The Cost of Free vs. Speaking Fees (aka There’s Nothing Like a Free Lunch)

September 29, 2010

in Miscellaneous

An interesting debate has been (involuntarily?) started by this article by Helienne Lindvall on one of The Guardian’s blogs. In short, the author states that “it’s ironic that advocates of free online content charge hefty fees to speak at events”. She goes on to cite some of these speakers including Cory Doctorow, Chris Anderson (Wired), Gerd Leonhard and Larry Lessig amongst others (disclaimer: I had all of those as speakers in different conferences I managed or was involved with).

Some comments follow but the conversation becomes interesting when one of the aforementioned, Cory Doctorow, enters the arena by offering a full disclosure of his presentations and associated fees for the last six months (including PICNIC of which I’m the marketing manager). Doctorow’s message shows how his earnings due to speaking engagements in that time period were near to zero (not including travel and accommodation expenses).

Cory Doctorow speaking at PICNIC '10 (photo by Maurice Mikkers)

Lindvall writes:

But what does Doctorow speak about? Well, ironically, he’s a proponent of giving away content for free as a business model – and for years he’s been telling the music industry to adapt to it. Am I the only one to see the irony in this?

And Doctorow answers:

My fee isn’t anything like the sum you mention, and almost all of the speaking I do, I don’t charge for at all.

Mostly, though, I turn down paid and unpaid lecture invitations, since I prefer to spend time at home with my family and my writing.

and then:

Though to be fair, it is true that when someone from a big corporate trade-show or symposium calls me up and asks me to speak at their for-profit event (especially when that event is far from home, meaning a departure from my family and time away from my income-generating writing), I generally name a large sum ($15,000 or so), on the grounds that if someone’s willing to pay that much, I’d be nuts to turn it down. It doesn’t happen very often, though — and to be frank, I’ve often gone for substantially less.

In my opinion, Lindvall mixes two different arguments into her initial provocation:

1- That some speakers ask for high fees, seemingly disproportionate if compared to other professions/people

It all rotates around the demand-offer mechanism, that’s not exclusive to the public speaking business (think of the salaries of top football players). If someone is asking for a high fee, it means that -most probably- there’s someone willing to pay for it. To create a better picture of what happens in the conference industry, the author should consider different scenarios: a) for profit events, b) non-profit events and c) the career situation of the speaker.

I had all of the speakers mentioned above (Doctorow, Anderson, Leonhard, Lessig) in several of the conferences I organized or was involved with, and the situation was very different when it was a for-profit or non-profit event. In the second case, we never paid the speakers a fee, we did cover their travel & hotel expenses. It also happened occasionally that when an event was not only non-profit but for a strong cultural cause, some of them went through personal extra effort to be present, like when Larry Lessig came to Milan for less than 24 hours to speak at Meet the Media Guru on the power of the Internet to change democracy and politics. A different situation arises when the conference is a for-profit project, like those I used to run for HSM (including the World Business Forum and World Marketing Forum). If we spend a budget with 5 zeroes on program (aka speaker fees) it’s because we’re expecting to generate revenue for much more than that… and hey, if we want to make money, so do the speakers. Names like Bill Clinton and Michael Porter are very expensive, and we still payed what they asked for because we could sell enough tickets to cover that and make a profit. I don’t see a conflict of interests here, independently of the message they wanted to spread (be it free culture, new business models, etc).

The third scenario is connected to the current situation of the speaker. When they’re about to publish/just published a book, many speakers are willing to sacrifice part of their fee for the benefits of extra exposure, which might mean higher sales. Also, the speaking cycle of a speaker is not a flat line. It will have peaks, which equal higher fees, when they are most popular or sought-after and troughs when less well known or not-so-marketable.

2- The validity of the theories/message being spread by these speakers, especially when related to the concept of Free(mium) online

The author makes an oversimplified description of the “free” theory by Chris Anderson (article on Wired, book on Amazon), of which Doctorow is also an advocate (with his own twist to it).

“These speakers come from the starting point that all intellectual content has to go through the web, while completely discounting individual choices.” writes Lindvall

Independently of the discussion on the accuracy of the (business) model described by Chris Anderson, which is out of the scope of this article, speakers have spoken about tons of theories, models and predictions that have become true or not, and that will always happen. Like with music, some musicians might appeal (or not) to broader or smaller audiences, but the fact that you consider them good or not shouldn’t imply that you book them or not for a gig.

As a conference organizer, I wish many speakers were more available (like Seth Godin, also mentioned in the original article), as this would allow me to either make more money or assure their presence in my events. But this would lower the barrier to my competitors too, reduce the value of having that particular person, etc

If you’re interested in this argument, I suggest you read through the comments posted in the Guardian’s article, as many of them offer very interesting insights and facts about the reality of the speaker business.

  • Jef Menguin

    Thank you for giving your balance view. As a speaker, there are occasions when clients offer me a fee five times than my last one. I readily accept. The same fee will be offered to someone else. Besides, they are not paying me per words that I say. As speakers, we provide great value and what we get is just small portion of what we have given,

    Fifteen thousand dollars is peanuts if you, as a speaker, were able to help the organizations earned millions more.

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