One of the most surprising revelations to emerge from Dead Certain, Robert Draper's new bio of President George W. Bush, was that the president plans to make his post—White House fortune on the speaking circuit. Perhaps he can join his daughter Jenna, whose children's book, Ana's Story, has become a bestseller and who has just signed up to be a client with the in-house speakers' bureau at her publisher, HarperCollins. “It's a vote of confidence for us that she didn't go with an outside firm,” said HarperCollins speakers' bureau director Jamie Brickhouse.
When it started its speakers' bureau in 2005, HarperCollins was at the vanguard of a trend. In the past two years, Knopf has opened an in-house bureau, as has Penguin. Currently, the number of authors each bureau represents ranges from 50 or so at Knopf to 100 each at Penguin and HarperCollins. In addition to the three in-house bureaus, Random House has an exclusive relationship with American Program Bureau, and Hachette Book Group USA is currently in discussions with an outside agency, according to spokesperson April Hattori. “We think it's a great idea and an opportunity to expand the exposure for our authors,” she said. “We've been working on it for a while and hope to finalize something soon.”
Publishers are moving into representing their authors as professional speakers at a time when traditional outlets to present authors to a wider public—in particular, book review sections—are eroding. “If there's a pruning at the top, there's growth at the bottom,” said Paul Bogaards, executive v-p of publicity at Knopf, who started the Knopf speakers' bureau in January 2006. “We're trying to extend the life of books beyond the six-month window that a publicist typically works on a book,” he said.
While publishing sales are generally flat, speakers' bureaus represent a growth area. “We're growing at a rate of about 30% per year,” said Brickhouse of his division at HarperCollins. This ultimately leads to more money added to the bottom line: Knopf and HarperCollins take 20% of a speaker's fee, which typically ranges from $5,000 to $7,500, but can balloon to six figures for a celebrity author.
The reasons an author might stay in-house with a publisher for arranging speaking engagements, rather than going with a well-established speaker's bureau, are varied. For many, it is about the money: where typical speaker's agents might charge a commission of anywhere from 25%—33%, the in-house agencies represent a discount. Some authors, like Douglas Brinkley, view staying in-house as a convenience. “The HarperCollins speakers' bureau has been truly amazing,” he said. “Because I'm considered an in-house historian—one who has written my last five books for them—the bureau seems hyper-committed to booking me around the country at festivals and lecture halls.” Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked, said he finds it useful to be represented by the HarperCollins speakers bureau because it serves as a filter for offers. And for others, it's about taking advantage of exotic opportunities: Gay Talese recently traveled to Bogota, Colombia, to participate in a book festival—an appearance organized by the Knopf speakers' bureau. Penguin has arranged for John Perkins, author of The Secret History of the American Empire, to go to Panama.
Those who are benefiting most of all are the midlist writers. Julia Otsuka, author of the 2002 novel When the Emperor Was Divine, credits the Knopf speakers' bureau with bolstering her career a full five years after her novel was published. “They've enabled me to do nothing else but write—when I'm not speaking, that is—and have helped me build an audience for my next book,” she said. Knopf keeps her busy: earlier this month, Otsuka had four events scheduled at various California colleges and libraries in a four-day span.
Still, the in-house bureaus are not beloved by all. Some booksellers, in particular, feel threatened and expressed concern that this may be a harbinger of the eventual demise of the free book tour, on which so many depend to draw in customers. Bogaards bristled at the idea: “This augments, and does not replace, the traditional author tour, which is not going away.”
Despite such assurances, bookstores remain suspicious that publishers may be siphoning off their best authors to event managers willing to pay generous honoraria. “To be honest,” said Hut Landon, executive director of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, “we don't know all the events in our area that publishers set up. If it turns out they are arranging events and using their special sales department to sell books, thus excluding booksellers—all booksellers, indies and chains—from having an opportunity [to] participat[e] in that, it's a distressing trend. One instance where that happens isn't bothersome, but when you add it all up, it is definitely a problem.”
At the University of Washington Bookstore, event coordinator Stesha Brandon said she isn't threatened by the events she knows the in-house bureaus are arranging in the Seattle area. “Often, the events they set up are different from our own, or else we'll partner with them to sell books.”
Jane Moser, manager of the Brazos Bookstore in Houston, Tex., said, “Sometimes, the publishers will come to me with a big-name author, but since we have a small store, I will set them up with an outside organization, like the World Affairs Council, who can accommodate a bigger audience.” Booksellers receive a cut of the overall fee—5% from HarperCollins; 10% from Knopf—as a commission when they help set up an event. One of Brazos's outside partners is Houston's popular Inprint Brown Reading Series. Director of the series Rich Levy books nearly two dozen speakers per year, some of whom come for free and as part of their tour, while others receive an honorarium.
“The fact that we're willing to pay ensures our audience gets to see authors the publishers would not otherwise be willing to send to Texas,” Levy explained. “At the same time, my main concern is that publishers will move away from touring authors to a model where organizations like my own will exclusively be asked to pay.” Though he's had longstanding relationships with several outside speakers' bureaus, he's yet to work with an in-house agency. “I just hope that if publishers are doing this themselves, they keep the fees reasonable,” said Levy. “In the 12 years I've been in this position, I've seen the fees quadruple. The reason we get good audiences is that we still charge the same as we did in 1995—often just $5 a person—and if the prices go up further, I may be forced to pass along that expense.”