What’s a Writer’s Time Worth?

Years ago, when I was speaking at the Jewish Community Center in Pittsburgh, I met the writer Evelyn Torton Beck, who I found personable, wise, and funny.  She was the first author to talk to me about accurately assessing what my time was worth when I was invited to speak out of town.

It’s not just the day you’re there, she said, if it’s only a day.  Add getting ready the day before, and then at least one day of re-entry into your regular schedule, sometimes more.

I’d never thought of doing a gig that way before, and it was immensely helpful.  Like the time I was invited to speak in San Francisco, and the speaker’s fee was okay (and I was eager to see a favorite city again).  But in this case, the sponsors were stingy.  They weren’t even offering to cover my hotel and meals, just air fare and “home hospitality.”  The latter is extremely iffy.  The one thing I crave on the road is privacy, since I’m constantly on stage.  I really wanted to do the gig, but then I thought of the jet lag I’d be dealing with, and to me that doubled the time involved.  I simply wasn’t being compensated enough for how much I’d have to put into the event, and I was dubious about staying with strangers, so I said no.

Saying no isn’t easy for us writers.  I’ve had many discussions with other authors and this is a subject that comes up again and again.  Part of the problem is that when we start out, we tend to say yes to everything because we crave the exposure, and somehow feel it’ll magically boost our careers.  We want the attention, the recognition, the respect–and hopefully the  sales that might result.  Our hopes can create a habit of saying yes.

Luckily I have a spouse who not only chimed in on what Evelyn Beck said, but added, “Ask yourself if you think you might end up griping about having to do the gig a few weeks before you go.  Ask yourself if you think it’ll be fun or different or challenging.  Ask yourself if the money really will compensate for being ripped out of your writing schedule.”

Other writers may have different questions that help them decide what to do and where.  But these work pretty well for me, and have helped me turn down gigs that I was sure later on I would regret accepting.

Having now done hundreds of readings on three continents, I’m much more selective than ever about where I go and when, and more and more consider my physical comfort.  I’m six feet tall, and I’m very reluctant to fly small planes when that’s the only choice, or sit in window seats ditto, because they can leave me cramped and cranky.

One more note: the late poet Terri Jewell and I used to talk about the writing life a lot, and she taught me an elegant way of saying no to things I didn’t want to do: “Thank you for asking, but I’m booked.”  It gracefully closes the discussion and I’ve used it more than once to good effect.

A version of this blog originally appeared at brevity.wordpress.com.

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8 Responses

  1. Lev, In years past I used to do a lot of these out of town gigs. But now I am saying no more often. Frequently it’s just not worth the time, or the money spent. I’d rather be at home writing.

    • Janet, I suspect you might have misread what I wrote. All my out of town gigs are fully paid for: air fare, hotel, meals, plus an honorarium. Ditto my book tours abroad. Otherwise I wouldn’t do them. My point is figuring out, given all those factors, if I would *still* want to say yes. 🙂

  2. Lev, I think I was viewing this from my experience, since I’ve done a lot of things on my own dime. But I do understand what you’re saying, about whether you’d still say yes.

    • That’s whole different subject. I did that, too, early on before I published mysteries, and then when I launched my series, I tgok myself to mystery cons. I gave those up after a cost/benefit analysis.

  3. Lev, excellent post. Should be read by all authors and readers/program chairs. I like this quote: ” Part of the problem is that when we start out, we tend to say yes to everything because we crave the exposure, and somehow feel it’ll magically boost our careers. We want the attention, the recognition, the respect–and hopefully the sales that might result. Our hopes can create a habit of saying yes.”

    • Thanks, Pat! I keep hearing from authors griping about having just done this or that gig they wish they hadn’t done for one reason or another and I realize that most people in our situation don’t have a set of questions to help them determine whether to say yes or no.

  4. This is a very valuable discussion, and something I’ve wondered about for years. My first book, crime nonfiction, came out in 1988, and my first novel in 1993. I did several conferences in the early years but after a while it was clear to me that I wasn’t getting anything out of it. I’ve done local events, and expect to get an honorarium from libraries and other groups, but the most lucrative and rewarding are talks to women’s groups. They listen, buy books, and give me lunch. It was hard pulling myself out of the circuit but after a while I knew it was the right decision.

    • Sounds great! It’s very easy to get onto a treadmill and take the advice of editors or agents and just do what they say–or just follow the herd. It’s blurred, of course, by the fun of meeting fans and other authors and making new friends. But once I started weighing what I spent on Bouchercon, for example (travel + ads) vs. what I saw in terms of a sales bump, the answer was pretty clear. And as I began receiving more and invitations to speak at colleges and universities and other venues where I was paid (and sometimes quite well), the conferences faded in importance for me). Not only was I paid and well-received, I usually saw more books sold than at a conference. There simply was no contest, much as I missed the social aspects of cons.

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