According to HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman, there was a “confluence of events” that caused Harper to launch its Speakers Bureau, the first in what has become (with Penguin‘s recent entrance), a must-have accessory for major publishers. “Ever since the Bantam Speakers Bureau 30 years ago, I’ve thought ‘Wouldn’t it be a wonderful adjunct to our publicity and promotional departments to have a speakers bureau?’” she said. When HC began Authors+ three years ago and was discussing internal growth strategies, the idea resurfaced through an executive team.
Coincidentally, Friedman received a letter from Gary Reznick – a veteran in the business – asking if HC would be interested in launching a bureau. Friedman said, “‘Eureka! This is it.”
Terminology and terms vary, but both publishers and literary agents are increasingly looking at coordinating and facilitating speaking engagements for their authors as a way to increase exposure, revenue, and most basically sell books.
As Sara Nelson commented in a recent PW editorial, any effort by publishers to expand audiences should be commended – but many are wondering how the endeavor will evolve.
“Unless publishers commit to staffing, they’re not going to be able to service their clients…It’s all about how much they’ll invest in it,” says George Greenfield (who was involved in the purchase of the Bantam Bureau after it was sold off in 1975) and current President of CreativeWell.
Publishers, however, are optimistic. “Ultimately for publishers to be successful in the 21st century, the more services they offer, the better off they’ll be,” Paul Bogaards, SVP Publicity at Knopf (which quietly started a speakers bureau separate from Random House earlier this year) said. “The truth is that publishers are third party to a lot of things: we don’t sell books, we don’t represent authors. It’s our job to create a community of readers, which involves finding niche markets that might present themselves through platforms like speaking. We’re just finding audiences.”
To the skeptics who cite a conflict of interest between publicity and paid engagements, as well as staffing concerns, Friedman said, “It’s all a bunch of malarkey. We’re doing this to work in concert with publicity and promotional campaigns, as well as provide authors more care and loving attention between books. Paid, not paid, we’re all working together to coordinate.”
Books and Bookings
Arlynn Greenbaum, who founded Authors Unlimited in 1991, says, “HarperCollins caused a huge hue and cry when they announced their plans last year.” After the announcement, there was a period in which speakers bureaux didn’t know if publishers would (re)claim their authors (they’re not, technically).
EVP PR at Random House, and liaison to partner agency the American Program Bureau, Carol Schneider emphasized the voluntary aspect of the relationship. “If they’re already with another lecture agency, and they’re happy, then that’s fine,” she said. “We’re just trying to give our authors an opportunity.” RH, recognizing that starting an in-house bureau would be “very labor intensive,” partnered with the APB so they wouldn’t have to take on all of the responsibilities of a full-fledged agency. “Our goal with this was not to start a new business,” Schneider said, “but to keep our authors visible.” As the APB has taken on more RH authors, un-repped authors have signed up, some have declined the invitation, and some, like Salman Rushdie, have made a switch.
Steven Barclay, President of the Barclay Agency, said that he has worked closely with nearly all of the major houses over the past 20 years, and that they’re all on a friendly basis. “We work closely with publishers to pepper author tours with venue engagements,” Barclay said. This fall, Barclay is arranging lectures for Zadie Smith, Frank Rich, Anne Lamott, Marjane Satrapi and Andrew McCall Smith all in conjunction with the release of books and in coordination with their various publishers. “It works out well since the authors can both get paid as well as work with local bookshops on their tour,” Barclay said. “And, it allows them to come into a city with larger audiences.”
The trend to book paid events around free publicity events is slowly reversing itself with publishers booking free publicity around paid engagements. CreativeWell recently partnered with Rick Frishman at Planned Television Arts to create the Writers Road Tour, a program that organizes author tours around college campuses, instead of bookstores, so that the publisher doesn’t have to foot the bill. CreativeWell also frequently hosts other events like writing workshops and clinics to increase exposure. “What’s really lacking (even from established agencies) is proactive marketing,” Greenfield said.
Publishers emphasized that their publicity departments are working closely with the in-house bureaux, to coordinate sponsors and book events. Regardless of new paid placement opportunities, Jamie Brickhouse, longtime publicist recently appointed to head Harper’s Speakers Bureau, confirmed that paid bookings will never take precedence over bookstore appearances for an author tour. He said that although in many cases HCSB gets bookstores to sell books at paid events, they would never set up paid events in bookstores. The new “HarperCollins Speakers Bureau Affiliate Program” encourages HC’s retail and wholesale partners to help them find paid speaking engagements for HC authors. “For those speaking engagements that booksellers have helped us set up, we reward them with 5% of the booking fee received, in the form of credit to the bookseller’s account,” Brickhouse said.
Similarly at Knopf, Bogaards said that the emphasis is on setting up book sales at events. “We’re making our retail partners part of the equation. It’s a win for everyone.” For larger events, bookings translate into major books sales. Last year, for example, the freshman class at the University of Alabama at Birmingham was assigned Anne Fadiman‘s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down as required reading. When Fadiman came to speak at the beginning of the year, FSG sold over 4,000 copies.
For the most part, bookings are highly individualized depending on both the speaker and the event with the average commission ranging between 10-35% of the speaker’s fee. (Fees can range anywhere from $1000 for less known authors to $100,000 for someone like Bill Clinton). Agencies tend to co-broker deals often, working outside of their own list of speakers to fulfill client requests.
In addition to publishers and established bureaux, some literary agents also function as lecture agencies for their authors. Susan Bergholz has been booking her own writers, such as Julia Alvarez and Sandra Cisneros, since she founded her agency 25 years ago, as has Anthony Arnove’s Roam Agency (Howard Zinn, Arundhati Roy, Noam Chomsky). Other agencies, like Folio Literary Management, are actively seeking staff to head internal speakers bureaux.
In the end, authors must decide which entity could best represent them. “I know that going with publishers is the absolute wrong decision for some authors,” Greenfield said. “But the sell to the author is that they can do everything under one roof. Frankly, there is no advantage to work within a house although it’s being pitched that way.”
As Marketing Guru, Author, and frequent lecturer Seth Godin (represented by Greater Talent Network) put it, “Speakers are bought, not sold. If people can find me by typing ‘Seth Godin’ into Google, why would I give [a publisher] a piece of my fee? Publishers must demonstrate that they are able to make the sale, and I think that as an author, I would be very wary of that.”