Want a free speaker? Eleven reasons authors might say no

By Caitlin Kelly

Many of you dream of becoming a published author — and some of you already are.

It’s a very cool accomplishment and one to be proud of.

I’ve published two well-reviewed non-fiction books and I still love sharing them with audiences. I really enjoy public speaking and answering readers’ and would-be readers’ questions and hearing their comments.

malled cover HIGH

But, while it’s terrific to get out there and share your story, and that of your book, you’ll also get a pile ‘o invitations to speak for no money.

A new service (and I’m not A Big Enough Name for them to want me, sigh) is paying NYC-area authors $400 (and pocketing $350 of the $750 fee) for bringing authors to local book clubs.

Says Jean Hanff Korelitz:

“There were so many writers I know and admire who I also knew would appreciate any income at all,” she said in an email. “Most of us, whether or not we are ‘successful,’ really struggle financially in this city. Also, we’ve reached this point at which we’ve come to assume art should be free, and copyright is under assault, etc., and the bald fact is that the artist has to live, too. So I really liked the idea of creating (or at least extending) a new income source for writers.”

Here are some reasons I now say “No, thanks” to most of the people who want my unpaid time, some of which might apply to you as well:

Your audience isn’t going to welcome my ideas

I learned this early, the hard way — speaking unpaid, to boot. Someone I’d interviewed for my retail book, “Malled”, asked me to address his annual conference. He, the CEO of a wildly successful software firm, had about 75 people flying in to Las Vegas, expecting to hear updates on the labor management software they buy from him. They weren’t — even though the CEO cared as passionately as I — the least bit interested in how to better hire, manage and motivate retail associates, my central message. The room was distinctly frosty.

Yes, I got to stay at the Bellagio. But this proved to be a serious mismatch. Next time, I’ll take the psychic hit, but only softened by a four-figure check.

I’m not fond of flying, especially turbulence

Are you eager to jump on a plane heading anywhere, unless it’s a business or first-class ticket with a car and driver waiting at the other end? It rarely is for midlist authors.

I make no money selling books

Non-authors have no clue how the publishing world functions, and assume that every book we sell means money in our pockets. It doesn’t! If you have commercially published a book, you have been paid an advance. Only after you have paid off the advance, (and you’ll make maybe 10% of the cover price of each book you sell), will you ever see another penny. Most authors never do.

A “great lunch” is really not an appealing offer

Seriously. I know you mean to be kind, but I can buy my own food and eat it on my own schedule.

Some of us loathe and fear public speaking

I don’t, but many authors do. Ours is a solitary business, one spent alone at home huddled over a notebook or computer. We spend most of our time thinking, writing, revising. We chose this business because it suits our nature. So standing up in front of a room filled with strangers — whose comments and questions can be quite weird or rude — can be stressful. Why bother?


Your audience is too small

Here’s the math. On a good day, I can sell my books to one-third of the room; i.e. if there are 30 people attending my presentation, 10 will usually buy my book, if 100, 30. Most audiences are small, fewer than 50 or 60 people.

The odds of someone in the room being willing and able to pay me to do the next gig? Slim to none. And I’ve still lost half my workday.

Your audience isn’t my audience

Even if you’ve gathered 100 or 200 or 300 people, are they the people most interested in my topic? If not, I’m an annoyance, and their lack of interest in my work — let alone a passion for the issues  I care deeply about — creates a headwind I have no stomach for. It’s emotionally draining for me and it’s no fun for them. If you’ve scheduled me with several other authors, as is often the case, their audience may be completely different from mine.

It costs me time and money to do this for you

You’ve asked me to donate at least three or four hours of my workday — probably driving 30 minutes each way, (plus the cost of gas), to sit for several hours through lunch and socializing, speak, answer questions and sell and sign books. That’s a day’s paid work wasted. I’ve actually had a major commercial organization in another country insist they couldn’t pay me a penny, even travel costs, to speak at their annual conference.

If you perceive so little value in my time and skills, I’m staying home, thanks.

Your competitors pay!

I drive five minutes to my local library — where my friends and neighbors show up  by the dozens — and still get paid $50. Local women’s clubs pay. I was paid $8,000 to speak at a conference in New Orleans in 2012. Yes, really.

If you have to, sell tickets at $10 each, but your payment shows respect for my time, skills and experience. Whatever you feel, we don’t necessarily consider it a privilege or honor to talk about our books to people who don’t value our time.

Why exactly do you, and your audience, expect free entertainment from us?

I don’t believe in your cause, the one you’re selling my brand to win attendance

I already donate my time and money to causes I personally believe in. Unless I’m passionate about yours, and eager to help you raise funds for it, I’ve already made my pro bono commitments.

malled china cover

I’m busy!

It’s that simple.

17 thoughts on “Want a free speaker? Eleven reasons authors might say no

  1. I’m not an author or a public speaker, well, kind of if my students count as public…anyway, I finally found a boss (principal) that really values my time, so much so that I have to insist on her accepting me to volunteer for anything, of course she knows that I would not offer if I didn’t know I had the rest of my life under control and I could be 100% present… I think the most important aspect here, in fact, the moral of the story is, we have to value our time first in order for others to do so. Great post 🙂 read you soon, alexandra

  2. This is a great list for authors or those wishing to “hire” them for events. In fact it is a great list for ANYONE who is ever asked, or anyone who asks others, to do work for free. “No, but thank you for asking” should be enough. Or “No, I don’t do engagements for free. My standard fee is $ per hour of attendance (not just speaking) plus all expenses. If it is an overnight obligation, it $$ more…”

    I always figure, if I am asking someone to do a favor, they have the right to say “no,” or the right to put conditions on their help. And if someone is asking me for a favor or to volunteer, my participation is VOLUNTARY. Which means I get to decline.

    I do love public speaking. I have agreed to do a short gig in town for free, for which I’m already prepared. But I don’t intend to make a habit of it, either. Thanks.

  3. Yes, talents that we work at are considered not worth paying for. I am not a published writer but I can sew very well (because of necessity and to save money) and I decorate well enough. People always want me to alter some clothing, come set their new living room and suchlike. Unless I’m paid it’s insulting to me. You deserve to get paid because you’re there with words you’ve prepared and that have great significance to you. Good for you to state this so well.

    1. Do you have a written fee schedule for alterations? I am a quilter, and my answer is always “no, I don’t do alterations.” But you’re right, being asked to do them for free is insulting, unless it is a close friend asking, someone who also does things for you of a similar “value.”

    1. 1) Because we do it “for fun.” 2) Because artists are supposed to be REALLY grateful for any public attention 3) Mostly because people have NO idea at all about how the publishing industry really works — (you mean we don’t get book tours? Hahahahahahahahaahaaaaaaaa) — and project their naive fantasies onto us. Really annoying.

  4. commercial2012

    I’ve got a question and I hope no one will be offended. I’m the chairman of the board at a small, low budget non-profit with a big capital project going in a developing country. This country also attracts a lot of specialized sports tourism right in the area of our project. I’m wondering about asking authors who have written successful books about the area to do some kind of collaboration with us, i.e. we review their book on our blog, offer them free accomodation, photo ops, etc at our project and in exchange they use their channels to get the word out about our project. Is this kind of “barter” okay? We do like their books and will review them anyway,btw.

    1. Thanks very much for weighing in. I’m going to email you privately (if that’s OK) to continue the conversation.

      The sort of barter you envision can be fine, depending on who your writers are writing for; The NYT, for example, is EXTREMELY strict about freelancers taking any sort of freebies.

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