Chapter 31: Back to School

This is part of a chapter from the third edition of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books. The format has been altered to suit the Internet.

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In This Chapter

So far, you may be getting the idea that you can play only a limited role in the marketing and publicizing of your book. True—except for one key area. Going back to school, by which I mean doing school visits, can do lots for the sales of your book over the long term, and at the same time serve as a useful source of income for you.

School Visit Basics

School visits happen all over the country, at every level of school, for a simple reason: they work. Subject-area teachers want to generate excitement about science or math or American history, and English teachers, reading teachers, and librarians are always looking for ways to ignite a love of reading and writing in students who might rather sit and watch TV or play a video game than read. One way to do this is through a visit by a successful author. Illustrators do school visits, too, although you might have to work a little harder to persuade a school that you can make your visit curriculum-relevant.

A school visit does not necessarily mean you go speak to a school assembly or launch into a monologue in a fourth-grade classroom. A teacher or a school will most want you to visit if you produce some sort of learning activity or program. These can take place in individual classrooms or in larger groups. As you'll find later in the chapter, there are many possible kinds of visits.

Before going any farther, ask yourself if you're cut out for school visits. Are you comfortable with public speaking? Are you comfortable with a room full of children? Note that you shouldn't have to be keeping them in order—the teacher or librarian should do that—but can you keep them engaged? If you're not sure, start small with just a few children at your child's school or your neighborhood library. Schools want dynamic speakers who will get children excited about reading or a particular subject, so don't go out into schools if that's not you. You can promote your books in other, better ways.

If you can do school visits—many authors and illustrators enjoy them—you'll find that they're a great way to promote your books. But note that they work best over a period of time. As you do more and more visits, you build up an audience for new books, and you inform people about your backlist. School visits, in fact, may be the single most effective thing you can do to keep your books in print.

Can You Keep a Secret?

Remember that doing a school visit well is hard work, and that the number of books you sell is unlikely to compensate you for your time. You deserve a fee, negotiated in advance and paid on the day of your visit, and reimbursement of your travel costs.

The basic things you need to do for an actual visit are simple: work out a plan for a visit with a contact person, being sure to get the plan down in writing. You visit the school and get the students excited about books in general and your books in particular. And you get paid for this. Yes, you can and should charge a fee for most kinds of school visits. Many schools have budgets for author visits and might not take you as seriously if you don't charge a fee. Considering the time involved to prepare and travel, even as a beginner you should charge $250 to $400 for a 1-hour presentation and several hundred dollars for a full day at a school; experienced authors charge considerably more. Schools in rural areas or the inner cities may have less money at their disposal, so waive fees when necessary.

As you get ready to embark into the world of school visiting, don't set off without Terrific Connections with Authors, Illustrators, and Storytellers by Toni Buzzeo and Jane Kurtz. If you take a cursory look at it, it seems to be for librarians and schools who want to have authors and illustrators visit them. But it's also the best (indeed, so far as I know, the only) guide for the authors and illustrators themselves. You just have to read it the other way around.

As Toni Buzzeo commented in an e-mail to me, "Even though Jane and I wrote TC for teachers and librarians, we think that as many authors and illustrators own it! It really is a fabulous resource for those of us who are children's authors and illustrators. Not only does it give book people a comprehensive view of the experience from the 'other side of the contract' so to speak, but it examines, in great detail, the intricacies involved in the practicalities as well as really meaningful preparation." If any resource is indispensable, this one is—I drew on it heavily while writing this chapter.

Making Contact

If you want to make school visits and have ideas for some workshops or other learning experiences, your next step is to set up some. How do you do that? There are many ways. Whichever way you use, keep in mind that you may need to plan several months to a year ahead—if you contact a school in March, for example, the earliest you'll actually visit is likely to be September.

When you're just getting started, contacting schools in your area and letting them know you're available is a good first step. If you're calling a school "cold," you can start at the top and talk to the principal. Explain what you want to do and ask who you should speak to. Some people find that it may be best to just ask to speak to a reading teacher or librarian—or to ask the school secretary who she thinks would be most interested in bringing an author or illustrator to the school. If someone is interested, follow up with him: get him copies of your book(s), or a proposal for your visit, as soon as possible.

Can You Keep a Secret?

In a number of states, the state arts commission sponsors grant-based programs to help school districts pay artists such as writers and illustrators to come do programs of varying lengths. Typically the artist registers with the arts commission, which then produces a list for school districts to draw from as needs arise. Contact your state arts commission or education department to find out what opportunities exist.

Publishers also get requests from schools for popular authors and illustrators. Typically, the well-known ones get many more requests than they could possibly fulfill, and in such cases the person in the marketing department who handles school visits will suggest someone else. Let this person know that you're eager to visit schools, and you're on your way.

Contact local arts councils to see if they have lists of recommended writers and artists. If they do, get on the list because schools looking for speakers may well use those lists. Similarly, join local and national organizations that work in children's books and literacy. That might lead to some referrals.

And of course, talk to everyone you know, ask other authors and illustrators for referrals, write articles on children's books, volunteer in your local library, and generally get involved in your community. Many school visits come about because of personal contacts.

If you develop a good program, and if you have a steady flow of books coming out, soon you'll have more requests than you can handle.

Chapter 31 goes on to cover:

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Copyright © by Harold Underdown 2008 ( Google + Profile ). All rights reserved. One copy may be printed for personal use, but may not be otherwise reproduced, either on paper or electronically.