rmurphey Adventures in JavaScript

Speaker Economics

2 Jan 2016 edit

Camille Fournier tweeted earlier today asking about the economics of conferences, and how that impacts whether speakers get paid to speak. This is something I've thought about a lot over the years, so I wanted to write a few things down.

I have the tiniest bit of rather outdated experience with running a couple of conferences; neither made a profit (intentionally), and both had low ticket prices and pretty decent lineups (especially considering the ticket prices). Speaker travel and accommodation costs were covered, though for one of the events, the speakers were friends who crashed at my house. In my limited experience, running a "community" conference is risky, exhausting, rewarding, and more expensive than you want it to be. Still, I feel strongly that it borders on unethical to not at least cover speaker costs. No one has a "right" to run a conference, and if you have to make speakers pay their own way, you shouldn't be running one. Find more sponsors, raise ticket prices, fire the hotel that charges you $5 for a can of soda — but figure it out.

Most of my conference experience is as a speaker. I've received small honoraria for speaking at a few events, but otherwise, my speaking has been unpaid beyond having airfare and accommodation covered. When traveling for conferences, I pay for many of my own meals, and almost always pay for airport transportation, parking, and other miscellaneous expenses. I am well paid, so none of this is a hardship, but that's not true for everyone. For most of my speaking career, it has been part of the terms of my employment that I could travel to speak at conferences without using vacation time. In return, I mention my employer at the beginning and end of each talk.

It may seem that whether speakers get paid is a function of a conference's budget, but I have a hunch that it's a matter of another sort of economics. I think conferences don't pay speakers because conferences don't have to pay speakers. Supply so exceeds demand — see, for example, the 279 proposals that CascadiaFest received for approximately 30 speaking slots — that there is little incentive for conferences to pay. Indeed, the incentive seems to be the opposite — there are so many people willing to speak that new events are popping up constantly.

"But conferences want good speakers," you say. It's devilishly difficult to define and identify "good"; speakers who have been stars at past events may be duds at future ones, and no-name speakers may bring down the house, cementing an event's credibility for years to come. Complicating things further, the speaker you think is a disappointment can be another attendee's favorite — people are weird that way. Conferences can create an overall experience that dulls the impact of bad speakers, and they can mentor inexperienced speakers to further reduce the risk.

Certainly, there are speakers whose presence in the lineup will speed ticket sales with the promise of both entertainment and quality content, ensuring critical cash flow to pay the venues and vendors who want money up front. Maybe those speakers should get paid? The problem with that: they often already are paid, by companies who have noticed their talent for speaking and communicating and have hired them to do exactly that. Their presence on the speaking circuit — and their companies' (often unspoken) sponsorship of that presence — serves to further ensure that there's ample supply of free speakers (often of the young-ish white male variety).

Speaking at conferences altered the trajectory of my career, but the professional benefits for me are now incremental at best, and there are other ways to make an impact on — and remain visible in — the community. I've made my peace with not getting paid by making sure my employer places some monetary value on my speaking — that is, that they let me save vacation time for vacation. I also choose conferences that take me to places I want to go, to see people I want to see. I long ago decided to feel no shame in developing talks with a long shelf life, rather than trying to come up with something new for every event. Finally, I've stopped feeling obligated to immerse myself in the conference experience — for $0, my obligation is fulfilled when I get off stage, and there's a good chance you'll find me out to dinner with a friend rather than at the after-party.

And that's the unfortunate part: attendees may think their ticket includes time with the speakers, but many popular but unpaid speakers eventually stop making that part of the deal. There's only so much of your time and energy you can give away for free, even (especially?) when there's an open bar.

I don't think it's fair to speakers that they spend so much time — time working on their talks, time away from family, time away from work — without compensation. I think this unfairness particularly impacts speakers who are minorities in the tech world and already, in aggregate, at a financial and political disadvantage. As Camille points out, though, the response to a request for compensation is generally dead air. There are simply too many other good — or at least good-enough — options.