By Karen Holt
NEW YORK: US publishers’ in-house speakers bureaus, essentially nonexistent just five years ago, are turning out to be surprisingly recession-resilient — one of the few upbeat notes in this overall gloomy time for the book industry. Publishers are splitting appearance fees of between $5,000 and $20,000 (sometimes more) with their authors, representing a welcome source of found money, and more and more publishers are jumping into the game despite — or maybe because of — the weak economy. And while the bureaus have concentrated most of their marketing efforts in the U.S., executives say the business transcends borders, reflecting the global reach of the publishing houses and the international appeal of many authors as speakers.
HarperCollins opened the first in-house bureau just over four years ago, and in the past few years, Random House, Knopf, Penguin and Simon & Schuster have all gotten into the act. One of the last holdouts among major publishers, Hachette Book Group, partnered with Greater Talent Network to establish a speakers bureau in May. And since this is such a new business, there’s been plenty of room to expand, with houses rapidly adding speakers to their roster and building their client base, even as the rest of the business seems to be contracting.
Macmillan started its speakers bureau in February, two months after it (like most publishers) announced department consolidations and layoffs. Ellis Trevor, who runs Macmillan Speakers, said he had no qualms about launching the new venture during a downturn. Beyond the fees it brings in, he said, the bureau is a tool for raising an author’s profile and promoting titles beyond the typically short window of book publicity. “We’re generating revenue, we are selling more books, and I think in the long run changing the paradigm of how we market our books and authors.”
To be sure these operations have also felt the economic downturn. There have been cancelled contracts and regular clients whose budgets suddenly include no money for speakers. More typical is the client who’s looking to find less pricey alternatives to the big names they’ve hired in the past, or book a speaker at a discount.
“We’ve had a few universities come to us and say, “‘What can you do?’ And we have authors who have been more willing to negotiate than in past years,” said Jacqueline Fischetti, director of the three-year-old Penguin Speakers Bureau. Fischetti said the bureau is on track to possibly double its business this year. And though American universities and libraries form the core of its client base, the bureau has also booked speakers at international conferences in Singapore, Istanbul and Gamboa, Panama. Most recently, Penguin author Dana Thomas (Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Luster) gave the keynote address at this summer’s The Brandery Festival in Barcelona, Spain.
Jamie Brickhouse, who runs the HarperCollins Speakers Bureau, said the operation’s revenues increased 30% in the past fiscal year that ended June 30. That’s short of the 40% increase originally projected, but it looks pretty good next to the publisher’s nearly 18% drop in revenues worldwide. Not surprisingly, HarperCollins Canada is opening an arm of the bureau, featuring Canadian authors, in September.
Much in the way that discount chains are thriving while luxury retailers falter, the speakers bureaus are succeeding by focusing on value and volume, instead of just pushing a few big-ticket celebrities. “We’re not at the point yet where we’re counting on a lot of high-five and six-figure bookings,” Brickhouse said.
Still, not everyone is embracing the idea of speakers bureaus. Clay Smith, literary director of the Texas Book Festival, which features some 200 authors for its annual two-day event, admitted that such operations “make total business sense for publishers,” But for his festival, a nonprofit that raises money for libraries, paying speaker fees doesn’t make sense. “We would much rather donate that money to libraries,” said Smith, whose event has raised $2.5 million for libraries since it was founded 14 years ago. And so far, by leveraging its prestige and creatively exploiting author tours, the festival has been able to attract high-quality authors while sticking to its no-pay rule. Smith said the festival organizers do, on occasion, consider the issue of paying honorariums, but “there has been no enthusiasm for changing the rules.”
However, there’s no question that in-house speakers bureaus are becoming an increasingly prevalent part of the book scene — what amounts to an irresistible new source of money for publishers struggling to reinvent the way they do business. Look for further expansion, both domestic and international, in the coming years.
Organizations discussed in this article:
Random House Speakers Bureau: Various contacts, including:
Knopf Doubleday Group: Paul Bogaards
Random House Group: Carol Schneider
Crown Publishing Group: Rachel Rokicki
RH Childrens Publishing Group: Noreen Marchisi