I’ve recently had a couple people write to ask me about speaker bureaus — How do they work? What do they make? Are they worth it?
Over the last twenty years, I’ve worked with numerous speaker bureaus to try and get speaking engagements for authors. Like any other business, the quality varies greatly. Some have been good; others have been terrible. Let me offer some thoughts…
First, a good speaker’s bureau is pro-active, not re-active. This is really the biggest complaint people have about most speaker bureaus. An author will sign with them, give them permission to get them engagements, then wait. A good bureau will make calls and try to find new places for an author to speak. A bad bureau sits and waits for the phone to ring. (And if that’s all your speaker’s bureau is doing, you can simply have your own phone ring.)
Second, a good speaker’s bureau provides support, not just basic information. A good bureau captures all the details. They tell the author where they are needed, when, how they’ll get there, and where they’ll be staying. They’ll offer to help with travel, offer details on how many times the author is expected to speak, on what topics, under what circumstances, and to how many people. A bad bureau simply gives the date and time.
Third, a good speaker’s bureau will work for their money. Most bureaus take 20% of the speaker fees. So if you’re being paid $3000 to speak at a conference, the speaker’s bureau will want $600 of it… and for that sort of money, you’d expect they would work hard for it, try hard to land new engagements, make sure the proposed gigs were a good fit, and spend some time negotiating the deal to try and maximize it. For the record, I rarely find that to be the case. Many wait for the phone to ring, tend to always give the engagements to the same small group of speakers, and provide minimal assistance to authors who are speaking. Twenty per cent is a steep price to pay for lazy service.
Fourth, a good speaker’s bureau will help build an author’s platform. That means they will take the time to figure out what the author does best, and try to find engagements where the author can shine. A bad agency simply looks for available dates. Several of the legacy publishers have set up their own in-house speaker bureaus, to try and boost the platforms of their A-level authors. That’s a good sign, since it means the publisher is trying to get their authors noticed. And, of course, I’d argue that many author websites have usurped most speaker bureaus, since those looking for speakers can often find authors who are writing on the topic they need, then contact the author directly.
Fifth, a good speaker’s bureau will focus on what they do best. I’m a literary agent, so I tend to spend my time on books and writing careers. But since we’ve done a lot of work in the Christian market, I should note that nearly all the speaker bureaus working in CBA have also begun calling themselves literary agents — even if they don’t know anything about the publishing market, haven’t worked at a publishing house, or have any background for offering editorial or career advice. This is why I’ve lost all faith in most of the CBA speaker bureaus. They don’t know what they’re doing with books, yet they want to compete with me for authors. (And yes, on several occasions I’ve had people at speaker bureaus suddenly announce to an author that they’re becoming literary agents, and try to poach authors from me.) On the other hand, we also work with the general (non-religious) market, and I only find that happens on occasion with those speaker’s bureaus. Find somebody who focuses their energy on what they do best, not on what is expedient.
So… is a speaker’s bureau worth it? Perhaps, if you can find someone who will take the time to understand what you write, and pro-actively seek to place you in speaking engagements that will generate you income and boost your platform. So focus on that when evaluating anybody who invites you to join a speaker’s bureau. For some authors, I think a speaker’s bureau may not be that helpful. Before you sign with one, make sure to ask some hard questions: Who do they work with? What services do they offer? How many speakers do they work with? How many engagements did they place speakers with last year? What were the venues? What sort of marketing will they do? How often will they place you? How do they negotiate contracts? What do they do for their 20%? Getting answers to questions like that will help you figure out if the speaker bureau is a fit for you.