School visits, a hopefully helpful guide by Bryony Pearce
First up, let me say that I am not an expert and I’m not claiming to be. I’ve been doing school visits for well over a year now, but there are authors out there who have been doing them for over twenty years and have a lot more insight than I do. However, I recently identified a need for debut authors to have some kind of central information source, so I thought a post about school visits from someone who has done a few would be helpful.
While planning this post I also polled a few friendly librarians and I include their comments as they are experts.
My first school visit was terrifying, I had no idea what to expect and the thought of receiving that ‘I’m bored’ look from a room full of teens gave me the shakes. I hope that my hints and tips below will alleviate those shakes a bit for some lovely debut authors.
Working with your publisher
Hopefully your publisher will be organising your first school visits for you. With any luck they’ll have asked you for a list of your local schools, will have done all the legwork and will even send along a publicist to hold your hand for the first couple of events (unless of course they’ve confused you with another author and not in fact remembered to do this for you, cough, cough).
But this doesn’t always happen. If you haven’t already been asked to provide contact details for your local schools, please do ask your publicist if they are willing / able to organise visits for you and if not, don’t worry you can do this yourself.
Working with a book shop
Heartbreakingly, the number of bookshops in Britain has halved since 2005 and nearly 600 towns have none at all. If you still have a local bookshop, obviously you see the need to cultivate a good relationship with them; hopefully they’ll be stocking your book and pushing it to interested customers. But did you know that many book shops also organise school visits and events themselves as a way of increasing their book sales?
If your book shop does book you for events it will save you lots of leg work. I have had a number of school visits via Urmston Books and Formby Books, and Simply Books (my closest bookshop) has not only had me in to speak to their book group, but has given me three events over the half term period (workshops for the kids) for which I will be paid.
The Guardian has a useful list of London independent book shops here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/oct/01/independent-bookshops-london
They also have this rather excellent interactive map showing the best book shops around the country.
I heartily recommend that, if you are willing to travel to the Liverpool area, you speak to Tony Higginson of Formby Books (http://www.formbybooks.blogspot.co.uk/) – he organises dozens of events and is a specialist in doing so.
Contacting book shops:
If possible make a point of popping into your local independent book shop a few times prior to publication. Get chatting to the staff, let them get to know you a bit. Then do your big reveal when they already see you as a friendly face, who has been supporting them (after all, if you’ve been supporting them, they’ll be happier to support you). It’s sneaky, but not in a bad way.
If you haven’t been into your local independent bookshop before publication (and I’m not judging here – let’s face it, for some of us our local indie is a half hour drive away and Waterstones is nearer) do pop in and introduce yourself (but pick a quiet time – don’t do it at lunchtime on World Book Day – not that I did that, ahem)
Do take a copy of your book (otherwise they might think you’re a random crazy person)
Do mention your publisher, especially if it’s a mainstream one – bookshops obviously get inundated with local self-published authors. They sit up and take notice if they have a local author published by a big name publisher.
Do compliment the bookshop and make sure you buy at least one book (as I said – why should they support you, if you don’t support them?).
Do give them a bit of information about you, what you do during school visits and what you charge (if you charge – it’s a contentious issue, some authors do and some don’t – we’ll come to that later). Make it clear you are happy to support the shop by doing events (e.g. talking to their book group, doing a writing workshop or doing a signing).
Booking school visits
Working with book shops is brilliant, but you might also want to organise a few school visits yourself, especially to get the ball rolling. Your book shop will obviously be happiest to get you gigs if they hear from a school you already went to that you did a great session for them.
Finding a school
Make a list of the schools you’d like to visit. I recommend doing a local ‘friendly’ first (your child’s school, a friend’s child’s school, your old school, or a school where a friend teaches). Make it clear it’s your first one and say you’re doing it for free in return for an honest testimonial and they should be super nice to you and give you a nice quote that you can impress other schools with.
Think about why you are doing the visit
Do you want to spread a love of literature or creative writing among children or teens. Do you need to earn money? A combination of the two?
Most authors will use a school visit as an opportunity to sell books (absolutely correctly – you need those Nielsen figures), but please do think about the school and the children as well. An hour-long sales pitch is no fun for anyone.
What do you hate authors to do?
“A sales pitch; rely too much on PowerPoint” (Kings)
“Just talk about themselves for the whole hour!” (Wilmslow High)
Make sure your event is a mixture of talking about you and your book, reading from your book and also talking about reading, writing and using your story as an inspiration for activities.
During my own events I use the fact that the main characters are reincarnated to get the kids talking about past lives. I also use my research into psychological techniques and the war as an excuse to do my own version of the Milgram experiment where they get to ‘electrocute’ me. They love it (I think).
Deciding on fees
Gosh, this is a controversial area. I recently had my own publisher say they wouldn’t be able to organise me school visits in Leeds (after I won the Leeds Book Award which was voted for by Leeds schools) if I wanted paying for them.
Yet, how else is an author with a miniscule advance (yes, I’m talking about myself here) supposed to earn money from their work?
Schools and local authorities are accustomed to paying experts for their time and skills, and remember, schools would probably pay less for a supply teacher without your expertise in this area.
Think about how much you would have loved an author visit when you were at school and apply that in reverse – the kids will love to have you in. You are a valuable resource.
The rates recommended by the Society are £350 and £250 respectively for full and half-day engagements (to cover a maximum of three sessions in a day), plus expenses. They suggest
a fee of £150 for a single session not exceeding one hour (plus expenses) when the author is visiting a local venue or carrying out a number of separate visits e.g. to schools in a single area.
Many authors however, don’t feel comfortable charging hard-pressed schools for author visits while some simply lack the confidence to ask for a fee.
Obviously it would be great if all authors agreed on a policy; if we all charged at SOA rates so there was no undercutting and all schools were aware of what an author visit would cost. That way there would be no awkward fee discussion and no misalignment of expectations.
However, even among The Edge there is a huge disparity in what we are happy to charge for individual school visits.
My own policy was that I did a year of free school visits – mainly because I felt that I wanted to have the experience and develop a really polished event before I started charging for it. However, I now charge and yes, I am still getting bookings.
No, you should not need a CRB clearance. You should never be left alone with the children – a teacher should be with you at all times there are all sorts of public liability issues with them leaving you in charge.
Approaching a school
So once you’ve decided which schools to approach, you need to make your initial advances.
Some schools do prefer to contact authors themselves, so if you get a no at this stage, don’t be offended.
“Through a bookshop, or through the author themselves.” (Poynton High)
“I prefer to contact authors myself. It’s nice and often easier to have direct contact with the author. Also great if occasionally a publisher or author contacts me with an offer.” (Kings)
My friendly librarians indicated that they most like to be contacted in the autumn term and most commonly organise visits for Feb / March (World Book Day) and June / July.
“I start thinking about World Book Day in October but haven’t always been successful securing someone so definitely worth trying for World Book Day right up to February. Summer term is much quieter, so just before Easter is also a good time.” (Wilmslow High)
“[It’s a bad time to contact us in] September or just before / during the holidays when nobody else is here to discuss logistics or fitting the event into the whole school programme.” (Poynton)
Personally I like to approach schools the same way I approached getting an agent.
Do your research – call the school and find out who is best to talk to – is it the librarian, the head of English, the head teacher (it’s commonly the librarian, but not always)?
Find out when would be a good time to have a quick word with them and call back then.
Write yourself a script for when you get through to the right person (if you’re like me the conversation would otherwise be filled with awkward silences and the dreaded ‘um’), briefly introduce yourself and ask if they’d be interested in an author visit. If you can’t get through, then send a nice, personalised email.
If you get a yes, then say you will send an information pack.
“As we are busy during the day you can’t guarantee to get hold of us on the phone. Email just seems the easiest and most economical way – but don’t make it look like a bulk junk mail type of email.”(Wilmslow High)
Putting together information packs
I would recommend including the following (list provided by my friendly librarians):
A copy of your book
Reviews of the book
Testimonials from previous events
What you do during the visit
Length of proposed visit
Age of children appropriate for visit
What you would need from the school (in terms of equipment on the day)
What you expect from the school (in terms of prep prior to the visit)
How much are you selling copies of the book for? Do you need the school to contact a book shop to come in, or are you bringing your own books?
Cost of visit
Web address or place where you can get further information
I’d also offer reading notes for your book.
Although your instinct would be to chase up if you haven’t heard after a certain time period, my friendly librarians indicate that this would not be appreciated. Still, a quick email to make sure they received the pack and ask if they have any questions would probably be received without adverse reaction.
Working with the school
If you get a school visit booked, that’s fantastic.
Prior to the event make sure you know what time you are expected and that the school knows what you need (a projector, flip chart etc.). Get directions and any special instructions (I went to a school where it turned out you had to pay to get into the car-park, but I had no wallet with me – I ended up dumping the car outside a nursery and getting glared at a lot).
Try and get the school on board to do some advance preparation. The best visit I had was where the librarian had printed out the first three chapters of the book and asked the kids to read them in advance. They’d talked about the book beforehand and come up with questions, it was brilliant. I sold a book to every member of that audience!
In non-fee paying schools the librarian will need to remind kids to bring their money on the day (preferably more than once and in big red letters). Many kids will still forget, or won’t bring any because they think ‘I won’t buy a book’. This often changes when they actually meet you and of course then, they can’t buy the book because they have no money. It is worth speaking to the book shop dealing with the school to see if they’ll sell books ‘on a promise’ – some do, some don’t.
Make sure your first chapter or so is on your website, so if the teacher is busy they can at least point the children to the site to get a taster of your work ‘out of hours’.
Arriving at the school
Aim to arrive half an hour in advance, it seems obvious, but you’ll need that time to say hi, settle in a bit and set up your PowerPoint presentation (if you’re using one). I’ve lost count of the number of times the projector and laptop have had to be forcibly connected by a harassed IT guy after the librarian and I have given up. Without that half hour prep time, the kids would have been watching their visiting author swear about technology and thump her laptop – not ideal.
Do’s and Don’ts
I’ll let my friendly librarians talk to you about this one:
What do you like authors to do?
“Interactive ingredients are always popular; performing / reading their own work; audience participation / getting children up at front to participate; incorporate activities, maybe encouraging them to reflect on how they write / their own lives” (Kings)
“Talk about themselves and how they got into writing, book readings, give children chance to ask questions, fun activities relating to their books, anything interactive, quizzes, workshops…depends on the format of the session and the intended audience.” (Wilmslow High)
“Talk about the characters and places and the inspirations for those. Relevant activities that get the students involved.” (Poynton High)
What do you most like an author to talk about?
“How they got into writing; how they write; their own work” (Kings)
“How they got into writing, how much they love reading, teen fiction they have read, anything ‘cool’ about themselves to help the children realise reading and writing are not just for nerds!” (Wilmslow)
What do you hate authors to do?
“Concentrate on book sales or give minimum number of attendees before they will consider coming as this can mean filling the hall with students who may be less interested in the activity overall.” (Poynton)
Can you give examples of particularly impressive events?
“Sophie McKenzie and Bryony Pearce – interactive games for the children to play relating to the book; Curtis Jobling drawing characters on stage, Paula Rawsthorne very down to earth chatting to the children about herself, Matt Dickinson showing exciting photos of his travels that inspired him to write.” (Wilmslow)
“In addition to the variety of activities for different age groups in your own event, Bryony, Joseph Delaney spoke for a full hour about his characters and creatures, really bringing them to life, as well as different places he’d been to on holiday that contributed to his fantasy locations. The kids loved this.” (Poynton)
“A football poet who had no idea how to relate to children and just talked at them for an hour.” (Wilmslow)
“One author spoke for only 15 minutes and then spent the rest of the time waiting for students to buy books. A lot of students were just sitting around for the remaining 45 minutes – both the author, book seller and publisher were very focused on book sales, to the detriment of the event itself. More sales come at events where the students are inspired by the authors activity / readings.” (Poynton)
It is good to have a non-essential PowerPoint presentation. A presentation gives the students something to focus on and is a reminder for you – if you forget where you are, your slide will give you a nudge. You can also include things like photos of yourself as a child or teen, which are always funny.
However, I can also do my ‘bit’ without a presentation and that’s important – I’ve been to schools where the laptop and projector just would not marry. I’ve been to visits set up by my publisher or another contact where the presentation was never received by the school. If you rely too much on technology it will inevitably let you down one day.
Useful things to have
– Bookmarks or postcards: it turns out that people will do an awful lot for a bit of shiny cardboard. You can have a room of recalcitrant teens all putting their hands up if they realise they get a bookmark for answering a question (go figure).
– If you can afford it, perhaps offer something even more highly prized than a bookmark – Steve Feasey has pens with a sort of pull out banner in I’ve seen kids literally fighting over those.
– Some authors (e.g. Miriam Halahmy) offer a prize (a copy of their book) if the students can correctly answer a question about them or their book (this may require the students to look at the author website or read the first couple of chapters in advance of the visit, or simply pay attention during the talk). This can reap excellent dividends, but of course costs you a book!
– A ‘gimmick’. Think about your book and what it lends itself to in terms of audience participation / interactive activities / discussion topics. A gimmick that gets the kids fired up and talking afterwards will make you a popular visitor.
It’s worth preparing answers to a few questions in advance – you will ALWAYS get asked what your inspiration was and often asked how much you earn and if your characters are based on real people.
I often leave behind a non-compulsory creative writing competition. I make sure that I get the teacher’s go-ahead in advance and allow the teachers to set the deadline (according to the student’s workloads).
I let the students know that they can follow me on Twitter, or on my author Facebook account and to email me via my website if they would like to.
I also leave an invoice! On your invoice you should probably include …
Your name and address
The school name and address
The date of the invoice
The date and title of the event
The name of the event host
Your invoice number (Advisable particularly if you are VAT-registered.)
Details of agreed expenses (You may also need to supply receipts)
Your ten-digit UTR (Unique Taxpayer’s Reference) number
Your National Insurance number
Your VAT number (If you are VAT registered)
Name of bank, branch address, sort code, name of account,
account number (If you will be paid by BACS)
If appropriate add:
This service was provided by a self-employed tax payer. It is
therefore a booking condition that payment [plus VAT if you are
VAT-registered] be made in full, as per invoice, and that income
tax etc. should not be deducted at source.
You may also want to add:
Payment is due within 30 days of invoice date. Statutory interest
will be charged on overdue payments.
And make sure you thank the librarian profusely. They are busy and their hard work got you in there. Hopefully they’ll even ask you back one day.
For more information on school visits, the SCBWI has a school visits discussion group on the NING.
Good luck. I hope this helps a little bit. And please feel free to add your own experiences, hints and tips – like I said, I’m no expert … Thanks for reading.