Monday, 5 March 2012

Book Tours - Celia Rees

I've just finished a Book Tour for my new book, This Is Not Forgiveness. A week of journeying up and down the country, visiting different regions with a couple of overnight stays. Back in the day, you would go to a bookshop, do a bit of a talk to a class or two who had been invited in to meet you, do some signing, then off to the next. These days, because of the difficulty of getting pupils out of school, finding bookshops that can accommodate large numbers, etc. etc., the author generally goes into schools.

Book tours are organised by the publisher and they differ from a normal school visit. You are only there for an hour or so, not all day. You are usually required to speak to large audiences, anything from 150 - 200 students, sometimes from different schools. You don't get paid. The payment, pay back, pay off, is seen in terms of publicity and book sales. Sometimes schools don't get this, so if letters haven't gone out, no-one has any money, the whole thing, as far as the book seller and publisher are concerned, is a bit of a waste of time. Me? I just go along and do what I'm asked to do. I don't really think in terms of book sales on the day. It took me a while, in fact, to work out that this was what it's about but I can be slow like that.

Sometimes, the visit is a great experience. The bookseller is on the ball, the school is primed and eager, the staff have done some prelim. work, the kids know who you are, maybe they've looked at a couple of your books, read extracts, been to your web site. This always helps. You kind of know when it will be good like that. You are expected. There are posters up in the foyer, the receptionist knows who you are. The Librarian or the member of the English staff is on hand to welcome you. There's coffee, biscuits, maybe even pastries or muffins, and water on the table, with a glass. They have been talking the event up, pre-selling books. The hall (or wherever it is) is ready. Chairs set out. The techie stuff works (I use a Powerpoint) and if it doesn't there's someone from IT to sort it out. Grand. The students file in, fill up from the front, there are plenty of staff with them. They listen more or less attentively (staff, too), ask questions and then, at the end, they come up and buy shed loads of books, you sign them, have your photo taken, answer more questions and everyone is happy - even the bookseller and the publicist.

Sometimes it doesn't go like that. You get a feeling this time, too. Of doom. There are no posters. No sign of any publicity. The receptionist is hostile, like every visitor is a potential paedophile, there are mutterings about CRB checks, photo I.D.. You don't have either, so you submit to a mug shot and take the pamphlet about the school's policy on Child Safety. No sign of any staff to greet you, so you sit and wait until a flustered librarian comes running round the corner, telling you that they are under Special Measures/have SATs tests/the hall is no longer available. You are in the Drama Studio which has no windows so ends up being a cross between a sauna and the Black Hole of Calcutta. Everyone has to sit on the floor, so you do a quick mental check to make sure that your Public Liability Insurance is up to date, just in case you trip over and crush the front row. The IT doesn't work - no one told us/no laptops available/we thought you were bringing yours with you. The students amble in unsupervised, sit where they like (i.e. as far you from as possible). They regard you with an indifference bordering on hostility; large swathes make an ostentatious point of paying you no attention and get on with texting/chatting/fidgeting/giggling/chewing and generally behaving as if you weren't there. The few staff who are present sit well away from their charges and get on with their marking. There are almost no questions and the ones that are asked are personal/facetious, or both. Almost nobody wants to buy books and everyone is glad to get out of there (most of all you).

Now, before I'm deluged with sympathy or messages of the 'Poor you! It never happens to me...' variety, I have to say that this does not happen very often. If it does, what to do?

1. Don't try to win them. If they have made their minds up not to 'appreciate', they won't. Finish as quickly as you can. Don't be afraid to knock it on the head. You are not contractually obliged. You aren't being paid.
2. Don't blame yourself (even if every one around you is doing so) because if a talk works in one place in front of one audience and not in another, than how are you the problem?
3. This from Bernard Ashley (let's face it, if he's had problems, anyone can): focus on the ones who are listening, not on the ones who aren't. Don't be distracted by those not paying attention; seek out those who are and speak to them. They wanted to come and they wanted to hear you. They want to ask questions and to buy books, so screen out the rest of them. If need be, make some time after the others have gone to talk to them individually or as a small group.

These negatives are minor compared with meeting enthusiastic readers, die hard fans who lug along bags of your old titles for you to sign or produce books that belong to their friend/sister/mum. Readers who like the look of whatever book you are promoting and want to try it and, these days, those who've started reading your book on Kindle but want a signed paper copy. Keen readers who have banded together to form their own book club/blog/writers group to shine like a beacon in the philistine darkness. You don't have to shift masses of books. If one person appreciates you being there, if signing one book makes that reader feel special, then the whole thing is worthwhile.

And I've met some wonderful booksellers who have organised excellent visits because they know their patch, they know their books and they know their schools. Booksellers like Elaine and Sue at SilverDell Books in Kirkham, who gave me a Rolls Royce (or Range Rover) of a day in and around Lancaster and even found time to show me their wonderful bookshop and let me sample their homemade ice-cream. Me, books and ice cream? It could get messy...


Liz Kessler said...

Celia, hope that the book tour went well, overall. You and your wonderful new book deserve it.

I've been there at both ends of the scale too. Worst event I ever did, I actually stopped everything and told them that if they weren't interested in me then I wasn't bothered but I wasn't going to hang around either, as I had better things to do than stand there being insulted and ignored by them when I wasn't even being paid for it. I very nearly just got my stuff and left. I think it was the only thing I said that all 100 of them actually listened to. Tough, scary places some of these schools.

Giles Diggle said...

I have only had one bad experience: the young people weren't prepared, they didn't know who I was, why I was there, that I was an author, and they certainly hadn't read the book, the Head of English left the classroom and let me get on with it. However, the young people were very nice and interested (as most young people are) when they discovered what was actually going on.

Other experiences have been quite the opposite - tea, cake, the photograph for the paper, well-informed children who have read the book. The only downside was when one young person said, "I thought you were dead!" He thought all authors had to be dead by definition - a sort of post-graduate qualification!

Penny Dolan said...

A very good description of both ends of the Book Visit spectrum. Well done Liz for standing up for yourself and the session that might have been!

I find that good preparation - or at least a welcoming attitude and some level of interest in me and my books - has a way of feeding into the actual visit, so the school generally gets a far better author visit experience than those who treat the session as a bothersome add-on. In more material terms, if the school is paying, it will get much, much better value out of being involved than in the other approach, though that's not in my mind at the time.

adele said...

Brilliant post. That is exactly how it is, I've found. Both ends of the spectrum experienced. Now put your feet up and relax!

Cecilia Busby said...

I've only done a few so far, but I definitely recognise the spectrum! I had one year 6 class where the teacher looked at me like I was the cleaner come at the wrong time, then sighed because I was interrupting his Maths session, and said, "You'd better introduce yourself, I don't really know who you are or what you're doing here." Lovely children, though, luckily!

Stroppy Author said...

A bookshop that makes ice cream? Seriously? Wow!

Celia Rees said...

I reckon we've all been at both ends, as Liz says, and it is good to know you you felt like walking out, too! Penny's right, even a little bit of interest and commitment from the school can make all the difference and if they are paying they usually put that bit more in - sad but true.
And, yes, Anne, a bookshop that makes its own ice-cream - pretty near to heaven, eh?

Linda Strachan said...

Yes, I've been there, too and had both kinds of school visits.
Interesting that you say if they are paying for it they usually put in a bit more effort.
I generally agree, it's not always true of course, but it does seem that if they get something they don't have to fork out for, they don't value it, which is a pity.

Penny Dolan said...

Erm . . . I'm not sure my comment came over quite as I intended. As a visiting author, once I'm "on stage" then I do the very best I'm able to do - as I'm sure all of you do - regardless of any money involved.

BUT a positive feeling of welcome from the school does seem to result in a kind of buzz to the whole event for EVERYONE. It's a two-way process, a sharing in the event.

So when schools are actually paying for the visit, it makes simple economic sense for the schools to prepare for and welcome the teacher and buy her/his books and so on.

(Am sure The Society of Authors offers suggestions about organising a good school visit somewhere on their website.)

TheBookAddictedGirl said...

Great post! During primary school, I remember getting author visits. I was always super excited, and never could get why some of my classmates couldn't care less. But I think if you'd come to my school, I would have died and gone to book heaven! That, or dislocated my arm from carrying so many books for you to sign!!
It was lovely to meet you on Friday, and I'll get a few guest post ideas to you ASAP! :D x

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Thank goodness Celia... I thought I was the only one who'd ever had half the audience taken away for a 'vital' rugby practice! Yes... could get hooked on a bookshop that sells homemade ice-cream!

Celia Rees said...

Nice to have the audience point of view from BookAddicted Girl - even if only a few people appreciate you being there, it makes it all worth while and, yes, everyone can have an 'epic fail', Di. It helps to know it can happen to us all!

Mark Robson said...

I'm SO there with you, Celia - at both ends of the scale. Though it would be nice to be offered a book tour for a launch these days. There seems to be growing signs that (at least with my publisher) if you're out there doing the visits anyway, why should they bother to organise anything? Worrying.

The ladies at SilverDell are gold! I worked with them a year or two ago and would do so again in a flash, as I would with Tony at Formby Books and any one of a number of other fantastic independents. There are great people in the chains as well, though. If you are ever asked to work with Jo Rowles down in Barnet - jump at it. She's another star.

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