First and most important: if at all possible,
Get an agent
This can’t be overstated. If you think signing with an agency of speakers’ bureau is a luxury, or not worth it, think again.
What do agencies like David Lavin (where I’m signed) provide?
They have access to venues that you don’t know about, or could never get into. Lots of big conferences, or small conferences with big budgets, will look to an agency for a top-notch keynote speaker. If you’re putting a conference together, you don’t want to chase down keynote speakers, negotiate their travel arrangements, etc.; you want to hand that off to someone else. That someone else is an agency.
Agents will also ask for far larger sums of money than you’d ever get on your own. They know the market rates, they can make very well-informed guesses about how big a budget a particular client has, and they have the nerve to ask for several times what you think you’re worth. If you’re coming out of the academic world, you’re probably used to thinking that travel costs and $500 is a good deal. Agents take a cut of your speaking fee— 30% seems to be the norm— but 70% of what they can get you is still a LOT bigger than 100% of what you can get negotiating on your own.
Unless you have a bestseller, agencies offer a level of street cred that your unagented self does not have. Agencies guarantee a level of professionalism that other people might or might not have; they certainly have an interest in only representing people who know how to be professionals.
Agents also oversee travel arrangements, or work with travel agents and local coordinators to make sure you’re taken care of. They know your preferences, your frequent flyer account numbers, whether you’re allergic to down pillows, etc. It’s a lot easier than managing all that stuff yourself.
They’ll also serve as a conduit to the client, getting your needs and preferences on their agenda; they occasionally also serve as an insulator from really demanding or nervous clients.
But a relationship with an agent also forces you to be serious.
Having an agent signals to yourself and the market a degree of commitment that not everyone has. Anyone can condescend to speak in Davos or Aspen, or hang out with the cool kids. Only the pros will do a one-day trip to a regional conference in Davenport or Akron, and take it as seriously as PopTech or TED.
Every now and then I get to go to places that are really nice; most of the time, I’m going wherever the work is. You need to be able to say yes to these smaller, less glamorous venues, because unless your name is Malcolm Gladwell or Niall Ferguson, that’s where the business is.
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