Speaking fees: This one really isn’t my fight

When Jenny Levine expressed some frustration at ALA’s policy regarding speakers at ALA conferences who are ALA members–that is, no expenses, no free registration, nada–I commented that this wasn’t unusual for a professional assocation, and that I thought it made sense in terms of conflict of interest. You can see my comment among the growing multitude of comments, but here it is as well:

It’s a standard ALA policy that members of the organization can’t be paid for speeches at ALA conferences (that are part of the conference proper). That’s probably true of many organizations, as it’s fairly basic conflict-of-interest stuff. I think it’s a necessary ethical policy, in fact.

I suspect you’d find the same to be true of ASIST, for example, and probably most state library associations.

In other words, you’re not paying them to present at their conference–you’re paying them to attend your conference. If it’s “them,” then you’re not a member–and you should not only get in free, you should probably receive some compensation (not that I want to get PLA in trouble…). (At least, I’d demand a full-conference registration–but that’s me.)

I’m no Jeff Jarvis or Jenny Levine. I know damned well that if I’m not able or willing to participate, they can find someone else who can do just as good a job–particularly on a panel. And I’ve turned down a couple of invitations where the finances didn’t make sense.

You can read the whole sequence of comments. One person seemed to assume that I speak because of submitted proposals (never the case, at least in the last 10 years). Marydee Ojala confirmed that many (most?) professional associations bar expenses, honoraria, or freebies for internal speakers as a matter of policy. I see talk of petitions, suggestions that invited speakers are the only programs that conferences have (which has almost never been the case for state and national library conferences that I’ve attended), and so on and so on.

Lots of other bloggers have commented as well–including some of those who are “on the speaking circuit,” which I’ve never been and don’t want to be.

What I’ve learned from what I’ve seen yesterday and today (not including posts since 9 a.m. this morning, which I’ll read after posting this):

  • Quite a few frequent speakers apparently pay their own way–their own travel costs, hotel expenses, etc.–and do this quite a few times a year.
  • Some of the frequently-invited speakers don’t expect or get honoraria and pay their own way.
  • Although I haven’t seen it stated, I can only assume that some people work at places that don’t mind having them gone a very large percentage of the time–and it sounds as though some of them even get (limited) travel support for those speaking engagements.

All of which leads me to believe that I really have no business arguing for or against policies in today’s field, because I’m so out of touch with what’s going on, and likely to stay that way.

It’s not that I haven’t spoken. You can check my full vita here or (for PDF-haters) a selective vita here. When it says “[Invited]” that’s what it means: I did not submit a proposal, I wasn’t part of a planning process, I certainly don’t have an agent drumming up possibilities (all of my speeches put together might add up to one speaking fee for a “name” speaker, or they might not).

If it says “[Invited]” and it wasn’t in San Jose, Palo Alto, San Francisco, or somewhere else within about 45 miles of Mountain View (or during ALA, Midwinter, or the Charleston Conference), you can bet that whoever I was speaking to paid full expenses: travel (flights and ground transportation), hotel and meals (usually for the full conference, if it’s a conference: I try to attend the whole thing), registration. Most of the time, there was also an honorarium: not enough to get rich on, but maybe enough to cover a little of the vacation time and preparation time. After various extended negotiations due to misunderstanding, I’ve even put together a page laying out expectations for speeches.

That’s apparently peculiar for those who want to be known as speakers these days. Apparently, if you’re to be established as an Expert or as the Go-To Guru on a topic, you need to go for it–spend your own money and your own time so you can speak ten, fifteen, twenty times a year.

Maybe I was lucky. I never particularly thought of myself as an Expert on any topic, at least not enough of an Expert that you’d automatically invite me to speak on it. And I’ve never been in a position where tenure was a possibility or where professional speaking and writing had a direct impact on my job performance ratings or salary. So I had no particular motivation to beat the bushes for speaking invitations.

I had almost 14 good speaking years, some of them years when I turned down invitations because I was unwilling to be gone any more often (or work was reluctant to have me out too often, although that’s never been a huge issue). Invitations have declined recently, and that’s OK too.

I can only think of one or two cases where I turned down an invitation because of the size of honorarium or lack thereof, although one association made expense reimbursement so unpleasant–and generally was such a hassle to deal with–that when I was invited the next year I simply turned it down without further discussion. (Not a library association, fortunately–one in a semi-related field.)

In any case, I clearly don’t understand the dynamics of today’s frequent speakers, which means I don’t understand the dynamics of the whole speaker/conference situation these days. I don’t plan to change my own patterns; although I love state library conferences and the like, I don’t love them enough to subsidize them.

So I’m backing off on this discussion. Those who are on the speaking circuit (or who want to be) and those who rely on “circuit speakers” for their conference programming should debate the issues; I’ll lurk on this one.

14 Responses to “Speaking fees: This one really isn’t my fight”

  1. jessamyn says:

    I’ve been following this debate with interest both because of my position as an ALA Councilor and also as someone who gives quite a few talks a year. I have a general rule of thumb for talks which is this: I’ll talk to student groups for the cost of getting/staying there. I’ll talk to my local association for free at their conference. If I was not planning on attending any other part of the conference than whatever I was speaking at, I would not expect to pay registration. I’ve spoken at ALA for free when I was already planning on going to the rest of the conference. I get small honorariums and travel expenses to speak anyplace else AND I’ve never had to register, much less pay a registration fee.

    Watching this issue go over the Council list has been an eye opener. Many Councilors seems to think it’s some sort of mark of self-importance to want to be reimbursed, or at the very least not register. Many of them conflate the registration/honorarium issue which I think are two very different things. At least a few so far have written what I perceive as scathing responses to the original inquiries from Rochelle [and later myself] which I think were very mild and inquisitive, not at all damning.

    My distaste for this sort of rhetoric and presumption “Chalk it up to living life longer and better when you can freely give yourself to a greater cause – and expect nothing back. Not even a free registration or expenses paid.” is one of the things that is making me feel that Council and I may not see eye to eye enough on money issues to even move forward with topics like this.

  2. walt says:

    [On further reflection: If this isn’t my fight, it isn’t my fight. Period.]

  3. rochelle says:

    I was a bit surprised by some of the responses–I really thought I’d presented a valid concern and asked for clarification. To me, this is a much bigger issue than money, made clear by many of the responses. I think it’s the dismissive attitude and the absolute cluelessness about the shift going on in the profession. The model is so old-school. I understand and appreciate tradition, but old schools, if not tended to and upgraded, get rotten and become less appealing and useable. Time for a termite inspection?

  4. walt says:

    Rochelle, maybe you should comment with a link to the appropriate part of the Council list–I’m not (and never will be!) a councillor, and sounds like there’s stuff there that the rest of us need to see.

    I’m just staying out of the discussion for now, for complicated reasons.

  5. Just a note, connecting to our recent discussions – observe the power of A-list’ery:

    “Sure, this may be a flash in the
    biblioblogosphere, but Jenny’s blog is one of the most widely-read blogs,
    not just in our profession, but Web-wide. (A famous journalist was
    introduced to me earlier this year and–being a man of no internal
    filter–he said, “It’s nice to meet you, but I’d really rather meet Jenny
    Levine!”) This only underscores the disconnect between the conversation
    happening out there and the conversation happening in here…”

    (excerpt from one posting)

  6. walt says:

    It is indeed quite a thread. My only comment (I’m still trying to stay out of this!) is that I’ve spoken, twice, at one of the state associations referred to within the thread–and received full expenses and an honorarium in both cases.

    Of course, it’s not my state association (which I don’t belong to, where I have spoken, and where I did get a token payment to cover direct expenses as well as one-day registration).

    Sigh. I just renewed ALA and LITA membership online. Nothing to do with this post, but I thought long and hard about LITA…and, frankly, if ALA does increase its dues substantially, I’ll have to think even longer and harder. But that’s a different set of issues, one I raise once in a while at LITA-L.

    One little addition: Reading the council thread, I now have one clue as to why I’m not part of Information Today Inc’s traveling circus, er, series of conferences, even though I write two columns for their publications. I always figured it was because I didn’t have anything to say that they wanted to hear–but I now see that it may be partly for other pecuniary reasons. Good enough.

  7. Yes, but Seth, I was the one who made the so-called a-list comment and yet I’m happy with my c-list status, if that’s what it is. No one else at the conference seemed to care that I wasn’t Jenny Levine.

  8. In that long ALA thread, Janet Swan Hill wrote:

    “In any case, you have to remember that a speaker is doing you and the organization a favor, whether s/he belongs to the host organization or not. So if there are some things within your power to do to make the speaker feel valued and appreciated, or to uncomplicate her/his life, then do it. ”

    I truly like this sentiment. I have spoken at conferences and meeting in the information industry and for other groups, and have been amazed at how this topic is handled. I wish that more organizations realized that the speakers — invited/asked speakers — are doing them a favor, and sometimes the speaker shells out a lot of money to do that favor.

  9. Karen, I was aware of the potential for irony, but I thought commenting on thatmight be taken as a “dig”, and didn’t want to go there.

    My point, in the context of previous Cites & Insights discussions, was to note a real-time example for Walt, where the library world does have “its influential leaders, who can often (not always, but often) make an issue prominent or marginalize it.” We can see it right now, that Jenny Levine’s prominence, and how she writes on the issues, has an enormous effect on how the issue is perceived (quote: “This only underscores the disconnect between the conversation happening out there and the conversation happening in here”).

    That you are happy yourself doesn’t contradict this point in any way. Nor, more importantly, should it be taken as a rebuff that I should be happy myself.

    If we’re going to go down this path, note I’ve gone through the argument an exhausting number of times. It runs like this:

    [Please excuse a little exaggeration for effect. I’m trying to avoid strawmen, but also to clearly outline certain parts of the argument with bitter humor.]

    Resolved: Blogging (in terms of influences) is hierarchical and full of cronyism, where on a given topic, a very few “gatekeepers” wield enormous power over who is widely heard. If you’re not part of the club, you might as well talk to the wall for all you’ll be heard overall.

    Critic: I’m happy writing my diary, or chatting with my friends, or with whatever audience I have. I am content with my station in life. Aren’t you?

    Me: That’s nice. No. I’m not happy writing a diary, or chatting. I’m doing this to have an impact, and it’s not working.

    Critic: You’re saying diary/chat is bad! And since I enjoy diary/chat, you’re saying I’m a bad person!

    Me: No. I think diary/chat is fine, if that’s what you want. But it’s not what I want.

    Critic: Then you’re a bad person! And it’s not working because you’re thinking bad thoughts. You should never, ever, talk about how blogging isn’t the bestest most emergent revolutionary New Era Media. You deserve your lowly status, because you aren’t worthy, as shown by your disbelief in Blog Our Saviour.

    Me: That sounds like a classic catch-22, that nobody poor can ever write about inequality of wealth, or that psychic powers don’t work because of bad faith.

    [I could go on, but I already got carried away]

    Again, if you’re happy with your status, great. But, in general, I think it’s a reasonable feeling for others to be unhappy with their statuses. And more importantly, I believe the large structural factors of exponential distribution of influence in discussion, deserve far more recognition and incorporation into people’s understanding of the bogosphere.

  10. walt says:

    Seth: All good points, maybe a little tangential to this discussion (but I’m not deleting the comment)!.

    Jill: In the July 2002 Cites & Insights I commented on Janet Swan Hill’s American Libraries article, quite favorably. It continues to be the best set of guidelines for care & handling of an invited conference speaker that I’ve seen. (Now, how an ALCTS president and widely-published author gets to call herself a “lesser light” among librarians is another question…)

    Authority control: I had the devil’s own time tracking down my commentary, and for that matter the article itself, because her name appeared as “Janet Swan Hill” in the article, no hyphen–thus in the H’s, not the S’s.

  11. jessamyn says:

    Seth, why in your opinion is this an A-list issue? The fact that Jenny is notable in the blogging community is really just an outcropping of the fact that she’s notable in the library community generally. Karen was trying to drive that point home to a bunch of ALA Councilors who have a hard time getting their heads around the idea of bloggers having any sort of notability outside of the bloggish echo chamber. If you want to feel justified in being unhappy that your blog isn’t more popular or that the A-list power laws are keeping you somehow from getting the attention and/or respect that you rightly deserve, I don’t think anyone’s quibbling with you. However, I’m just sort of wondering what that has to do with what Walt is talking about?

  12. Jessamyn, I’m not saying the topic is an A-list issue in itself – it might be clearer if I explain again that I had in mind a context of the recent discussions in the C & I articles on Analogies, Gatekeepers and Blogging and Mea Culpa: Analogies, Gatekeepers and Blogging. I’m saying which voices get heard on the subject, and how much, is a neat example going on right now in front of us, of the themes just explored in those articles.

    The later part, against don’t-worry-be-happy, was merely a pre-emptive reply to, ahem, one particular thread-path the above observations tend to create (i.e., trying to cut it short so it doesn’t unfold into very well-worn channels, given that there’s also some context there …)

  13. Jessamyn, I’m not saying the topic is an A-list issue in itself – it might be clearer if I explain again that I had in mind a context of the recent discussions in the C & I articles on “Analogies, Gatekeepers and Blogging” and “Mea Culpa: Analogies, Gatekeepers and Blogging”. I’m saying which voices get heard on the subject, and how much, is a neat example going on right now in front of us, of the themes just explored in those articles.

    The later part, against don’t-worry-be-happy, was merely a pre-emptive reply to, ahem, one particular thread-path the above observations tend to create (i.e., trying to cut it short so it doesn’t unfold into very well-worn channels, given that there’s also some context there …)

    [Walt, free free to delete this comment when the version with links is approved out of the moderation queue – the links to your own site were sending it to limbo :-(]