I’ve been meaning to write about Walt’s great Cites and Insights piece on conference speaking. If you haven’t already read it, do take a look. He combines insights from Rachel Singer Gordon, Dorothea Salo, Jessamyn West and 90 people who participated in Rachel’s survey on the subject with his own insights to create a really amazing guide to the in’s and out’s of conference speaking. There are so many pieces of advice on there that are real gems. I rarely get agreements in writing when I do talks, and I’m starting to think that I should do it every time and be very specific about my expectations (like not to have to wait two months to get reimbursed, not to have to wait an hour at the airport to take a courtesy shuttle, not to stay in a really scary/dirty hotel, etc.). It’s really a learning curve though; you learn from mistakes (yours and theirs). But, gosh, it is so helpful to have advice like this out in the open!

When people first started asking me to speak at things, I was so flattered to be asked that it didn’t even occur to me to get paid to do it. I remember when I was asked for the first time to suggest an honorarium, I said $20. :) I remember when I got free registration for Computers in Libraries just for doing a CyberTour, I thought I’d hit the jackpot! Soon, I was getting asked to speak at lots of conferences and was at the point where I had to start saying no because I do have a day job that expects me to come in and do my work. I still say yes to more than I should and it has caused me some anxiety since I work on my presentations on nights and weekends and have largely given my free-time up to “my other job”. So I’m learning to be more selective; and part of that is deciding what my criteria is for saying yes or no to a presentation. Part of that decision-making process has to come down to money. If one group is offers a four figure honorarium to speak and another offers nothing, realistically, most people would take the former of the two.

I really do love speaking, but it takes a significant amount of work to create and give a talk, especially certain talks. And for me, it can be an anxiety-inducing experience. I’m not someone who naturally loves performing, though I give a good and enthusiastic talk. And I’m extremely critical of my performance. I refuse to put less than 100% into every presentation I give, which makes the prep work time-consuming. I spent an entire weekend working on a presentation that I’m giving this Spring on social software in higher education. And that’s just the slides! Then there’s the travel aspect; dealing with the airport, flying, missing work, going to a strange hotel (which can range from lovely to sketchy), leaving my husband or paying to bring him, etc. There is significant cost involved in speaking at conferences, though once I’m on stage, I end up having a great time. And it is so gratifying to hear from people weeks and months later who say that your talk inspired them to implement a wiki (or some other technology) at their library. But (wo)man cannot live on gratification alone.

And it’s totally different for those on the tenure track. Obviously, people who are working towards tenure have different requirements. At a lot of institutions, you get more points for speaking at an ASIS&T than you would for speaking at a Computers in Libraries. So your expectations for compensation may be different and your compensation likely comes in the form of a higher salary and higher rank. Here, there is no moving up. Whether I speak at conferences, write articles and books or do none of it is going to have no effect on what I get paid and what my rank is. I do this for the pleasure of helping others, but it is work, and I’ve come to the realization that it isn’t crass to ask to be paid for one’s hard work. However, I don’t have any problem contributing to the profession for nothing when it comes to creating things like Five Weeks to a Social Library and Library Success: A Best Practices Wiki. But if people are paying an organization to hear someone speak, shouldn’t the speaker get compensated?

I know there are some librarians who have very hard and fast rules regarding how much they get paid to give a talk. I know that for me, how much definitely fluctuates given a number of factors:

  • If I am a member of the organization.
  • If the talk is in-state or very local.
  • How far I have to travel, how many connections I have to make, if time-zones and involved, and weather issues (flying into or out of Vermont in December – March can be troublesome)
  • If the organization is one whose mission is all about freeing information (like the SirsiDynix Institute or OPAL) or if I feel some sort of connection to the organization even though I’m not a member.
  • If the talk is at a conference I would like to attend because of the subject matter or because friends of mine will also be speaking there.
  • If the talk would help me make important connections or would be really good for my career (this is obviously very subjective).
  • If it’s a student organization asking me to speak.
  • If the conference is in a location I would kill to visit (Hawaii, Alaska, Denmark, France and Australia/New Zealand wouldn’t have to pay a dime beyond my travel and a few nights’ hotel to have me speak there)

A mentor of mine told me that I should always specify a fee that would make me happy if they agreed and not unhappy if they didn’t. He also told me that I should probably add $500 to whatever I think I’m worth, because usually people undervalue themselves. It is a lesson I have tried to pass on to friends of mine whose stars in the speaking world are rapidly rising and who like me started off greatly undervaluing their worth.

I was recently asked to speak at a semi-local conference (New England) and was told that they would reimburse me for travel, but could not pay an honorarium for folks who live in New England. Since this is a group that does represent me, although I’m not a member, I was ok with that. I really like to meet other librarians in New England, so I rationalized that the networking factor was my honorarium. If the talk required a plane ride, I would have felt differently. Later on, I was told that they actually couldn’t give me anything but a single meal and free registration for the day I speak. That’s a horse of a different color. So I would basically either have to leave the house at 4 am the morning of my talk or stay in a hotel the night before in order to speak at the conference. If I was going anyway and was a member, I would be inclined to take a deal like that. I’m giving either 3 or 4 talks at ALA Annual this year, and they do not pay their members to speak, but I was already planning to go. And the pleasure of giving a talk with Tim Spaulding is really payment enough. :)

Last year, I was asked to speak at a conference for which I was offered $1000. That didn’t sound bad for an hour-long talk in my own time zone until I was told that I’d have to use that $1000 to pay for my airfare, hotel, and in that case a car rental since there wasn’t an airport nearby. I started looking at airfares to that location and found that it would cost around $600 to get from Vermont to there. So between that, the car rental, the hotel and food, I’d be lucky if I didn’t end up losing money. It’s important to get as much information as possible before agreeing to speak and factor in all of the hidden or not-so-hidden costs of speaking and travel into your decision. Some organizations (especially state colleges and universities) are very limited in what they can reimburse for and the person asking you to speak may either not have all the information or may just not tell you until it’s too late to back out. I very recently learned my lesson with this and will from now on get all the information about what and how much they will reimburse for things in writing before I agree to speak. Communication from the conference organizers can make the difference between a terrible and a great conference experience.

There is so much taboo in the profession regarding speaking about money. I actually had someone laugh at me when I asked if I would get paid for writing an article that she asked me to write for an organization that had nothing to do with me. It made me feel ashamed. I have often said yes to things that didn’t pay because I felt like a bad person for saying no or for asking for money. And then I feel like an idiot when I hear that a friend, speaking at the same thing, is getting paid. I’m getting better at advocating for myself, but sometimes I do find myself feeling scared to ask for more than they originally offer. But when I say yes to less than I feel I deserve, I end up feeling bad about the whole thing and a bit resentful. My mentor is right that you need to ask for enough where you’ll feel good if they say yes, and not bad if they say no. If you want to go enough, lower your rates, but not so low that you’ll feel like your contribution is undervalued.

The moral of the story is, don’t do something unless you feel that you are being justly compensated. That compensation may come in the form of tenure, promotion, making important connections, seeing friends, satisfaction from doing good or making money. Just make sure that, after all the work, you won’t think to yourself “why did I do all this for so little?” It’s less about a specific dollar amount than about how you feel.

I hope discussions like this continue. This stuff does need to be more out in the open and I applaud Rachel, Jessamyn, Walt, Dorothea, and everyone who filled out that survey for their honesty.