Behind the Scenes at a Speakers Bureau with YPG

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Speakers Bureau BBLOver lunchtime at Penguin Random House’s downtown headquarters on Wednesday, February 25th from 12:30-1:30pm, YPG’s February BBL: Behind the Scenes at the Speakers Bureau brought in Natalie Duncan from HarperCollins, Tiffany Tomlin from Penguin Random House, and Scottie Bowditch from Macmillan to shed some light on their roles in directing the in-house speakers bureaus of the three titan publishers. In one informal and informative hour, the brown-bagging audience learned much about this relatively new arm of the book industry, which only recently incorporated internal speakers bureau departments into the major publishing houses. To that end, the panel opened with the discussion of what exactly a speakers bureau is, highlighting that their work differs from publicity in that a speakers bureau arranges for paid events for authors for years, transitioning writers into speaking careers, and raising their profiles well beyond the publication of their books.

Within the publishing house, an in-house speakers bureau is ultimately a direct revenue generator for the company. The department operates off of commission for each event booked, paid by the venue. As opposed to outside or independent speakers agencies, in-house speakers bureaus earn that commission as an entity, rather than paying the commission directly to individual staff members. Duncan, Tomlin, and Bowditch all emphasized the advantage that difference presents in enabling them to make “more conscious decisions” for their clients: instead of casting about for the largest individual contracts, in-house speakers bureaus are set up to allow their directors the flexibility to adjust and cater to the needs of the venues they work with, considering what is ultimately in the best interest of the entire company. Their inside position also means that the speakers bureau can arrange custom orders and special editions of an author’s book through their colleagues in other departments of the publishing house: a graduation event, for example, may commission a printing of the keynote’s book with the university seal on the cover and a letter from the president in the front matter.

Such details and personalized attentiveness can make all the difference in this pocket of the industry, in which building a relationship with the venues is paramount and follow-up is key: “Keep in touch for potential future events,” Duncan advised. “You want the venues you work with to come back to you the next time they want a speaker for an event.”

“Keep in touch, and keep them in mind,” Tomlin added. “It’s great when you can reach out to a site you’ve worked with in the past just because you think an author you have might be a good fit for them, out of the blue. It shows that you remember what they’re looking for and the kinds of programs they do; even if they weren’t planning on booking a speaker, you can generally get them interested, at least for future events.”

Working in-house also shifts the focus of the speakers bureau in relation to its authors. Company-wide collaboration brings the speakers bureau into the book and the author’s career from multiple perspectives, and often very early on. The bureaus rely heavily on their publisher’s editors, publicity teams, and paperback staff—who are particularly well-poised to notice when a backlist title starts to generate renewed interest.

In this process, the different departments of a publishing house all work together so as not to miss an opportunity to make money for the company. This, too, can be an advantageous to authors launching a speaking career: “Outside speakers bureaus are not concerned with book sales, whereas in-house cares very much about book sales. “At the end of the day, that’s really the authors’ bread and butter—and it benefits the publisher, too,” Bowditch noted.

“And you can work with that,” Duncan added. “An in-house speakers bureau doesn’t shut down negotiations if the event cannot make the full honorarium for an author; there are all sorts of ways we can work with a venue to find an arrangement that fits their budget—like agreeing to order a certain number of copies of the book for their event.”

Bowditch, Duncan, and Tomlin weighed the advantages and drawbacks of different types of events. University events yield large book orders, but typically cannot afford as high an honorarium. Corporations, on the other hand, pay best and tend to be the more efficient and well set up—but their budget generally correlates with the amount of work that gets sloughed unto the speakers bureau: “The lower the fee for events, the harder you work,” Tomlin observed.

The panelists also discussed building their bureaus, as in-house speakers bureaus are recent acquisitions across the publishing industry. Bowditch outlined that Macmillan’s speakers bureau looks for authors who are experts in their field, have a platform or cause that they are passionate about, or are established literary stars. And, most importantly: do they want to speak?

“I like to say we’re looking for ‘the trifecta’ in a speaker, and everything has to be in place,” Tomlin ticked off on her fingers: “An established interest—the author is in demand by organizations that have enough money; the author is willing and skilled to speak; and they charge an honorarium that’s affordable for many events.”

“Once the speaker gets there, it’s really important that they do a good job for the event,” Duncan circled back. “You have to put yourself in the event organizer’s shoes: it’s their job to put on a good program, and you want to ensure that it’s successful for them. I guess the main idea behind our jobs is: ‘More humanity, better business.’”

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