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Neil Gaiman Dust-Up Raises Questions About Authors and Speaking Fees

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Neil Gaiman recently caused a fuss in Minnesota by accepting $45,000 for a guest appearance at a library. The $45K was the majority of the money set aside by a state library organization for several author appearances. "Minnesota Nice" quickly went away as Gaiman was tarred with several brushes, including a Minneapolis Tribune article (May 7).

The newspaper griped about misuse of "taxpayers' money." Gaiman's honorarium came from a pool of funds provided by Minnesota's recent Legacy Amendment-a small, state-wide sales tax increase approved by voters and dedicated to the environment and the arts. It's the kind of progressive government that Minnesotans take pride in.

But we Minnesotans are nothing if not fair-minded. The newspaper article named names of the other authors in the pool, whose fees ranged from $5000 down to $1500. The brouhaha fired up the number crunchers ("If 500 people attended, that's $90 per person!") as well as the anti-tax nuts who railed about arts and the "liberal agenda." Detractors noticeably missing, however, were the other lesser paid authors-including myself. I confess that my initial reaction was, "Wow, $45K is a lot of money!" But then I read Gaiman's FAQ about his speaking fees:

Question: How can I get Neil Gaiman to make an appearance at my school/convention/event?

Asnwer: 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 kind of money, but it's true, he's not cheap. . . . I'm really busy, and I ought to be writing so pricing appearances between the ridiculously high and the 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."

Gaiman also made the point that the $45K was use it or lose it library funding-so he accepted, did a four-hour gig, then donated the bulk of the money to charitable organizations. It works for me. And while I've never met him, I can confirm Gaiman's good will. Only a few years ago I had slightly nutty creative writing student brag in class about her email correspondence with "Neil." She had sent him some of her very bad fiction, about which he replied quickly and kindly. So enough about the $45K.

Okay, just one more thing. In the dust-up, one librarian commented, in passive-aggressive style, "I've been at fiction readings where there were 20 people and the author got paid $2000." Ouch! Be nice! That's about where us mid-list authors live. But the whole Gaiman thing brought up a good question: how much should authors be paid for their appearances at libraries, conventions, and schools?

A logical answer is: "What they're worth." That is, what the market will bear, "worth" here being a combination of bibliography, writing awards and overall popularity. Sandman Gaiman is a rock star of the literary dark side, therefore he should get paid accordingly. This summer Billy Collins is coming to my town of Bemidji, Minnesota for $16K, I happen to know. He'll do a great job. He's worth it.

However, a writer's worth and a hosting organization's budget do not always match. This is why the market-driven answer doesn't work well. Sometimes, if the money is there, we make a good buck (I've been paid $3K for a keynote or a commencement address); other times we work for travel expenses; and sometimes we do it for karmic improvement. Meaning for free.

I visit a lot of schools, whose budgets these days are tighter than a gnat's ass stretched over a rain barrel (as my father used to say). With a dozen novels from New York publishers, two film adaptations, and good cred with teenagers via my YA fiction, I think I deserve a decent payday. However, I can't charge a small rural school in North Dakota what a big, Minneapolis suburban school is willing to pay. That fairness thing again.

I was recently at Garrison Keillor's old high school in Anoka, Minnesota. He kicked in several grand to buy one of my young adult novels for everyone in the school (over 2000 teenagers in grades 9-12). With that kind of gesture, and with support from the community, I was happy to come at a reduced fee ($1500 for two days). Everybody, from principals to kids to custodial staff read the same book, and we had great discussions.

I try to help small organizations and first-timers think through fund-raising and planning for an author visit. On my website I have a page about "Preparing for an Author Appearance." It focuses on the need to plan many months in advance, but I also talk money though do not list my prices, menu-style. I'm not a restaurant. I make the general point about needing to make a living wage appropriate to my résumé but that my fee is negotiable. You just need to ask me. We'll talk. I will also say here that if a writer is not willing to discuss his/her fee and why they charge what they do-like Neil Gaiman-you don't want them anyway.