Free Speech? Not So Much

It’s often said that social media is no substitute for face-to-face interaction. But Twitter, Facebook, and other electronic modes of communication, along with the decline of bricks-and-mortar bookstores and the bad economy, have changed the ways authors communicate with readers, and have shaken up the roles of speakers’ bureaus since we last wrote about them in 2006.

That year, HarperCollins had just become the first publisher to launch its own in-house operation. Today, all the major houses have bureaus, but the question is whether to outsource them or keep them in-house. When Simon & Schuster opened its speakers bureau in 2008, it partnered with Greater Talent Network; Hachette Book Group followed suit in 2009. On the other hand, Penguin Speakers Bureau, launched in 2006, and Macmillan Speakers, launched in 2009, are both in-house. The Random House Speakers Bureau was launched in 2006 as the in-house Knopf Speakers Bureau and was rolled out company-wide in 2009 at Markus Dohle’s initiative. Each division (Knopf Doubleday, RHPG, Crown, and Children’s) has a separate director who is a voting member of the bureau. The in-house bureaus are generally separate from publicity departments, with the main difference being that publicity departments handle unpaid events.

Jamie Brickhouse, VP, Director of the HarperCollins Speakers Bureau, draws a crucial distinction between in-house and outsourced bureaus: “Book sales are one of the main reasons HCSB was created. As we point out to our author speakers, unlike outside speakers bureaus, book sales are crucial to what we do. We do it a few different ways, depending on the particular event: find a local bookseller to sell books at the event; have the event venue buy books from a bookseller and sell the books themselves at the event; have the event venue buy the books from a bookseller and give books to attendees; or have the event venue purchase from our Special Markets department and sell or give away the books.” The HCSB also works with publicity to augment book tours by booking paid engagements at reduced fees in markets not on the scheduled book tour. “We did this recently with Gregory Maguire, Wally Lamb, and Adriana Trigiani,” Brickhouse says.

“The primary reason [for creating an in-house bureau] was not to increase our bottom line by 20%,” says Paul Bogaards, EVP, Executive Director of Publicity, Knopf Doubleday and head of the RHSB, adding that Random House does not include speaking event book sales in its bottom line. “The compelling reason to go down this road was an effort to broaden the readership for our authors. If you look at the asset basis publishers lean on, some of them are shrinking. They’re not making as many physical book stores as they used to. If we as a publisher were going to rely on serendipity to capture book sales, it seemed a little flawed.” That said, he describes the RHSB as “a complement to the work that book retailers do” and stresses that it always tries to get local stores involved on the sales side. Booksellers can also acts as “programming partners” and share commissions.

Blair Bryant Nichols, Director of the Simon & Schuster Speakers Bureau, agrees that “the trend now is for publishers to move away from having their own in-house speakers bureaus, so they don’t have the cost of having the staff themselves.”

“One of the things that’s happened because of the economy and in light of the recession is that people have realized that the economics of the speakers bureau business is better served by outsourcing it,” says Clea Conner, Director of Marketing at Greater Talent. “It’s an arduous outfit for a publishing company to run.”

Arlynn Greenbaum, President of Authors Unlimited, acknowledges that publishers’ bureaus have cut into her twenty-year-old business. “I have to co-broker much more frequently [than I used to] and I can’t really get any new authors,” she says. Though she describes the people she’s worked with at in-house bureaus as “wonderful” and appreciates being able to contact them directly instead of going through publicists, “eventually we have to split the commission” (usually totaling 20% of the speaker’s fee). Greenbaum also says that established speakers’ bureaus like hers perform services and have experience that the newer in-house bureaus do not. “We are much more proactive,” she says. “Many groups work with me exclusively [for literary series and library events] because of my track record and my contacts.” In-house bureaus, she says, “often don’t really know what they’re doing, so they’re reactive instead of proactive—the phone rings and they handle it. Sometimes they don’t know what to charge and they charge too little. I have a couple of authors I share [with in-house bureaus on a non-exclusive basis]. I’ll charge a certain fee, and [the in-house bureau] will charge less because they want to get the speaking engagements, and that undermines my efforts. It’s not good for the industry, for [sponsors] to be able to say, ‘We can go to Random House and get the authors for less than we can at Authors Unlimited.’” In response to some in-house bureaus’ claims that their primary goal is exposure rather than revenue, Greenbaum says that then “they’re going to be willing to take less and persuade the author to take less.”

Those we spoke with acknowledge that the economy has affected the business. “A lot of authors are willing to be flexible,” says Nichols. “They understand they may need to accept a lower fee if the case calls fo r it, and they are willing to do more opportunities than they would have in the past.”

Brickhouse agrees that “all parties have been more open to negotiating fees” and says that during the low point of the recession, “we certainly saw a drop in speaking engagements. Budgets were cut completely for speakers or dramatically reduced.” However, he’s noticed “an upturn in the past three months.” The HCSB grew by 30% in fiscal year 2009 and projects “better profits than anticipated” in fiscal year 2010.

Bogaards says that in the first three months of 2010, the RHSB “engineered as much revenue for our authors [the commission they earn plus the percentage Random House takes] as we did in all of 2009.” He acknowledges that because of the way the business is structured, the figure is not “incredible,” but “it’s encouraging.”

If the point of a speakers bureau is, as Bogaards puts it, to “bring authors into contact with existing readerships outside of traditional retail venues as a complement to the work that book retailers do,” then social media has the potential to shake things up. “Social media, especially Twitter, has been an excellent marketing tool to spread the word about our speakers and find new event venues interested in booking them,” says Brickhouse. Speakers can also take questions from Twitter during lectures. Speaker bureaus are also increasingly booking webinars (though Nichols finds that webinars “are often still unpaid and tie into publicity”), and language in speaker contracts often covers both live and virtual lecture appearances.”

“The accessibility that the public has to an author is really unprecedented historically,” acknowledges Connor. “You can reach pretty much any author on Twitter or become a fan on Facebook, be exposed to their every move, and even contact them directly for a speaking engagement—that’s hardly our favorite thing, but it does happen.”

“My loyal customers appreciate the filtering that I can do,” says Greenbaum. “They’ll get a wishlist from their committee, and I can go over it with them in ten minutes and tell them five names that would be totally inappropriate, because the authors aren’t good speakers or because their fees are too high and, and five names in their price range. I can get them authors that are going to be successful and entertain their audiences. That’s how I’ve built up a very loyal following and a successful business all these years.” Technology is helpful, but the human element and judgment and experience are very meaningful.” She considers social networking like Twitter and Facebook “a big time-waster.”

Bogaards believes it’s more important to get technology right behind the scenes. “Publishers in general are being very creative in their deployment of social media assets, but I would say that it’s less of a priority for the speakers bureau, certainly for our authors,” he says. “Everything we’ve learned about this business suggests that what you really need to focus on is search optimization. People come to the speakers through search, and so you need to get the mechanics of search right for this business to be successful, and that’s one of the things we’ve been working on at Random House. We’ve seen our website traffic triple in the last four months as a result of the search applications that we’ve been able to deploy. It’s still not perfect. I’m happy with the growth we’ve experienced, but I think we can engineer a lot more growth.”

Bureaus are finding unusual new speaking outlets for their authors. Mary Karr, author of Lit and The Liars Club, is an example. “She’s an obvious draw for universities and arts and lecture venues,” says Brickhouse, “but because of her open discussion in Lit about her alcoholism and conversion to Catholicism, we are [also] approaching recovery and spiritual groups.” Speaking events for Patti Smith have included song performances.

And the HCSB has found another way to reach new audiences. It has booked product spokesperson deals for Carolina Buia and Isabel Gonzalez, co-authors of Latin Chic: Entertaining with Style and Sass, with Macy’s, Splenda, and Avocados from Mexico.

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  1. By Arlynn greenbaum | Topimage on July 13, 2012 at 9:10 am

    […] Free Speech? Not So Much – Publishing TrendsApr 1, 2010 … Arlynn Greenbaum, President of Authors Unlimited, acknowledges that publishers’ bureaus have cut into her twenty-year-old business. “I have … […]

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