Sean Dail’s comment to last night’s post got me thinking about the whole concept of speaking to promote one’s books concept of marketing. I’ve done a tremendous amount of this over the course of the last ten years. I’ve always taken the attitude that when I speak, I have a room full of potential book buyers in front of me. Sometimes, people do buy, but more often than not, they don’t. Some groups are better about it than others, and some are downright terrible about it.
I rarely charge other than some travel money for speaking engagements for this reason. Don’t get me wrong–if it’s part of a commercial enterprise, then I fully expect to get my fair share of the pie. Conferences usually pay pretty well, which is why I readily accept invitations to participate in them. However, the overwhelming majority of Civil War Roundtables can’t afford to pay stipends, and most don’t. Most will cover travel expenses, but there are even a handful that won’t do that. Virtually all will offer the opportunity to sell books.
Over the course of the past ten years, I’ve easily spoken to 40 or 50 Roundtables around the country, some more than once. It’s enabled me to visit places I might not otherwise have gotten to see, such as my trip to New Orleans and Austin this past spring. More often than not, it wears me out. The travel is tiring, and so is the actual act of speaking. I rarely sell more than half a dozen or so books, so it’s questionable whether there’s enough of a financial reward to make it worth the while. To be honest, after nearly fifteen years of doing it regularly (literally hundreds of times), I’m beginning to grow a bit weary of the whole thing. I still enjoy the interaction with the public, but one can only get so excited about doing the same talk for the 100th time.
Stephen W. Sears does not accept speaking engagements at all. He calls it the “cannonball circuit.” I first heard that Steve doesn’t do speaking engagements in 1990 or so when I was the program chairman of our Civil War Roundtable and contacted him to invite him to speak. He has never elaborated for me the reasons why he chooses not to do speaking engagements, and I’ve never asked. I always figured that if he wanted me to know, he would have told me.
Likewise, I know that Bill Frassanito has stopped doing speaking engagements. Bill told me that in person the last time that I was in Gettysburg. Bill would prefer to sit down with his legion of fans at the Reliance Mine Saloon and enjoy an adult beverage or two, in an effort to engage in some direct sales techniques.
First, I’m not a traveling bookstore. I’ve never carried with me books to sign. There are plenty of ways to obtain my writings, and frankly I think it’s somewhat embarrassing, even humiliating, to assume we are there to peddle our wares. If I want to publicize something, there are far more effective ways to reach a far larger audience.
Second, I don’t speak before general groups in order to sell books or to make money. I don’t see my appearances as a book tour. It’s flattering to have people ask me to sign books, but I don’t travel to sell books: that would be financially counterproductive. An honorarium is always appreciated, but in some cases I’ve actually helped groups out by not charging certain expenses so they can use that money to do preservation work. There are much better and easier ways to make more money in the same amount of time; if anything these trips eat into the time and energy I have for such enterprises.
Third, I speak because I suppose people want to hear what I have to say about something. I don’t have a folder of recycled talks. I do what I can to make each talk fresh and different, and the instances where I have returned to a previous talk are rare.
Fourth, although many people are very appreciative and kind, I do detect in a few members of the audience some of the traits Mark has highlighted. I don’t think a CWRT or any other group is doing me a professional favor by having me come and talk. Rather, what I’m doing is a professional courtesy. I am very surprised when people in other white collar professions treat me in ways they would not be treated, and expect me to give away for free knowledge and insight for which they would charge … and then assume that I should be grateful for that opportunity. What makes that even more amusing is to hear mumblings afterward that some people ascribe to me behavior they exhibited in my presence: some folks actually like to demean what I do by saying, “that’s your opinion,” “I know better,” or whatever. I don’t think they would take that so kindly if they were the “expert” being consulted; if you are going to treat me that way, then why have me come in the first place, and why do you show up? This said, these encounters with smugness and condescension are the exception, not the rule, in my experience. Then again, I’ve never spoken before some of the groups Mark and Kevin Levin have mentioned.
Mark Grimsley makes similar points. There is a great deal of validity to what they both say.
To be honest, I’m beginning to re-think the whole strategy of promoting my books through speaking to Civil War Roundtables. Each trip keeps me from doing client work that I get paid to do, and each trip prevents me from working on my various research projects and the like. I’m just not sure how many more Roundtable talks I’m going to agree to do that require me to travel more than an hour or two for these reasons.
Let me throw it open to you, my readers. What do you all think about this issue? Please feel free to speak freely; nobody is being graded on this, and it helps me to make some important decisions.Scridb filter