Friday, March 19, 2010

THE BUSINESS OF CHILDREN'S BOOKS: An Interview with Sarah Chauncey of Skype An Author

This Tuesday, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Chauncey, co-creator with author Mona Kerby, of SKYPE AN AUTHOR. A year after hosting Mona for an in-person author visit at her school, Sarah wanted to afford a new group of students the opportunity to chat with Mona about her book, OWNEY, THE MAIL POUCH POOCH. Skype turned out to be the answer. Sarah and Mona put together a successful virtual visit. And that marked the beginning for a terrific site that, since going live a year-and-a-half ago, now features over 80 authors.

SWK: What were some initial reactions to Skype an Author?

SARAH CHAUNCEY: Some authors were skeptical. They worried that Skype would take away from their brick-and-mortar appearances. I think Skype offers authors the potential for many more visits including schools that can't afford live author appearances every year. Considering the high price of traveling to market a book, Skype can be more cost-effective for everyone...And we've found that authors are loving Skyping. It gives them additional venues for sharing their books and connecting with readers.

SWK: What role does Skype-an-Author play in connecting member writers with schools interested in a virtual visit?

SARAH: After becoming a member of Skype-an-Author (, they can apply to be listed as an author. Skype-an-Author then sets up a page for the author to complete. The page has a standardized template so that teachers coming to the website get consistent information, so we do ask that authors follow the template. Authors can link their page to their own websites where they can provide any additional information they'd like. After that, contact is directly between the author and the host. There is no charge from Skype An Author. This is a labor of love!

SWK: (I must note here Sarah's incredible passion and enthusiasm for connecting kids and authors via this program--she even Skypes at night with authors to help them practice and prepare for appearances!) Besides the obvious, do you feel there are any important differences an author or illustrator should realize about Skype visits versus in-person visits?

SARAH: No. On both sides, the school and the author, it is important to do the same preparation. Schools should read the book, think of questions, and practice them. Authors should be professional and give the same presentation they would for an in-person visit, showing who they are and what they do. Kids always love to hear about the writing process and how stories become books. Authors can provide study guides or activity suggestions to prepare for their visits. I had one author who sent numbered bookmarks to a school ahead of time. These were distributed to the students. During her Skype, she called out a number and the child with that number on her bookmark won a signed book. Question-and-answer interaction, writing or drawing together, these things engage the audience just like they would during a live visit. For Skype, anything you can send ahead to help prepare the audience is great. Oh, one difference, on the day of a virtual visit, you should always do a test visit as it can be so disappointing for students if the technology is not working properly.

SWK: Do you find a particular audience size and/or presentation length to be optimal for Skype author visits?

SARAH: It depends on the age of the students and the purpose of the visit. For younger students, ten to fifteen minutes can be enough. And some authors are not comfortable with chat, live blogging and other things going on, while others, like Daniel Pink, can do lots of things at once.

SWK: Do you have any thoughts on pricing?

SARAH: We are not prescriptive. We do ask that authors offer a 10-15 minute free chat. Beyond that it is up to the author to set whatever fees they would like. The authors set their own criteria.

SWK: What suggestions would you give to help authors or illustrators decide if SKYPE is a good platform form them?

SARAH: Find a local library or local bookstore and ask to try doing a virtual presentation. Libraries and bookstores get excited about this because they can even have the author virtually visit multiple locations in one day.

SWK: Do you have any other thoughts on how authors can make the most of Skype An Author and the opportunities provided by virtual visits?

SARAH: Authors are wonderful at sharing and can help each other by giving information on best practices for virtual visits. It would be great if they could suggest ten ways to make a visit successful, and to let us know what kind of information they would like our site to provide to help make visits successful. I also think that authors would do well to provide a video of their in-person visits. Being able to see authors interacting with students would help PTA's and other groups make decisions on authors they want to invite. So there's a live visit connection there, too... We started with Skype because it is easy to learn and to use but there are so many options to explore, especially for older students: Live blogging, using Wimba, video chats, making an author the "head of the class," or reading a book series by a single author and having the author do a series of visits. The technology offers so many possibilities we haven't even tapped yet.

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