I always feel awkward mentioning the book signing.
It’s not the actual signing that’s the awkward bit; it’s the selling. When I’m booked for a school visit, I send the school details of what I do and add, “At the end of the day I do a book signing.” I often feel embarrassed bringing it up; I know it means more work for one of the teachers, and I worry that they’ll think it’s just about me making money.
Yet it’s an important part of the visit.
What I talk about varies from school to school and from session to session, but something I always make sure to emphasise is the fun of reading. Reading for pleasure is, I believe, absolutely key, and if I leave a school having turned just one child on to the idea that sitting down with a good book might actually be fun, then I’ve achieved something.
But in order to sit down with a good book, that child, er, needs a good book. They may already have some at home, of course, but they may not; and if a child has been enthused about reading by an author, they may want to read one of that author’s books. In that moment there’s something special about it, and if the book is signed by the author that makes it even more special. So I think that any good author visit should include a signing session.
Not every school sees it that way, of course. Once, when I was arranging a school visit through a third party, I mentioned the book signing and the message came back, “The head says he’s not willing to have poor children pressured into buying a book.” To be honest, I wish now that I’d replied, “Well, I’m not willing to visit a school that doesn’t value reading a bit more highly than that, or where the head is so rude to someone he’s never met,” because the visit, as it turned out, was one of my all-time worst; it really felt I’d been invited as some kind of window-dressing.
But sometimes a school simply hasn’t thought about it.
One of the schools I visited a few weeks back hadn’t. When I mentioned the signing, the teacher with whom I was liaising replied, “I don’t think we’ll do the signing, because we’re using the hall after school for clubs and so on and it might just be one thing too many.”
Well, I felt awkward, but I wrote back explaining why I felt the book signing was important and that we could use a classroom, and, thankfully, she saw my point and agreed, and on the day helped me with the practicalities of the signing.
Afterwards, she said, “We’ve never done a book signing before, but that went really well, didn’t it?” and we got to talking a bit more about why it matters. And I told her about one of my most memorable signings ever.
It had been in a school that really hadn’t got behind the idea of the signing at all. “Our parents don’t really respond well to that sort of thing,” they’d said, and I could tell that this was code for, “Well, you can try to sell some books if you like, but we’re not going to put any effort into making sure the parents know about it.”
So after school I set up my little bookstall, and… nobody came. I waited for fifteen minutes or so, and then began to pack up.
Just as I was about to start carrying the books out to the car, the doors of the hall banged open and a boy burst in. He was sweating and panting, but when he saw me there his face split into a huge grin. He’d run all the way home to get the price of a book, and he’d run all the way back again, desperate to buy one and worried he’d missed me. Something about the visit had really connected with him, enough that getting a signed book really, really mattered. And making that sort of connection with potential readers, I told the teacher, is something you can’t put a price on.
She agreed, and we chatted some more, and then I thanked her, and started to carry my books out to the car.
I was loading the last box in and about to shut the boot, when she appeared in the car park. But she wasn’t alone. With her was a dishevelled, red-faced boy, panting and sweating. And she looked at him, and gave me a knowing smile, and I realised.
He’d run all the way home, and back again.