In Harlan's case, his interview was not promotional. It was "value added" to a DVD. Completely different than the purpose of book signings, which are a form of marketing for authors.
No one's going to pay me for an interview or a book signing at this point. But if I ever write the mystery equivalent of "Babylon Five" and win a few writing awards along the way (as Harlan has done), I can see wanting to get a piece of that action.
Harlan's overall point that writers should not simply give their work away is a good one. It's a rule that does tend to be honored in the breach, however. I gave a short story away in order to get exposure (and be able to say I was published). It's one small step down a long road for me. But when you reach a certain point in your career, you should be compensated for the value you bring as a writer. Which I think was Harlan's major point.
I don't agree about interviews and book signings being purely promotional for the author. The magazine that publishes the interview is sold to customers, and an author signing brings customers into a bookstore to buy books. The bookstore takes a larger share of the book's price than the author (unless he's self-published and sells his own books).
Good point, I.J. The question remains--how much leverage do lesser-known authors have to extract payment for these appearances and interviews? I'd say we have little. But an article about an author is better promotion than paid advertising.
As for signings, I wouldn't spend a lot of money to do them. I'd focus on local bookstores or places I'm going to travel to anyway. I realize the bookstores get a benefit from attracting attendees at these events. But when you're an unknown--well, I don't have to recount those horror stories, do I? :)
Bottom line: if you're not fairly well-known, you won't attract enough of a crowd for the bookstore to want to pay you. So, once I'm as famous (if not as flaky) as Harlan, then I can demand money for appearances (she said, hopefully). But until then, I have to consider these events marketing ops. This is true not just in the fiction realm, but the freelance writing field, as well.
Ain't nothing free. The question is, are you getting suitable benefit for your efforts.
A "free" signing or reading or interview may be well worth your time and effort, if only for the exposure. It all depends on what you hope to accomplish by it, and where you are in your career. If you desperately need the exposure as a new author trying to break in, then it may well be a a good deal to exchange your time for the exposure. It beats hell out of having to pay for a promotional activity yourself.
I'd be more than happy to do a lot of exposures for free, if the publisher would meet me half way and set things up and not expect me to take on the financial and exploratory commitments myself. I'm getting a sense the trend is for the other direction: the published pays an advance, and the author is on his own.
I recently had two arguments with folks on LinkedIn on similar topics.
One was a new for-profit web site that wanted content, but since she was a start-up, couldn't pay writers.
The other was for an electronic magazine, and since she was a start-up, couldn't pay the writers.
I asked both of them if they were asking anybody else involved to give their work away, or only the writers. I also asked why they couldn't at least give a token payment.
The web site gal said she just couldn't afford token payments, to which my first thought was, "If you can't afford to pay reasonable business expenses, you can't afford to start a business." I suggested she at least give the authors an online ad. She did not respond.
The magazine gal said she couldn't afford token payments, and that she'd mentored many writers over the years and was envisioning this as a way to help young writers. I asked if she could run ads for her authors, and she said she'd be willing to negotiate it. (Eventually she said nobody involved was getting paid, and I have to wonder why she didn't say so in the first place.)
So here we have to business models--a magazine and a web site--and they want to sell content they haven't paid for. I think I'll open a shoe store and sell shoes I haven't paid for. I'll make a killing!
And this is exactly Ellison's point--nobody expects the IT guy or the web designer or the janitor or the electric company to work for free, but the writers on whose work the entire enterprise is based are supposed to give their labor away because, well, they'd be writing it anyway, in their spare time. Screw that--I don't have any spare time. Every minute I spend writing is a minute I've taken away from doing other things. Even legit publishers don't seem to fully grasp this concept.
I was, for several years, a professional trumpet player. Christmas and Easter were prime time for church gigs, as a lot of congregations wanted some brass for something special for the holiday. A friend's mother once asked him if he thought it was right to take money for doing God's work. His answer was perfect.
"They pay the priest, don't they?"
As I know I've said somewhere here before, ain't nothing free. If I'm willing to donate my time to create something and not get paid for it, that should be my choice. No one else's.