Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Thought for the New Year: Giving the Gift of Reading--In Reverse

In the publishing industry, and as parents, we think a lot about ways to connect kids with books. Bookstores and libraries, school book clubs and fairs, and perhaps the advent of hand-held electronic readers may incline this techno-savvy generation more toward reading. I believe another important part of nurturing the love of books is to show how books and stories build connections between people--build community.
I've got a simple, inexpensive, low-tech suggestion that has been both fun and enlightening at our house where, in truth, books are plentiful. Beyond access, the best way I have found to connect my kids with books is to let THEM recommend books to ME. Each year, around the holidays, I ask each of my boys to suggest a book they'd like me to read.

Consider this notion akin to kicking a soccer ball around the back yard with your child and letting him or her give you a little "coaching" along the way. It allows them to invite you in to their world--to share their expertise and interest. Reading their recommendations provides opportunities for unique conversations. Like friendship, love of reading is enriched by reciprocity. This year, let your kids give the gift of reading to you--and see what you learn about them.

If you're interested, here is this year's book list:

From 15-year-old: THE WARRIOR'S APPRENTICE by Lois McMaster Bujold. A wonderful adventure about a young man with physical disabilities but a brilliant and adventurous spirit. Two tantalizing quotes: "...he was plugged into a commercial network of enormous complexity. Ninety percent of success seemed to lie in asking the right questions." (P. 99. Okay, for a book written in 1986, that's a pretty prescient take on the Internet, huh?); "I've always thought of myself as agnostic. It's only lately that I've come to--to need for men to have souls." (P. 323. Not going to explain but I do recommend you read the book if you have an interest in the ethics of war.) Best insight? My teenager loves quality sci-fi AND beautiful language. Yeah!

From 13-year-old: THE HUNGER GAMES and CATCHING FIRE by Suzanne Collins. Haven't read CATCHING FIRE yet but read HUNGER GAMES (discussed previously on this blog). This is a case where I shared the book with my kids and now we've all been bitten by the HUNGER bug. He's already passed the book along to the nine-year-old as well.  After HUNGER we had some pretty intense debates as to Peeta's motives (and I've come to realize this son is a bit of a romantic).  Now the thirteen-year-old is chafing at the bit for me to finish CATCHING FIRE so we can chat some more.  It's been fun to discover this family favorite.  And we can't wait for the third book to come out in late summer.

From 9-year-old: THE MIRACULOUS JOURNEY OF EDWARD TULANE by Kate DiCamillo. While he also enjoyed THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX last year, he favors TULANE as a little less "classic" (possible boy translation: princess-y) with a more complex plot. I think the illustrations are gorgeous.  My son and I both found the story heartfelt and touching. Third grade has been a year of great change for all of my kids and it makes sense to me that my soul-searching nine-year-old connects with this exploration of family, friendship and love.

From 3-year-old:  Dr. Seuss's HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS. Well, obviously I've read this a million times--often to him! But he's really connected with the story this year--even wanted us to hold hands and sing around an outdoor Christmas tree last week. Frankly, he loves the music from the cartoon, too, and it's still playing around the house on December 29. Best thing about this recommendation? It's given me a break from Mercer Mayer's THERE'S AN ALLIGATOR UNDER MY BED, which I also enjoy but have thoroughly memorized.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009



The holidays are upon us. You're trying to finish the shopping, get the cards out, endure the hassles of travel... Are you managing to write at all, much less promote your work? Well, in the midst of my own cookie-baking frenzy, as promised, here are some tips for getting school and library gigs. (Be warned, this is a long post.)

Particularly at the outset, developing appearance opportunities is hard work, though it can get easier as you build your reputation, garner good reviews, and sell copies of your book. Remember that getting gigs requires putting yourself out there (sometimes affectionately called shameless self-promotion). If you don't have the stomach for it, school and library appearances may not be the way you want to promote your work. If you love connecting with readers, talking about books and writing, and spending a bit of time away from the keyboard, appearances are probably for you. Commit to not neglecting your WRITING. Decide how much time you want to spend each week on marketing and make sure it does not impinge on your manuscript hours. THEN...

1. Make yourself find-able online. Dedicate a page on your website and link your blog, Facebook page, etc., to your appearance program. So, if I were to Bing or Google "Author Appearance" and your name, I'd find your appearance page. Keep it simple without long, scroll-down-requiring descriptions. PROVIDE clear and easy steps for inquiring about an appearance and DO NOT make this a note to your family email address. If you don't have a .com website, open a separate email account with a name like "appearancesbyauthorname@live.com." It looks more professional.

2. Get started by using your connections-- friends, colleagues, family. One lovely author-friend is expert at this and her books MOVE off the shelves everywhere she goes. Her profit margin is not high but, in terms of book recognition and sales goals (paving the way for future books), her efforts are paying off. The strategy: Every time you have plans to hit the road for any reason, and have already handled your travel and lodging costs, let people know. Try putting an announcement on the destination school district's listserv; ask area librarians if they are interested in a visit or can help spread the word; and ask connections in the educational field for contact names. Your message? "YOU, author of X, will be visiting CITY on DATES. Interested schools can contact YOU at XXX. Fee is $X or free with the purchase of a classroom set of books (note that when you are soliciting appearances, fees must be low or even free, and book purchasing requirements can be time-sensitive) for a one-hour presentation." Include a headshot and/or book jacket image--pictures lend credibility. Give the local paper a call and offer to give an interview or write about your "author's experience" visiting their town.

3. Get "reviews" for your presentations. It's often as easy as asking. Provide a "review form" for completion by every host. Make sure there's a signature line for hosts to grant permission to be quoted on your website. On the review form, invite hosts to provide an email address for you to keep in touch and/or contact information for friends or colleagues they feel would like more information about your programs. Collect information and learn from feedback.

4. Tell fans and followers where you'll be and how things go. Website or blog posts noting cities or towns you are visiting or cute anecdotes about young readers you meet in these places make you seem both accessible and friendly. Post good book AND appearance reviews.

5. Reach out to educators in all situations. Several authors with whom I work give my name to teachers and librarians they meet everywhere from literary events to the supermarket to social functions. The authors then send me a list of folks to look out for and, when these people touch base, I can be very responsive because I know how and why they came to request this author (while I generally recommend consistency with regards to fees, requests coming through authors in this way sometimes, though not alaways, have a prearranged fee exception or waiver due to a personal connection). A SIDE NOTE: Make sure you have a nice business card and share it liberally.

6. Specialize. Does your middle grade novel's protagonist study gymnastics? Does the bad-boy romantic interest in your YA fantasy play in a rock band? Reach out to organizations focusing on activities or topics related to your book, especially if you have some background in these areas.

7. Educate yourself. Learn what interests reading specialists, librarians and other educators through organizations such as the International Reading Association (www.reading.org), the American Library Association (www.ala.org), NCTE, NCSS and NSTA. If one of these organizations is holding a conference in your area--go! At least visit the exhibit hall. Talk to people about your book and show your appreciation for the contribution other conference attendees make to literacy efforts. I have personally picked up writing and speaking gigs by attending ALA and NCTE events, not to mention learning a ton.

8. Inform your publisher. Every author would like their publisher's marketing and publicity staff to fill their calendar with book tours and high-profile conference appearances. That these folks cannot offer every interested author all of the appearance opportunities they would like is simple math.  However, they HONESTLY DO submit your work for all appropriate rewards and advise you of all specific and appropriate appearance requests. Better to advise your editor, publicist and marketing contacts of appearances you have scheduled and, very occasionally, send along a nice quote from a particularly successful appearance. This way, you're not asking for opportunities your publisher cannot provide but instead showing that you're ready and waiting should the right chance come along. Nice. Subtle. Much appreciated. Professional.

Getting gigs is quite a process, huh? Maybe you're exhausted just thinking about all this work as you sit amidst a pile of unwrapped presents with scotch tape stuck in your hair (er-that's not autobiographical!). In fact, these techniques can become as routine as your exercise regimen or doing the dinner dishes (note I did not choose fun routines but necessary and helpful ones). Take things at your own pace--you can always do more or scale back. I recommend enjoying the cookies and the eggnog this week, and maybe you can add one or two of these ideas to your New Year's book promotion plans.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Whence all the ski imagery...?

Gearing up for a holiday in the mountains.  Here I am (center, in blue) with some of the family on the slopes at Thanksgiving.  My ski name is "Ace" (to be clear, I am a terrible skier, but I talk tall!).  My sister's ski name is "Lightning Panda" because you know that pandas are known for their swiftness and agility--she's on the far right, in red.  Despite this tag, she is actually the better skier.  The best thing about skiing is that it is so difficult for me that I can think of nothing else but fall line of the slope and getting to the bottom.  It is incredibly liberating to have to focus that hard--to be truly in the now. I return to my computer refreshed and thrilled to be writing. (I've been looking for a few good reads that offer a teen's perspective on what's special about being on a mountain.  Try Justina Chen Headley's Girl Overboard.)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009



As writers, we learn to wait--for responses to our queries, for publication opportunities, for the evolution of a sold manuscript into a bound book, for royalty checks. Like a fine wine, publishing is often a process that takes time. And we've made our peace with that. So, it can be a bit jarring when the book comes out and suddenly people want to schedule things for yesterday, including events where you find yourself talking to tots about your story then switching gears and talking to their parents and educators about literature and learning with only a ten-minute break in between. Keeping calm in the rushing waters of book promotion requires a whole new kind of Zen.

Within this chaos, school and library appearances have a special place. They differ from bookstore and other publicity stops in one primary way: The coordinator of your appearance (your host), is likely to be someone for whom arranging an author or illustrator visit is not a typical part of his or her job description. This does not diminish (and maybe even enhances) the host's energy and enthusiasm for arranging your appearance. And I am not trying to scare you. But it is important when you are considering hitting the school appearance circuit that you understand what you are getting into and, if you’ve been lucky enough to do a book tour, how very different a beast this is.

Here are a few things to note about school and library event hosts:

1. This may be the first time your host has arranged an author appearance. PTA's, for example, which fund many author visits, often pass down the role of book fair coordinator, etc., to a new parent volunteer every year. Tight school and library budgets may mean that author appearances are not annual events, so even experienced coordinators may be rusty.

2. Your honorarium and fees are likely to be a big chunk of your host's annual budget. Thus your appearance, though possibly somewhat routine from your viewpoint, is a very significant event (and investment) for them.

3. Your host may or may not have chosen the right author or illustrator for their learning community. Face it, you may have been invited in part because you are local, reasonably priced, available or a favorite of a particular educator or parent. This does not make you the best fit for the entire group you will address.

How can this understanding of your host translate into more successful appearances?

ACCEPT THE BACK-AND-FORTH. Be willing to discuss the details of your itinerary, from scheduling the date to determining how many presentations you will make (I'd suggest limiting it to three/day) and to what grade level combinations. Share your experience regarding optimal grade-level breakdowns, realistic expectations for a classroom visit, assembly presentation, 15-minute book signing time. If the school would like you to share a breakfast or lunch with faculty members or select students, confirm whether this will be a formal or informal event. This conversation will help you know what the day will look like and thus be able to prepare effectively and for the right grade levels.  It will also help the host clarify his or her expectations, setting the stage for satisfaction on all sides.

RESPECT THEIR FINANCIAL CONCERNS. If costs are a concern, consider offering a discount if the host can find a nearby school to book you as well, noting that this will enable them to share travel and hotel expenses.  This may make long-distance appearances more worthwhile for you but also shows that you understand the host's need for value, especially these days.  If you want to do the visit, be willing to roll up your sleeves and appreciate the financial situation in which the host is working.  Whatever the budget, remember, they reached out to you because want to connect their young readers with a real author!  A very cool objective.

PUT IT IN WRITING. Whether you yourself, your publisher, or a freelance booking agency confirms your appearances, make sure there's a document that notes the date, fees and payment schedule, cancellation requirements, address and contact information for both yourself and the host, and some itinerary details or limits. (I've recently found that many authors have been very positive about my addition of an end-of-confirmation note asking that a school representative or volunteer be available to assist the author and to please be sure to have teachers remain with their students during assembly presentations and classroom visits.) The process of writing up this document can help both you and the host to get a very clear sense of your appearance.

WHEN YOU CONFIRM, SEND ALONG SOME EXTRAS. Once a school is on your calendar, help them prepare by getting in touch 6-8 weeks before your visit. This enables you to politely ensure that your host is still in place and expecting you. At this time, send along a little more information, such as a list of discussion questions for your book, a quick note about your presentation, or a list of web links where students can learn more about you. This will increase the likelihood that your host will prepare their students (your audience) well, which always makes for a better visit.

As I'm writing this, I realize I've put the cart a little bit before the horse. I've explained how knowing your host can help set the stage for a successful school or library appearance, but I still haven't explained exactly how you can "get the gigs" as one rock-star author I know puts it. While it's not an exact science, there are some tricks. So I'll take a cue from Margaret Peterson Haddix and leave you with a bit of a cliffhanger here. More on how to help potential hosts find you next week.  Though, I really do apologize for making you wait!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

THIS WEEK WE ARE READING...books about honesty and inclusion

I was about to post my thoughts on the differences between vampires and zombies (coming next week!) when my mom sent me a link to an amazing movie, INCLUDING SAMUEL http://www.includingsamuel.com/, made by her friend, journalist Dan Habib. Dan's younger son has cerebral palsy. The film depicts a family--mother, father, brother--whose eyes have been opened to an unexplored part of our world through their handicapped family member. Samuel is wheelchair-bound and struggles to speak. He is also a happy, enthusiastic, engaged, regular child. Through the film, we journey with the Habib family, and many others, to more fully understand what it means to include people. We learn to open our minds and hearts, to listen and experience first and save judgment for later, and to recognize how our own lives are enriched when all people, whether their diversity is in ability, race, gender, age, income, or even dreams, are included.

This piece of work is compelling on so many levels but most of all for its honesty. By giving words and pictures to the wonders and the fears, the prejudices and the honest concerns individuals have about including diverse individuals in their schools and communities, it enables us all to have truthful and productive discussion. This film brought to mind books I have read that use the written word to bring us diverse characters so honestly depicted, so compelling that, like the story of Samuel, we feel driven to include--even jealous not to have met such unique individuals.  Cynthia Lord's RULES and  James Howe's THE MISFITS come immediately to mind, along with the latter title's wonderful legacy: http://www.nonamecallingweek.org/.

If you have a minute, watch the movie trailer at the website. Does it bring to mind a book, or books, that share this powerful honesty in its characterizations? Did it change your day?

Sunday, December 6, 2009



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!