Tuesday, July 29, 2008

There Be Gold In Them Thar Lecture Halls

From the essay More Bang for the Book, written by Rachel Donadio
Originally published in The New York Times on 7/27/8:

In recent years, a growing number of writers, from the best-selling to the less so, have hit the rubber-chicken circuit, speaking at colleges and businesses, chambers of commerce, trade fairs and medical conventions. While a midlist novelist might ask, though not necessarily get, $2,500 per appearance, a superstar presidential historian might command $40,000. And some best-selling authors charge double that.

The venues can range from the upstanding (libraries, churches) to the downright weird. “Once, back in the ’80s, I spoke at a ‘motion upholstery conference’ in North Carolina,” the author Roy Blount Jr. said in an e-mail message. “Motion upholstery,” he explained, means “chairs that tilt back or vibrate or turn into beds.” He learned something at the conference: “Just as fish can’t see anything funny about water, people in the motion upholstery field don’t respond to jokes, however inspired, about motion upholstery.” Blount said speaking fees helped put his children through college. “Then I drifted away from it,” he said. “Now I’m doing it again; the money is a comfort in my golden years.”

Mark Twain went on tour to promote “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” and some of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s most famous essays, including “The American Scholar,” originated as lectures in Boston. But these days, publishers have become booking agents. HarperCollins established an in-house speakers bureau in 2005, and Knopf and Penguin have followed suit. (Random House has teamed up with the American Program Bureau, and Simon & Schuster just went into the speakers-bureau business with Greater Talent Network.) Beyond making money, keeping authors visible long after their publication dates and making sure copies of books are on hand, the in-house bureaus also reflect a market reality: with fewer bookstores and less coverage of books in newspapers, publishers are scrambling for new ways to connect books and readers without spending too much of their own money.

To read the entire essay, click here.