I receive many requests to lecture at universities and conventions and am able to accept only a fraction of them.
Sometimes people think this is because a school can’t afford the fee quoted by a speaking agent, and they get upset. It’s actually a lot more complicated than that and I’m going to try to explain.
First off, let me say that, like most people, I don’t much like discussing my income. However, the people who tend to invite me to speak at their schools and conventions are overwhelmingly supportive readers and allies in the climate movement. Without them, my work would be impossible. So I am going to try to clarify how we pay the bills at my office, Klein Lewis Productions, and where speaking fees fit in.
The first thing to understand is that unlike a lot of people who are on the speaking circuit, I do not have a university job and I am not on salary at a newspaper, magazine, or NGO. Since I stopped writing a regular column several years ago, my two main sources of income are book advances/royalties and speaking fees from guest lecturing at universities. (I don’t consult.)
Out of this income comes not only personal expenses for my family but salaries for a researcher as well as the manager of Klein Lewis Productions (without institutional support, I don’t have support staff or research supplied to me, and pay everyone who works for KLP a fair and living wage).
When I am on a book deadline—which is most of the time—I barely give speeches at all. During the years that I was writing This Changes Everything, I spoke at a few urgent anti-pipeline rallies but only accepted two paid university speeches. I could afford to do this because my research staff and I were being supported by book advances, as well as by a couple grants.
When I am in between major projects, I do a fair bit of speaking. The vast majority of these speeches are unpaid: they are movement events like this one; or small gatherings with climate and labour activists; or book/film launches that my publisher or film distributor arranges. As much as I can I Skype into conferences and launches like this one and this one, also unpaid.
Since I do not want to be on the road constantly (I have a toddler), that leaves only a few weeks a year available to fulfill requests to guest lecture at universities or conventions.
I give these weeks over to a speaking agent (I recently signed exclusively with the Lavin Agency) and they do their best to make my limited availability match up with the requests.
The fees quoted by Lavin are based on the budgets the schools have (which the agent usually knows from previous bookings). There is a sliding scale depending on the school’s budget for outside speakers. The speaking agent keeps 20-25 per cent of the quoted fee.
We also have an agreement that community and activist groups must never be quoted a fee since I don’t charge for those speeches. Those requests get referred to my office.
This income—from speeches and from books—allows me to do what takes up the bulk of my time and what I most enjoy: unpaid political work within the climate justice movement. The work I do with groups like 350.org is volunteer. So is the work I do on projects like The Leap Manifesto. So is my writing for our blog. The five-year-long documentary film project that my husband Avi and I just completed made no economic sense for either of us—but we think it makes political sense.
So when a university pays me a fee to speak, it can seem high. And often it is high. But the truth is that I only do a handful of such speeches a year and they subsidize all this other unpaid or marginally paid work. Not just for me, but for an amazing group of people who are also working hard on things that are valuable but not economically valued in our current system.
I sometimes hear from students or professors at a school who are upset by the fees quoted—how can I preach anti-capitalism while getting paid thousands of dollars to speak? Why won’t I donate my time to “the leaders of tomorrow?” (That came from an MIT professor, who presumably draws a hefty salary). There is sometimes an assumption that if I was paid a fee once, I must be getting it every time I leave the house (rather than a few times a year). Others assume that if I turn down a speaking request it must be because of the money—and not simply that I have surpassed the number of days I can reasonably spend away from my three-year-old.
I get it. I remember being shocked as an undergrad that anti-establishment writers who I loved were being paid thousands of dollars to speak at my school. And as a writer, I fervently wish that there was a way to make my work consistently available for free, whether books or speeches. I just haven’t figured out how—not with the kind of overhead that research-intensive non-fiction carries.
One last important point: the speaking agent is only permitted to ask for fees from groups that have money set aside for this purpose. Occasionally, an agent makes a mistake and quotes a fee that is totally inappropriate given a group’s budget. Or they quote a fee to a grassroots group for whom I would be happy to do an unpaid fundraiser.
Fortunately, this happens rarely. But if it happens to you, please email Jackie Joiner at Klein Lewis Productions (firstname.lastname@example.org) and let her know immediately. We need this feedback to prevent misunderstandings.
Finally, please know that there is nothing more important to me than the relationship of trust that I have built up with my readers over many years. That’s why I have chosen to explain our complex finances as best I can. And, likewise, I am relying on you to let us know if anything happens in my name that doesn’t sound right.
Thanks for reading and see you out there!
–Naomi Klein, September 2015