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Intelligence for Hire

With print book sales in decline in some genres, and price point on ebooks looking set to tumble, everyone involved in the book publishing industry is looking at new revenue streams for writers. For a long time the ‘printed book’ has not been the single money-spinner for authors – serialisation, film and television deals and events all make up part of a writer’s income.

When the music industry faced the shift to digital there was a huge proliferation of live music events offering some consolation to the dip in music sales. Similarly there seems to have been a proliferation in book festivals and other book events. At Latitude Festival last weekend thousands of people were turning up at book events, and not just for household names – events like the Literary Death Match/Fiction Uncovered event featuring up-and-coming writers attracted hundreds of listeners.

So could live events really help create a new revenue stream for authors and agents? Patrick Walsh, co-founder of literary agency Conville & Walsh, certainly believes so. The agency has just launched Hire Intelligence – a speakers agency ‘devoted to two ideas: expertise and charisma.

We asked Patrick Walsh if this was a delibere attempt at creating a new revenue stream for authors?

“Can a separate or additional revenue stream ever be a bad thing?” asks Walsh. “An author can’t automatically assume that they will be able to live off their primary advance, especially in today’s relatively fragile ecosystem. But more than that, Hire Intelligence is a part of our wider efforts to raise the profile of the authors we work with, which is becoming crucial, especially in America. Now, at least in non-fiction, you have to sell a person as much as their project, and that’s something we wanted to take very seriously. Where we think we’re doing something different with Hire Intelligence is in focussing our initial efforts on real experts, translating their hard-won knowledge for the lay audience, and charging a healthy fee for doing so.”

Traditionally author events or festival appearances have taken place around the same time as publication date of a book, but Hire Intelligence doesn’t intend to restrict itself to that timing.

Walsh explains,

“The publishing publicity tour is an artificial one, in a way, in that it tends to have the exclusive function of promoting a specific product. What we’re trying to do is to engage people in big ideas, and to do that we need people who have the expertise, and who can explain their work to a general audience, which means they’ve probably written a book.”

Their lectures need not relate to a particular project, though it can be very successful when they do – as with Andrea Wulf’s recent 40 date lecture tour of America for The Founding Gardeners. That tour took her ten weeks and 36 flights, so you have to have the time and energy, but she sold books at every event and already has bookings for three more lecture tours of the States. Plus she was making a good fee for every single lecture, and 40 x good = great.”

With Hay’s growing portfolio of literary events, Edinburgh Book Festival, Ways with Words, Port Eliot, Salon London and Latitude festival – to name but a few – there certainly seem to be an abundance of speaker opportunities for writers these days – though it’s fair to say that these aren’t always paid gigs. Hire Intelligence is an official partner of the Voewood Festival this year – a brand new literary festival in North Norfolk being organised by Walsh’s business partner, Clare Conville. The festival will be launching this August at a beautiful stately home owned by a friend of hers. Beth Orton will be singing and people like Diana Athill speaking, amongst numerous others, over 3 days.

“We’ll have our own Hire Intelligence marquee there, so we’ve got off to a flying start. Plus we’re thinking of designing a lecture series with the London School of Economics and other partners for the autumn. But the income that authors can expect to receive from literary festivals is often negligible, and many of them are run only to break even. I’m not personally of that school of thought who thinks authors should be lavishly paid for book festivals – with Hire Intelligence and big business events that’s entirely different.

So if the income that authors can expect from literary festivals is often neglible, then where are the other speaker opportunities.

Walsh says, “We certainly think that our speakers have something to say to the corporate sector. A lot of companies don’t necessarily want a Bond Analyst to come and talk to their team of Bond Analysts. They want people who can approach their field in a new way, and I think there are some really interesting points of crossover emerging: military historians who can talk about leadership and logistics; historians of architecture who can talk about the future of cities; psychologists who can give us insights into persuasion, or creativity, or luck. Their knowledge need not be consigned to academic discussions, and we’re intent on working with people who can boil down complex ideas and apply them to a much broader audience.”

The launch of Hire Intelligence echoes moves being made by other agencies and literary organisations around the world. As Dan Kieran from Unbound suggested at the FutureBook Innovation Workshop, Unbound is “trying to monetize what authors are already doing“. Publishers are also getting in on the act, with the Faber Academy events now a serious revenue stream for the publisher.

Have authors given away too much for free to date? And where are the other pots of unexploited revenue streams?

“There are, of course, some agents who are beginning to publish unexploited backlist titles as ebooks, which seems to be a sensible way for authors to make their work accessible when it wouldn’t necessarily be otherwise. With speaking events, people do sometimes ask authors to appear for free when the company running the event stands to make a huge profit, and this does seem completely unethical, especially when an author’s value lies in their intellectual property. But as a general rule, I think the ‘Nanny says you have to spend to get’ maxim holds true with literary festivals: authors are happy to buy a computer or a print cartridge, and most of them are similarly happy to spend a fun day out at a literary festival, meeting and making readers, having their travel costs covered and maybe receiving small stipend. There’s a joy to some of those events.. Indeed some authors have started organising their own Festivals – look at James Holland, for instance, whose Chalke Valley History Festival launches on the 7th of July in Wiltshire, with an incredibly starry list of historians participating, across a spectrum from Max Hastings to Anthony Beevor.”

One thing is for certain, no-one is standing still in this extraordinary epoch of book publishing. The move into events represents a change in the way literary agents are thinking and working. So what will a Future Agent look like?

“Anyone who represents clients wants to build them a career, not just negotiate a deal,” says Walsh.”It’s in everyone’s interests that they are successful over time, and increasingly this means agents taking control of areas that they might not have before, just as authors now have a significant vested interest in engaging with social media, and publishers are harnessing the power of viral marketing and mixed media projects. Everyone has to be versatile. E.M. Forster’s ‘Only Connect’ applies regardless of how. We’re living through an exciting period which reminds me of those late JG Ballard novels in which the people running quiet and safe gated communities would arrange a burglary, or kill someone, to shake and excite everybody: that’s exactly what ebooks, apps and indeed all the new media possibilities are doing to the publishing world. They’re waking us all up. No-one’s all that clear about what the publishing world will look like in a few years, but I’m 100% convinced that good books and good authors will continue to enjoy loyal and loving readerships. The processes may be different, but that won’t be.”

Hire Intelligence is partnering with Voewood Literary Festival in August 2011.

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