Why do authors get paid to give speeches?

Photo: Stephen Hawking at Texas A&M

Any author will tell you: the money’s in the speeches.

A slightly successful author gets occasional gigs and small fees. A moderately successful author gets regular bookings and decent fees. A monster bestselling author is getting rich off royalties — which is very rare — but she’s also getting paid an awful lot to speak.

Let’s take a look at what skills a moderately successful non-fiction author has:

  • Has had a good idea. (Maybe even more than one idea, maybe not.)
  • Can put words together.
  • Can tell a story in print.
  • Understands how to talk to people.
  • Presumably has some promotional skills.

What skills does a really good public speaker have?

  • Presents well, is entertaining.
  • Has a flair for the dramatic.
  • Can use their voice and perform, as an actor would.
  • Has either a good sense of humor or good storytelling ability or both.

So the author and the speaker are both good storytellers with ideas. But lots of good writers are introverts. There is no particular reason for an author to be good on stage. And I’ve seen plenty of bombs. Malcolm Gladwell is not the best speaker in the world, but he gets some pretty impressive fees.

In some sense, the story of the author/speaker is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the author sells books, he’s going to get offers to speak. His name will sell tickets to the event. He will have something to say, and he will be able to tell a story. Since he does not wish to disappoint, he will put together a speech. The audience, since they know the speaker’s name and ideas, will give the speaker the benefit of the doubt. The audience will listen and, if there is something to gain from the speech, will forgive flaws. As for the speaker, he will learn from that experience. If he speaks enough, he’ll get better, especially if he hires a speaking coach. And so, he will become a pretty good speaker, if not a great one.

I’m not complaining — I love to give speeches, and I’m glad that as an author I get to do that. So keep hiring authors to give speeches. We’ll try to live up to your expectations.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


  1. Don’t use “she”, it feels like gratuitous pandering to equality, as if the first instinct was to use “he”, but to be good, switch to a “she”. Use “they”, I think.

  2. I am perplexed by this post. It feels ‘off course’ for you and more of a passive-aggressive attempt to get invited to speaking engagements. You’re better than that!

    1. Sorry to perplex you. I honestly feel like it’s some sort of an anomaly that all authors give speeches, so I thought that was worth noodling on.

      Not my usual definitive statement, I’ll give you that.

  3. Two things.

    First, I pluralize and use “they” because I don’t like the way the singular “they” sounds at all (chalk on blackboard). Doing this always makes me very happy.

    Second, I know (very well) the head of a well-respected speaker’s bureau, Jeff Tobe, and would be thrilled to introduce you to him. He’d love to represent you, I’m sure. He used to live a few streets down from me. I apologize for not sending you a note about him earlier, so I’m glad you wrote this post. Send me a note if you’d like and I’ll set you up. Continued best of luck, Josh.