The Help Desk: The bad kind of free speech

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to

Dear Cienna,

I've done a few onstage interviews at bookstores, and I enjoy doing them. My area of interest is in vogue right now, so there are a lot of authors of popular books who come to town, and talking to them is usually a joy.

Cienna, in almost any other field — journalism, for instance, which I do a lot of — I would be paid for my time. Venues and publishers never offer to pay me for my time as an onstage interviewer. A lot of preparation goes into those events: I have to read the book, read and listen to past interviews with the author, wear nice clothes, promote on social channels, and bring good stage presence.

I understand that bookstores don't have a lot of extra cash laying around. (Although they could surely offer a cup of coffee or a small gift card or something, couldn't they?) But the publishers, who pay for the authors to travel the country on tour, must be willing to cough up a little bit of cash for a good interviewer?

I'm not expecting to make a living as an onstage interviewers of authors, but some sign that my time is valuable would be nice. In almost any other field, being asked to do something as intensive as an onstage interview in exchange for exposure would be seen a huge rip-off. Should I ask for compensation next time, or am I being an entitled baby?

Erma, Ballard

Dear Erma,

In an ideal world, yes, you would be paid for your time as an interviewer – just like in an ideal world, sex appeal wouldn't be the strongest currency of women, people named Kash and Tiffini would automatically be registered as Assholes in some sort of community registry, the word "dollop" wouldn't exist, tweezers would scream for you, and ex-presidents would be taxidermied into their most memorable political moments and line the halls of Congress in Plexiglass tubes.

But we do not yet live in an ideal world, so we must do the hard work of fashioning one for ourselves. Here's what I suggest: the next time a publisher asks you to interview one of their authors onstage, respond with "Sure! My fee is now X." They may negotiate with you, you still may end up being paid in coffee or booze or nothing at all, but at least you'll have the satisfaction of sticking up for yourself and communicating that your time is valuable.