Meeting the masses

With scant audiences and paltry remuneration, author’s tours can be far from glamorous


This article is taken from the October 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Of all the phrases calculated to hoodwink a writer into believing that he, or she, inhabits what the rock band Steely Dan used to call “a glamour profession”, the most potent of all must be “author tour”.

Author tour! Simply to type the words on a computer screen is to summon up a roseate vision of craned heads at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, with queues of excitable punters pressing books upon you for signature. Sadly, the reality of those excursions beyond the study desk, to meet the people who actually buy the delightful productions of your pen (or might be induced to buy them), is a great deal more prosaic.

It is many a long year since the Secret Author last took part in anything that could even euphemistically be called an author tour. On the other hand, a friend of his recently embarked on one. Here, with due regard for the identities and reputations of some of the people involved, is what the writer in question — a distinguished historian whom we shall call “Mr X” — insists is a faithful account of its opening tranche:

30 may. Invitation to deliver guest lecture at Cambridge college. A dozen people in basement room. No books on sale, although one member of the audience brings a couple for signature. A misplaced sense of delicacy has so far prevented me from asking if there is an honorarium. In the end I demand “Is there a fee for this?” No, the undergraduate who has fixed up the gig admits, there isn’t. No sign of any expenses, either.

7 june. Evening talk at private members’ club in Shaftesbury Avenue. At 3pm an email wings in from the organisers: “Are you bringing the books?” “No,” I email back, “I assumed you were.” “Oh, I’m afraid we don’t have a tie-up with a bookseller.” Email publicist, to be told it’s far too late to do anything. Forty people turn up, but none of them can buy the book. Payment: £150.

15 june. Prestige seminar at celebrated London institute. Packed out. Excellent event, marred only by the chair’s rising to her feet at the outset to announce that the bookseller has phoned in sick, so there is no product available. No fee. No expenses.

Any author, of whatever status or celebrity, will usually have experienced something like this. Daniel Finkelstein once travelled all the way to Norwich to find an audience of two people, one of whom turned out to be an ex-convict out on probation.

Sadly, the event was scheduled for the evening of a crucial England football game

The Secret Author himself arrived at a Hampstead bookshop to take part in a three-person colloquium on some pressing literary topic. Sadly, the event was scheduled for the evening of a crucial England football game, and he discovered an audience of one.

Jonathan Coe used to tell the story of how, at an early stage in his career after having written a noir-ish novel called The Dwarves of Death, he was invited to appear at a crime writers’ convention.

The event was scheduled to take place in a vast university lecture theatre. Two minutes after the designated start time, a solitary punter took his seat in the backmost row.

Two minutes after this, a somewhat chastened Coe took to the podium and conceded that they’d better get on with it. “Actually,” the spectator revealed, “I’m Ian Rankin and I’m your chair.”

There is a suspicion that this kind of cack-handedness is an English thing and that foreign countries do it better. “Mr X”, for example, was far more enthusiastic about the treatment he gets in America where, instead of appearing in basement rooms for little or no money, he is invited to grace the boards of scholarly institutions in New England cities for $1,000 at a time.

Part of the problem, naturally, is the amateurishness of the domestic infrastructure. Most homegrown literary festivals are staffed, if not actually run, by volunteers with tiny budgets relying on the goodwill of their guests.

On the other hand, the assumption persists that, unlike any other professional person giving up a substantial amount of their time, writers don’t mind travelling long distances to speak in public without getting paid for their trouble.

Stephen Fry speaks at the Hay Festival

This tendency is particularly marked in universities, who regularly assume that what the novelist Simon Raven used to call “distinguished cultural service” should be delivered gratis.

Who wants to travel to the University of Y to deliver a lecture that will require several hours work, to an audience whose size no one seems able to predict — and without there being a fee at the end of it?

For some reason, most university administrators seem entirely unabashed when you protest that this is a part of your professional round, like filing a book review or writing a chapter, and it needs reimbursement just like anything else.

The Secret Author’s own response is to remark: “If the lights fused during my lecture, you would pay an electrician to fix them. So why can’t you pay me?” This is pretty much unanswerable.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover