Speaking on Writing: the Lecture Circuit

Today’s New York Times book review carries an essay by Rachel Donadio entitled “More Bang for the Book.” In it Ms. Donadio makes the point that “in recent years, a growing number of writers, from the best-selling to the less so, have hit the rubber-chicken circuit, speaking at colleges and businesses, chambers of commerce, trade fairs and medical conventions.”

“The most lucrative public speaking tends to be motivational,” she explains, citing Doris Kearns Goodwin’s success at commanding $40,000 for each engagement. These days there is money to be made on the lecture circuit.

In a journal entry dated January 11, 1857, at 39 years of age, American author Henry Thoreau wrote about his experience as a lecturer. He had already had two books published: A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Walden.

“For some years past I have partially offered myself as a lecturer; have been advertised as such several years. Yet I have had but two or three invitations to lecture in a year, and some years none at all. I congratulate myself on having been permitted to stay at home thus, I am so much richer for it. I do not see what I should have got of much value, but money, by going about, but I do see what I should have lost.…a longer and more liberal lease of life.”

According to the Times article, some writers, like Jim Harrison, author of True North, find book tours exhausting. “It was ruinous to my health and sanity,” Harrison comments. And for other writers, encounters with readers can be trying as well.

In a subsequent entry dated February 8, 1857, Thoreau observed: “The week that I go away to lecture, however much I may get for it, is unspeakably cheapened. The preceding and succeeding days are a mere sloping down and up from it.”

Unlike most modern writers turned lecturers, who “make a great account of their relations, more or less personal and direct, to many men, coming before them as lecturers, writers, or public men,” Thoreau viewed all this as “impertinent and unprofitable.” (January 11, 1857)

“I find it invariably true,” he noted, “the poorer I am, the richer I am.”


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