Sunday 16 March 2014

The reasons for signing - John Dougherty

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.


John's latest book is Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face and the Badness of Badgers (OUP)


Joan Lennon said...

Thank you - making a difference, one child at a time, is a worthy thing!

RosyB said...

Do the schools buy copies of your book too? Did the school that said they weren't going to have poorer children pressured into buying books buy some copies for the school or the whole class? If not, what is the attitude - that kids should have no access whatsoever? I would have thought the whole point of writers in schools is to encourage engagement and excitement in the books and reading. When I was a kid, our teacher read to us as a class at the end of the day - just for pleasure. It is the only thing I witnessed that set off a frenzy of book-buying and also home-reading - with children voting on which we were read next and getting really into others of the same series etc. It has really stayed with me in the way that reading lessons never did - because it was motivated by excitement as she picked adventurous exciting book and read them in a way where people got into the story (and therefore wanted to read them themselves).

Anonymous said...

Absolutely brilliant!

Heather Dyer said...

I also remember a book club coming to school, and the excitement of ordering books (and reading them at home). It's a difficult one, if some children can't afford it but seems a shame to deprive the others, and maybe those who can't buy them now will see book buying as something worth doing later on, when they can buy them for themselves? I've been drafting a letter to send home to parents myself for the first time and struggling over what to say. I've settled for 'if you would like your child to have the opportunity to buy a signed copy on the day... etc.' We shall see what sort of response it gets!

Penny Dolan said...

I agree witha ll you say about how special it is for a child to have a copy of an authors book.

It is quite hard, too, to explain the intricacies of why it helps the writer if you buy the book, beyond the 5% royalty per copy, if that.

Most people, faced with the big Book Fairs, Book Fair drop-by salespersons and supermarket shelves stacked with books may not appreciate that, for the individual author, a) book outlets are very few now, restricting opportunities for books selling and b) that if your books aren't available and therefore don't sell, your next m/ss (no matter how good) may not be taken by your publisher.
Good post.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I always make sure that my library has some copies of the book BEFORE the author comes, but allow for a signing. And as my students really are poor and few can afford to buy the books, I buy a few out of my pocket when the author arrives and have them as prizes for asking a good question(it breaks the ice when the guest says,"Does anyone have any questions?" and nobody says anything, not wanting to be first). I certainly don't expect the author to set up his or her own stall after school! The talk happens in the library, so the guest can go and sit at the table straight after the talk. And because I want the kids to go home with something and the author to have more than a two minute signing, I make up some book covers to be signed for those who can't afford the book. (Last time I gave the guest some to take to his next talk).

Now, John, if you mean "the joy of reading *my* book" fair enough, you feel like an idiot if the school doesn't have the books you're mentioning in your talk, but if you mean a general joy of reading, hopefully those students have a school library stocked with plenty of books, no matter hw hard the system is trying to get rid of librarians to save money! However good your talk is - and it must have been very good to send a child racing home and back with the mney! - you can't save the joy of reading for kids all by yourself! ;-)

Heather Dyer said...

Sue, I wish I did more school visits with schools like yours...;)

bookwitch said...

Lovely story!

I'm beginning to wonder if one reason schools (teachers) say they won't, or don't think of it, or plan it, is that they don't know how.

I avoid doing things I don't know how like the plague. But if a kindly person explains it, preferably before I've had to ask and embarrassed myself, I can do lots of things and am happy to.

Emma Barnes said...

One thing worth mentioning is that o many places now are "book deserts" - there's no local bookshop, and so parents are pleased to have books available to buy in school.

A Wilson said...

I have just had the "I'm sorry but the head doesn't agree with selling books" conversation. And guess what happened? Kids came up to me after the talk asking why I was not selling or signing books, parents came in after school and asked the same... I am going to keep your blog post and may use your brilliant wording to explain the importance of a signed book next time this happens (as I know, sadly, it will). Thanks, John!

Katherine Langrish said...

Such a great post, John!

John Dougherty said...

Haven't been able to post for a couple of days - thanks, everyone, for your comments.

Sue - like Heather, I wish more schools had librarians like you! Come to that, I wish most of the schools I visit had libraries - that would be a start...

Ironically, I visited a school today which unilaterally cancelled the signing without bothering to tell me!!! I only found out at lunchtime, AFTER I'd bought books, lugged them all the way to Birmingham, and unloaded them from the car. I'm still furious.

Dee said...

This is an emotive post John. I liked the bit about the boy who ran all the way home twice! It also taught me that even authors as well known as you get treated badly by some schools. Why do school do things like this, and why do they think it is okay?

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid I disagree strongly. Authors survive, or not, by the quality of their work. If children like an author, who is visiting their school and can afford the book, they can buy it and bring it to the school for the visit. The "visiting author's" job is to inspire reading and writing, not flogging their book - that's the job of the publisher. Of course children are going to be wowed enough by the visiting "celebrity" to run home and get the money. I think this is a disingenuous blog and a flawed rational. Sorry.

John Dougherty said...

I'm not really in the mood to engage with someone who accuses me of disingenuousness from the cover of anonymity, armed with nothing other than unsupported (and, to use your own word, flawed) assertions.

If you want to come back under your own name, or provide some actual arguments, feel free.

Anonymous said...

If you visit a school without charge then I apologise for using the word disingenous, if you do charge my point remains. As someone who works in publishing I'm certainly going to remain anonymous.

John Dougherty said...

That reply doesn't really make any sense. I'm calling 'troll'. Bye.