in and talk, it’s expensive.

The vast majority of the events I do and of the talks, lectures or readings I give are done for free, often as charity fundraisers. (For example: the night before the Stillwater event I spent the day in Chicago, speaking to 1600 people who had paid up to $250 a ticket, as a benefit for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. is a description of the event.)

So. I was asked if I’d come and talk at Stillwater, and be paid $40,000. I said, “That’s an awful lot of money for a little library.”

“It’s not from the library. It’s from the Legacy Fund, a Minnesota tax allocation that allows the library to pay market rates to bring authors to suburban libraries who otherwise wouldn’t be able to bring them in. They have to use the money now as it won’t roll over to next year and expires next month.”


Well, that seemed fairly simple. They’d already booked a number of other authors. They had the money sitting there and were happy to pay me my rack rate. Either they gave the money to me or it went away – it couldn’t be used for anything else. And, most importantly, the dates worked. Another week and I would have had to say no, as I would have been away writing. But I got in from Chicago that morning. I said yes.

I figure money like that, sort of out-of-the-blue windfall money, is best used for Good Deeds, so I let a couple of small and needy charities (one doing social work, the other library/book based) know that I would be passing the money on to them, after agents had taken their commission, and did not think twice about it.

(I don’t like talking about how much money I make, because I spent enough years as a starving journalist to know what it’s like not to have money, and to envy or resent those who do. But if you’re wondering how I can afford to blithely wave goodbye to a fee like that: I make my money writing. I sell a lot of books, in dozens of countries around the world, every year. I write and occasionally co-produce movies, and I sell the film rights to my books and stories. The Graveyard Book spent over a year on the New York Times Bestseller List. Instructions came out this week, and went straight in at #4. There were months last year when I had four different books on the New York Times Bestseller Lists at the same time. Like I said, I’m a writer, and I get paid for my writing.)

The day was fun, the auditorium, which held about 500 people was full, and it felt a lot more intimate than the Big City events I’d done for 1600 and 1500 people the previous nights. I gave an hour’s talk. I did an hour’s Q&A with the people there. I stuck around for two hours after that, saying hullo to everyone, posing for photos, generally trying to meet everyone who was there, and then, when everyone was done and had gone, I went home.

The Legacy Fund, from which the money to pay me came, is used for Minnesota’s Parks, Museums, Arts, and comes from a sales tax allocation. It is a Big Political Deal. Which meant Paying An Author Lots of Money From That Fund was going to become a Big Political Deal.

I saw a mention of it on the School Library Journal blog, and responded to there:

Obviously I do a lot of speaking for free. The night before I'd done a pro bono 3 hour reading/Q&A as a benefit for the CBLDF in Chicago, in front of 1600 people, who had paid up to $250 a ticket to attend.

Four days before I'd done "An Evening With Neil Gaiman" internet talk with the Jessamine Public Library for nothing, because they asked me to, and because it was National Library Week (although they sent me a wonderful Kentucky nibbles gift basket as a thank you).

In fact most of the talks and appearances I do are for free.

But if you want to hire me to come in and talk, it's expensive.

My speaking fees are high. I keep them that way intentionally. Here's what it says on my website's Frequently asked questions:

"Q. How can I get Neil Gaiman to make an appearance at my school/convention/event?

A. Contact Lisa Bransdorf at the Greater Talent Network. Tell her you want Neil to appear somewhere. Have her tell you how much it costs. Have her say it again in case you misheard it the first time. Tell her you could get Bill Clinton for that money. Have her tell you that you couldn't even get ten minutes of Bill Clinton for that money but it's true, he's not cheap.

On the other hand, I'm really busy, and I ought to be writing, so pricing appearances somewhere between ridiculously high and obscenely high helps to discourage most of the people who want me to come and talk to them. Which I could make a full time profession, if I didn't say 'no' a lot."

For this event, nobody asked my representatives if I would do it for less than a normal speaking fee. (I do sometimes. Normally only for libraries.) I was assured before I agreed to sign on that this money was not coming from the library system, but from the 200 million sales tax Legacy Fund. It was a wonderful afternoon. And yesterday Minnesota Public Radio broadcast the entire one hour talk (although not the Q&A).

And, although I'm not sure that it's anyone's business, when I get money like this, I put it back out again. In this case, 25% of what I get goes to a social/abuse charity, and the other 75% goes to an author/literature/library related charity program.

And I figured that was that.

But since then the story has embiggened. It made it onto the front page of the city section of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. (Nobody from the Star Tribune tried to contact me or my assistant or agent for any quotes on this, which I find a bit depressing, given that they have my email and phone number from dozens of previous interviews.)

(Apparently the Star Tribune is against the Legacy Fund, and feels the money should go to fund a $790 million dollar stadium instead, per and

So, to answer all the sorts of comments I’m seeing on these articles in one place:

How can you justify asking for $45,000 to come and speak?

The scary thing is that if you are (to pick a couple of real-life examples from the last few years) an advertising congress or the R&D department of a multinational car company, I charge a lot more than that to come and speak. And people pay it very happily.

When you came and talked at our library you charged a lot less than that.

Yeah, I do that. Greater Talent Agency knows that I’ll often lower prices for libraries. In this case, no-one asked if I’d do it for less.

Why wasn’t this money being used to fund a little library somewhere? Or pay a librarian? Or buy books for people? Or Do Good? Aren’t you ripping off libraries by accepting it?

The money came from a specific fund that was allocated to this purpose. As Boing Boing explains

The money comes from a grant for programs like this. It can't be used to buy books or pay salaries. The money was only allocated in October, 2009 and had to be spent by June, 2010 or it would be taken back. This was a big-ticket, inaugural event to generate interest in the program.”

Yes, but this is public money.

It definitely is. The idea was to get authors in to talk, and to pay them for it. And to get people talking about books, authors and libraries. It seems to be working.

Me? I think these things should be organised in a way that permits unspent Legacy money for libraries from one year to roll over into the following years.

But you only brought in 500 people!

Sure. If we’d done the event on a Friday night in Minneapolis I’m sure I would have been talking to a few thousand people (I did the last time I did one there). But the whole point of an event like this is to get authors out to the suburbs, not to bring more events to the Cities. About 500 people in an auditorium that held about 500 people on the first sunny Sunday afternoon of summer was pretty good by Stillwater standards. (More and they wouldn’t have had anywhere to sit.) As it was the talk was broadcast by, and is still up on MPR and has been listened to by many thousands of people all over the state and all over the world.

(It's up here at MPR, where there's also some interesting comments:

You’re not even a local author. You live 230 miles away from Stillwater in Green Lake Wisconsin! It says so in the blog that broke the story.

I’ve never been to Green Lake. Actually I live about half an hour away from Stillwater. Apparently people start lying when they want to use you as a political football.

$45,000? For a Sci Fi Author? I’ve never heard of you.

That’s okay. I’ve never heard of you either.


Also of interest, Cory Doctorow’s comments on the Boing Boing thread:

And seeing you are here anyway, the review of Instructions from Publishers Weekly, which makes me happy because it says such good things about Charles Vess's art, and it ends "All Ages":

Neil Gaiman, illus. by Charles Vess, Harper, $14.99 (32p) ISBN 978-0-06-196030-7

"Touch the wooden gate in the wall you never saw before," invites Gaiman's poem, first published in A Wolf at the Door (2000), reborn as a lavishly illustrated small-format picture book. A bipedal, bushy-tailed cat, wearing attire befitting Robin Hood, enters a fairy tale landscape filled with subtle and obvious allusions to familiar characters and stories. A cottage door leads him into a hallway of dramatic arches where a cat with an injured paw becomes his companion ("if any creature tells you that it hungers, feed it. If it tells you that it is dirty, clean it"). The wanderers press on, encountering a castle containing three sequestered princesses ("Do not trust the youngest. Walk on"), a ghostly ferryman, and other creatures. Recalling his work on Gaiman's Blueberry Girl, Vess's compositions are distinguished by elegant, winding lines--gnarled vines, plumes of smoke, dragon tails--and intimate frames that evoke moments of gentle wisdom. Young readers should relish the chimerical vision while older Gaiman fans should grasp the underlying suggestion that the compass used to navigate fairy tales can also guide us in the real world. All ages. (May)

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