SCHOOL & LIBRARY APPEARANCES, Part I—KNOWING YOURSELF AS AUTHOR AND PRESENTER
As a children’s book writer or a MG or YA novelist, you have probably offered to visit your child’s school or told your local librarian you’d be happy to stop by and read your story. Visiting schools and libraries is a logical way to reach out to your readership. Such appearances often translate into book sales. Many authors report that, after a school visit, local bookstores sell out of their titles. Most authors and illustrators charge honoraria making appearances financially feasible and worth the missed writing or work hours. Connecting with audiences in person can help authors better understand their readership, and also improve their speaking resumes (book publishers truly appreciate authors who get out into the world to represent their books), possibly generating opportunities for conference and larger platform appearances. (Also look below for a note to not-yet-published writers.)
What’s the catch? Unless you are a NYT-bestselling author or have thousands of Facebook friends and blog/twitter (blitter?) followers, moving from a few local stops to making school and library visits a functional part of your marketing and maybe even an income-generating element of your career as an author can take some thought and hard work. You must understand that, just as you struggle to position your book alongside thousands of others shelved at B&N, you must figure out how you fit in (and stand out) as a speaker about books and writing. To quote the very-long Broadway musical, GYPSY, “you gotta have a gimmick.”
Okay, so maybe that quote was a little cheap. And I am certainly not suggesting that you give a book talk while doing…ahem…unusual things with a trumpet. But you do need to consider the following questions with care: What are you going to say? What is this appearance going to look like? To what age levels are you going to speak? For how long? To how big a crowd? In other words, how do you define yourself as an author and presenter?
Like your manuscripts, your presentation should be drafted and revised, polished and honed. Word-of-mouth is as important in this niche area as in bookselling itself. And teachers who’ve had successful author visits will spread the word. So it is important to craft an appearance that sells both your book and you as a speaker. Here are some thoughts to help you develop your presentation into an appealing, marketable event:
WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO SAY? Beyond discussing your book and, perhaps, your journey from past life/career to published author, consider how you will frame your conversation. Will you read passages and, if so, how will they be selected? Can you create a context for your reading, such as how the book connects to your own life story or how you employ certain writing skills in the chosen passages and how your audience might also try these techniques? Does your book speak to certain themes, topics, locations (e.g. teens’ uncertainty about their post-high-school futures, vampires, New Orleans, cats) that you might want to explore? Will there be Q&A and how will you handle this?
WHAT IS THIS APPEARANCE GOING TO LOOK LIKE? One terrific picture book author-illustrator, an ex-dancer, provides a polished and hilarious “script” of her presentation to hosts (including the costume she will wear and questions she will ask the audience). With this document, hosts have a clear sense of the event for which they should prepare their students. I know authors who bring along everything from puppets to PowerPoints. Some send hosts suggested discussion questions and itinerary details, including duration of presentation and Q&A sessions, so that educators can prepare their groups. In sum, it doesn’t matter whether you come wearing Lederhosen or just bring your PowerPoint plug-in as long as your presentation is well-considered and supports the story you are going to tell. Most of all, YOU need to feel comfortable with your material. Sometimes props, hand-outs, etc., help you set a desired tone or speak with confidence. Know what you need and plan for it.
TO WHAT AGE LEVELS ARE YOU GOING TO SPEAK? Many new authors are willing to speak about books, writing or education, to crowds of any size, kids of any grade level. While versatility is great, sometimes extreme flexibility is read as desperation or dilettantism. I find that educators are more drawn to presenters who feel they have something to say specifically to the students who will read their books (e.g., K-2 or high school) and dismiss ranges that are much broader. It is my experience that refining your presentation and target audience yields more appearance opportunities, not less. Of course if you have actually written books for many levels, this is a different story. But, if you are a YA author, consider targeting only high schools and possibly adults and educators. If you’ve authored an ABC book, preschools, primary grades and parent groups are your best marks, even if you’re a great writing teacher for teens and have taught in your own kids’ high school. Presentation length and crowd size follow naturally. Teens can sit longer than toddlers. If you’re going to talk about the writing process, a smaller group is a better bet, while a reading/book talk can be done before an assembly-sized group. And you probably have your own comfort limits in terms of group size and duration. Just be honest and limit your audience to what you feel will be truly successful.
YOUR PRESENTATION IS COMING TOGETHER BUT any good stand-up comic will tell you that you shouldn’t try out new material on the Tonight Show. Test your presentation before friends and family and then, for free or next-to-nothing, at local schools. Try checking in with smaller, private schools who might be more willing not only to have you visit informally (and quickly) but may also be comfortable with your asking students for feedback on the presentation itself and what they’d like more or less of. After a few test runs, go back to your “script” and revise, revise, revise.
Now you’re ready. You know who you are as an author as a presenter. The next step is to get the gigs. Best way to do this? KNOW YOUR HOST (School & Library Appearances Part II, coming next week).
NOT-YET-PUBLISHED WRITERS: You can see that developing a strong school/library presentation takes work. You can begin preparing by volunteering to support reading programs at your school or library, working with age groups similar to those for whom you are writing. Parts of your platform can be developed before the book contract is signed. Get a jump start!
TO ALL: Thanks for reading. After 3 installments on School & Library appearances, I'll be addressing educational support materials (reading guides, web content, etc.). Meanwhile, all feedback is much appreciated!