Besides providing editorial services for authors, I’m also an author myself of both a fiction and nonfiction book. My novel, I, Putin, will be the example I use throughout this blog post. I published my debut novel in January 2012, without speaking engagements lined up. I mean, at the time, I thought to myself, where do I find paid speaking engagements for authors? I started where most authors begin: the local library system. Let me tell you, I was not an anomaly. There are tons of authors vying for these speaking opportunities at libraries, and the librarians have no problem turning you down.
My first speaking gig was at a local library in my area. I didn’t research the event all that well, and was surprised at how many authors were speaking. I believe there were 30 of us, maybe more. Now that could be fine, potentially; however, the authors weren’t screened beforehand and there wasn’t a rehearsal. Instead of keeping to the two-minute window, authors became liberal with time, didn’t have speeches prepared, showed up in street clothes…and it came off as unprofessional. Unfortunately, I was associated with that unprofessionalism, though I was professional and prepared. By the way, this event was unpaid.
OK, next gig, I thought. I then continued on to do a string of speaking engagements at local libraries in affluent communities. Those went pretty well. One library I had to present my book to a committee and was chosen to speak. The result? They guaranteed 40 people minimum, and 14 people showed up—it was the coldest night of the year, literally. Another time, I had a fabulous event speaking to fabulous ladies. I spoke along with a New York Times bestselling author of many novels. Another big name author was supposed to join us but ended up being a no-show, much to the dismay of the librarians. However, that gave me a great opportunity to showcase my (prepared) speaking skills and my knowledge. I sold as many books as the NYT bestselling author that night. Again, all the aforementioned events were unpaid.
You must be seeing a pattern. You have to pay your dues in regard to speaking engagements. Some of you may have bypassed this phase, and if so, kudos to you. It took me two and a half years of building my speaking reputation and name to receive a paid speaking offer. I was well paid, though there was hardly an audience, and I showed up to do my best.
Here are my tips to build your speaking reputation:
1. Dress nicely – Jeans can be fine, if the venue calls for it. But put on makeup, fix your hair, and dress appropriately. I did a gig with two other authors in the nicest restaurant in the county, and they showed up in jeans, hair undone, and no makeup. They were 20 years my senior, and it looked unprofessional.
2. Prepare a speech – I don’t care how long or short the engagement is, prepare what you’re going to say. In the same speaking engagement discussed above, the authors didn’t prepare a ten-minute speech, as asked. They each rambled on for twenty minutes or more. The audience looked bored, and you could tell the authors were obviously unprepared, hence unprofessional. At another event, an author opened with: “I didn’t prepare anything. I’m just winging it.” NO!!! After that, he lost his audience. You must also prepare.
3. Practice your speech – Again, whether I’m speaking for two minutes or over an hour, I always have a speech prepared at least two weeks ahead of time. I practice it at least every weekday. For the week leading up to the event, I practice the speech every day.
4. Restaurant etiquette – If speaking at a restaurant, my priority is to go around and introduce myself to each and every table. That way the audience feels comfortable and gets to know me. This may not be possible, and if so, that’s fine. Sometimes, with the restaurant events, the manager feeds you along with the guests before the speech, so you’re eating by yourself with everyone watching. Ugh. I’m too nervous to eat and then I’m nervous because people may be watching me eat, I’m worried to get food stuck on my face, in between my teeth, etc. If you can chow down and feel comfortable, go for it. Next time, I’ll politely ask that my food be wrapped up for later.
5. Thank the venue/organizer – First and foremost at the beginning of my speech, I always thank the venue for hosting the event and the organizer. For example: “Thank you to X library for hosting this wonderful event, and a special thank you to Jane Doe for organizing it.”
6. Thank the audience – No matter how many people come, they took time out of their busy schedules to hear you speak. You owe them a thank you. Always end with: “And thank you so much to all of you for coming out on this rainy night. I really appreciate it. You’ve been a wonderful audience.”
In regard to the logistics of speaking engagements, to get started, find a library, restaurant, etc. that would have your target audience. For instance, I stay mainly with affluent areas since my book is about a world leader and encompasses current events. Then drop in the library with your book and a thirty-second pitch to the head librarian. Don’t waste her/his time. Immediately begin with something like this:
“I’m X. I’d like to introduce myself and my book, X. It has won X awards and hit X bestseller lists. I have spoken recently at X. Can I talk to you about speaking at your library?”
Now, you have to remember, libraries have no to little budget. You probably won’t get paid…until you do. Yep, that sucks, but that’s also life. Remember, you have to pay your dues.
Btw, you can also email the librarian in charge of speaking events with a brief pitch in the same style used above. Use hyperlinks to your book’s Amazon page, Goodreads page, book website, etc. At the end of your email, include your email address and cell or home phone.
Once at your gig, will you sell tons of books? Depends. Quite frankly, I don’t. I haven’t figured out why. I have audience members who tell me they “loved my speech.” I’ve been asked back to do more gigs, and still I really don’t sell that many paperbacks at these events. Meanwhile, my author friend who writes about local ghost stories sells paperbacks like hotcakes at speaking gigs. (However, his books hardly sell online, while mine sell much better.) Also, some authors invite friends and family and they will sell well too. My family doesn’t live close by and I don’t invite friends, because I’m interested in having an authentic audience of people who don’t know me. One of my clients threw a book signing party and sold 70 signed copies (friends and family made up a good portion of the partygoers). Another author friend did a charity event for a major department store and sold 100 signed copies, with some of the proceeds going toward charity. Be inventive, be creative, and if you’re a nonfiction or fiction author who writes about a local topic (ghosts, famous places or people in/from the local area), you’ll have a much better shot of getting a larger audience and selling books.
When your time comes and you do get offered a paid speaking engagement, make sure the financial compensation is worth it. Factor in the time it will take to write and prepare your speech, within reason. Always sign a contract to ensure payment. Now that I’m getting paid to speak, I probably won’t do another unpaid gig, unless the venue/organizer can guarantee amazing exposure or something else. When you get to this point, it’s your choice. Once you get the hang of speaking gigs, you’ll know what to do.