Monday, May 07, 2007

I Talk, You Pay

I've been asked this question so many times I'm surprised I haven't blogged about it before.

If you're a writer, you're probably going to be asked to speak in public at some point.

The first few times this happens, you'll be flattered. So flattered, that you'll happily speak for free, or for the opportunity to sell three or four books to the crowd afterward.

As your star rises, you will be offered more and more speaking opportunities. In fact, you may get so many requests that you can pick and choose which ones to accept.

You'll pick the ones that are nearby and easy to get to. You'll pick the ones that will have the biggest crowds. You'll pick the ones where you were invited by a friend, or someone in the biz whom you owe. But first and foremost, you'll pick the ones that pay.

Being paid to speak is a wonderful thing. It validates your success. It gives you a forum where you're obviously appreciated. And most of all, it helps defer the cost of promotion, which is costly indeed.

But when someone contacts you and asks, "How much do you charge?" most new writers don't know how to answer.

Let's take a few scenarios.

1. A nearby library asks you to speak.

When I'm approached by a library within easy driving distance (less than 2 hours) I always ask if they offer a speaking fee.

Some libraries have budgets for speakers, and need to spend these budgets or else they lose them. Some libraries have no budgets, and can't pay anything at all.

If they don't offer a set dollar amount upfront, but instead ask what your fee is, I tell them to average the last three fees they've paid previous speakers, and I'll accept that.

This price can vary. I've spoken at libraries for a handshake. I've spoken at libraries for a tote bag. I've also spoken at libraries and gotten as much as $1200. The average is between $50 and $150.

Ask if you should bring books to sell (get these books from your local indie at a 40% discount, so they go toward your royalties.) I usually sell books to library patrons at a discounted rate (five bucks for paperbacks, twenty for hardcovers) and always bring some free giveaways for patrons, and some free books for the library.

2. A far away library asks you to speak.

I usually forgo the speaking fee, and instead ask for travel expenses. I do this because I figure I'm being taken someplace where I wouldn't normally go, for free. So I'll ask for gas or airfare, plus hotel if I'm staying overnight.

Many libraries will also throw in a free meal, which is always welcome. :)

3. A writing conference or convention asks you to speak.

Again, I usually do this for travel expenses, plus free admission to the event (including food if they have it.) I prefer the conference to handle flight/hotel details, rather than reimburse me later, because it makes things easier come tax time.

Could you ask for a fee on top of this? Sure, if you're big enough star. Some NYT writers ask for first class travel, accommodations, plus anywhere from $3000 to $50,000 to speak.

I'm not there yet. Someone paying for my travel is enough to get me someplace. If they insist on a little something above that, I won't turn it down.

Sometimes, I'll be invited to speak someplace (a book fair, a bookstore manager meeting) and won't be offered any sort of fee or travel expenses. I may still go, depending on the value of the event. Wouldn't you fly anywhere for a chance to speak to three hundred bookstore managers, or get a sound bite on the ten o'clock news?

If you're keynoting an event, receiving an award, or teaching a class, you aren't out of line to ask for them to cover expenses. After all, they want you, and you're there to work, so you should be paid for your efforts.

At these events, there is usually a bookseller who has your books available for sale. Be sure to contact them a few weeks prior to the event, to make sure they've got your books. While at the event, make sure you meet them and say thanks, and offer to sign their remaining stock.

4. Your publisher books a speaking engagement for you.

If you're lucky, your publisher may send you someplace to speak, usually at an industry convention like BEA or ALA or GLBA.

They may pay. They may not. It depends on their marketing budget for your book.

If your publisher does get you in front of a group of industry professionals, I say go, even if they don't pay your way. They can open doors you can't, and it's worth your time and money.

If they do pay, watch the expenses. Don't soak them for expensive room service or pay-per-view movies. This isn't a free vacation. It's a business trip.

If they don't pay, you can always ask your publisher for books to take to the event. Give away every last one they send you, and have them send the books to the hotel, not your home, so you don't have to travel with them.

This should go without saying, but DO NOT ask your publisher for a speaking fee. You might, however, ask them to compensate you for expenses after the fact, even if they originally said no to your request. Save your receipts, and give them a detailed rundown of what you did. Wowing a group of booksellers will get your publisher excited about you, and make them freer with the checkbook.

Conclusion

How much are you worth? It depends. Certainly your time is worth something. But when you're building a career, every chance you have to speak is time well spent. Even if it's a small crowd. Even if you don't sell a single book.

You never know which events are going to be stellar, and which are going to lead to even bigger events. I try to do as much as I can afford, both in terms of time and money. Getting paid is nice, but any opportunity that you have to speak in front of a group is an opportunity you should try to take.

Just remember: Before you start wondering how much you're getting paid, be sure that you're worth whatever they're offering. Hone your public speaking skills before you get in front of a crowd, or you may soon find yourself without any offers.