By Edward Nawotka
Speaking can be a very profitable business for a writer. One novelist I spoke to — an author who had a book chosen for Oprah’s Book Club as well a couple of other top ten bestsellers — admitted to me that in some years he’s made far more money giving talks about his various books than writing them. He said that, since his Oprah appearance, he consistently earned close to $100,000 each year just from lectures. Of course, added the author, this requires him to spend 2/3rds of his time on the road each year, a sacrifice that has taken a toll on both his family time and his writing production. “It’s a lot like holding down a second job,” he warned.
During the Gilded Age Mark Twain made a fortune giving lectures, but he was an extraordinary exception, and driven largely by the need to pay off his extraordinary debts. Today, the closest we have to someone close to Twain’s popularity is is David Sedaris, who is most likely the highest earning author on the author’s speaker’s circuit. He tours the US twice each year, routinely selling out many-thousand seat venues, with tickets going for $30 and more. And he works work hard for his money: this fall alone Sedaris is doing 34 shows in little more than a month. I saw him on a night he had sold out Carnegie Hall in New York City and it was worth every penny.
While Sedaris is naturally charismatic and clearly energetic, at least some of that success must be credited to his’ speakers bureau: The Steven Barclay Agency, is widely regarded as the gold-standard of lecture agents for authors. Founded in 1996, the agency’s roster of writers now includes a who’s-who of bold faced names from the book world: Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon, Alexander McCall Smith, Terry Gross, and on and on.
Of course, writers of such high caliber and popular appeal don’t come cheap. The Steven Barclay Agency is known for requesting some of the biggest appearance fees in the business. Negotiations, I was told, start at a minimum of five figures for most of his writers. “And,” said one lecture programmer who wished to remain anonymous, “it only goes up from there.”