Adding to Your Writer's Arsenal: School Visits
I am a firm believer in a diverse portfolio. One way to thrive in the writing industry is to be more than just a writer. As my debut novel made its way onto bookshelves, I asked myself two important questions. What other tools did I have in my arsenal? And how could I use that unique skill set to carve out a space for myself in a competitive industry?
One expertise came to mind. I really mean that. I literally only had one other viable skill. I’d been teaching for five years and had formed connections with the local school system. So I thought: Why not give school visits a try?
Over the past year, I’ve visited 70 schools and spoken with over 20,000 students. It has become an invaluable tool in my arsenal as an author. So let’s take a broad look at school visits and see if you can add a new tool to your arsenal.
Here are five things you need to know about school visits:
Connecting with the right point person is huge.
Sometimes a publisher or book store will arrange school visits for you. The rest of the time it’s up to you to do the work. Step one: research. The school system in my area has over 200 schools. All I had to do was start strategically reaching out to them. Most school visits involve a point person. Usually this person will come from one of three groups: librarians, teachers, or parents in the PTSA/PTSO/PTA.
I always start by contacting the librarian. My best visits have all involved librarians who are a core part of their school. It’s a lot like working with a super hero. Try calling the school first. If you can’t connect that way, follow-up via email. It’s helpful to have a standard informational write-up ready to go. It should offer necessary information but still be brief and to the point.
If the librarian doesn’t respond, I think newer teachers or literacy coaches are often brilliant advocates for a visit. Finally, in some school systems, everything funnels through the parent-led organization (PTSA/PTSO/PTA). Their contact information should be available online.
There are multiple ways to be compensated for your visit.
There are some great articles detailing honorarium averages (This survey article by Michelle Cusolito is particularly helpful: http://www.michellecusolito.com/blog/2018/4/30/2018-survey-transparency-in-pay-for-author-illustrator-school-visits). I’m going to focus on a discussion of some alternative strategies and thoughts.
In 2017, very few people knew me or my book. I made the difficult decision to waive my honorarium as long as a school agreed to sell a minimum amount of my books. This isn’t a hugely popular approach. A lot of people would say it devalues our time and effort, and they aren’t exactly wrong about that. But the reality is that a large percentage of those 70 schools wouldn’t have payed to host an unknown author. On many occasions, I was trading in a flat fee for an audience of 1,000 students and 100+ book sales. Not a bad exchange rate.
Let me be clear: you deserve compensation for your services. Not everyone is in a position to waive an honorarium. I was taking a long term approach that valued exposure and book sales. Now that I’m more established, I have definitely adjusted my thoughts on fees.
Even so, there are still several ways I remain flexible. First, I lower my honorarium for schools that host me during launch weeks. My priority during that time is book sales, so I adjust with that in mind. I’m also really passionate about lower-income schools like the one where I used to teach. I’ve started pairing their visits with a private school in the area. I charge the private school the full honorarium, and hook up the lower-income school with a free visit. It’s a great recipe. My point here? There are a lot of ways to be compensated and find value in these visits.
Providing resources to teachers and librarians can go a long way.
Character art. Movie trailers. Graphics. Audio clips. This depends on what you have at your disposal. My most valuable tool has been an excerpt of the first chapter of my audiobook. I ask teachers to listen to it with their students. There’s always a noticeable buzz around my book when most of the students have read the first chapter. It leads to more sales, too.
Have a plan for how you want the visit to go.
Always be ready to pitch your book. I start with a standard three-minute pitch. From there, I transition into my talk (1o minutes), follow that with Q and A (10-20 minutes), and finish with a signing (10 minutes). Be prepared to work with the schedule of the school, which always varies.
Visuals are your friend. Every age group benefits from having something to look at. I’m fairly minimalistic on this. I usually ask that the image featuring my main character and the cover of my book be projected behind me. Some authors do full PowerPoints. All depends on your style.
Involve your audience. Raise your hand if you’ve read The Hunger Games! Would you go into space for millions of dollars? I’ve noticed that whenever I talk for longer than 10 minutes with zero crowd interaction, I almost always lose the attention of my audience.
Be prepared for the unexpected.
Students will ask how much money you make. Teachers might request free books. Expect the unexpected. I have had visits where we sell over 200 books and everything works perfectly. I’ve had visits where a miscommunication led to there being no books available for purchase. It happens. Always expect the unexpected.
It helps me to remember that as much as I love book sales—and as much as I try to treat school visits like a tool in my arsenal—I’m also serving my community. Every time I get on a stage I’m promoting literacy. I’m putting a good book into the hands of hesitant readers. I’m inviting students to imagine their wildest dreams coming true. There’s something magical about that.
I hope this has been a helpful starting point in figuring out how you might add school visits to your arsenal as a writer. There’s a lot more nuance in the discussion, and several pointers I couldn’t weave in above. So I’ll keep an eye out for comments or questions you might have about adopting this method into your arsenal. It’s been such a fruitful part of my first year as an author, and I hope it can be something you find useful in the years to come.