Sunday 22 February 2015

Creating the best events - for authors AND organisers! - Nicola Morgan

This isn't a new topic for me but there is something special about this post: I am cross-posting with fabulous school librarian (former School Librarian of the Year, no less!) Duncan Wright, both of us writing from our own point of view but aimed at informing the other. So, I'm writing about what authors (writers or illustrators) would usually like from event organisers and Duncan has written here about what organisers need from authors. Both are in the spirit of positivity and mutual respect. We think it's good when each "side" can see it from the other's pov - though, of course, in almost every way we are both on the same side!

I have a document (on my events page) to send to organisers before my events but that is just my needs. What follows below aims to apply to all or most authors and to act as a general guide.

Your visiting author wants the event to be brilliant and whatever you hoped when you booked that author. We aim to give our best performance every time. That's our job and our desire but there are things you can do that will make that easier - or harder...

All authors are different. Some find events exhausting, because of the energy involved in talking to new audiences all the time; others find them relatively easy. We have different needs, but the following are pretty common.

  1. Choose one you really want, and know why. Explain why when you send the invitation. Read any event details on their website so you know they're right for you.
  2. If you absolutely have to ask for a reduced fee, please do this with a) respect and tact and only if you genuinely have to and b) fully understanding what you're asking: a working person to give up part/all their wages for the day (or more). We have to account for preparation, discussion, admin, travelling, and an event fee is not an hourly fee. Most of us earn very little and then only when someone pays us. There are ways of asking for freebies but if you don't get that quite right it's incredibly undermining. We bruise very easily! (To understand more, see here.)
  3. Be as clear as you can about what you want, though we realise that may not be possible. Ideally, know your budget, so discussions can start from there.
  1. Agree exactly what you're paying for. Agree expenses, too. If an overnight stay is required, most (but not all) authors value the privacy of a hotel or B&B rather than staying with a host. I know many authors who are too embarrassed to say no to accommodation with a lovely librarian in case they seem rude: it's just that privacy is really important to many and affects sleep and energy. 
  2. Agree time-table details. And inform about changes well in advance, as it affects preparation.
  3. Try not to send eleventy million emails. Although getting all the info is crucial (on both sides), try to do it smoothly, so that neither of you spend tooo much time on it and it's easy to find later.
  4. Discuss whether and how bookselling can be part of the event. 
  5. Be really clear about what you need from the day - we want to provide what you want but we're not psychic. 

  1. Ensure pupils know who the author is and what he or she has written. It’s good if they prepare questions – it helps make the event their own. Most authors have websites: get pupils to use them!
  2. Make sure relevant staff know about the visiting author, too. That increases value as staff can follow up.  
  3. Check what tech and other equipment is needed. And make sure it works!
  4. If you've agreed bookselling, do ensure that pupils are told (often!) that they need money. Pupils often discover they want to buy a book but very often don’t bring money. The letter that you carefully wrote may not reach them or they may have forgotten. If bookselling goes wrong, it’s upsetting and embarrassing – and costly when the author paid for the books. (By the way, we don't earn much per book.) Sometimes, you’ll do everything right and the message still won’t get through, of course, so don't worry that we're going to think badly of you. We just need to know you tried your best.
  5. Make sure no one will be filming or recording. Check with the author how they feel about photos. Personally, I’m happy to have photos taken (well, not happy exactly…) after/between events but not during. 
  6. Discuss refreshment needs and make sure there is water and whatever else you feel is going to help the author perform well. 
  7. Tell the author as soon as possible if a pupil might be upset at certain themes because of a recent personal tragedy or difficult situation. (I was once told, while walking towards the hall for a talk about Fleshmarket, that I couldn't talk about the first chapter because a pupil had recently been bereaved. If you know about Fleshmarket, you'll understand my problem...)
  1. Plan your introduction to the audience. A lively introduction makes a huge difference to everyone's mood and excitement – and flattery helps, bringing energy to both the pupils and author! (NB Illustrators are authors, too - never undermine an illustrator's part in an illustrated book by saying anything to suggest that one is more important than the other.) 
  2. Provide water and a table to put things on. (And anything else you've agreed.)
  3. I recommend you give the author a few minutes' headspace before each talk. Don't hassle with chat about the weather at this stage: we may not look nervous but will probably welcome the need mentally to go over what we're about to say. On the other hand, if the author seems very chatty, go with that! I sometimes am and sometimes am not - please don't take it personally.
  4. Bookselling (if you have agreed this): supply a table and chair for the author to sign at. Ensure that pupils don’t crowd round (I’ve been knocked off my chair like that!) You need someone to handle the actual selling while the author signs. Decide what, if anything, can be done to accommodate those who haven't brought money but want a book.
  5. Remind or tell the audience what you've agreed about photographs and that they may not film or record (unless the author has agreed otherwise.) Make sure phones are off and out of sight.
  6. Refreshment and breaks: make sure whatever you've agreed with the author is in place. 
A note about refreshments and breaks
Here's where I start to sound a bit nutty, but I've learnt that without the refreshments and breaks that I need, my brain starts to seize up. Most especially, I need breaks: little pockets of peace between talks. (For clarity, "peace" means not having to chat...) Lots of authors feel the same about the need for peace and may not tell you but I’ve decided it’s so crucial to my wellbeing and performance that I need to make a big point of it! I do like chatting and I am friendly but it's tiring.☺It's not the same as teaching all day - which I've done. And I also now do whole-day INSETS and even a whole-day INSET is not as tiring as doing a day of school events; doing a school event is much more like being on stage as an actor and delivering a one-person performance.

So, here's what I tell event organisers. (As I say, not everyone's the same. But you'll find many are.)
"My talks are energy-intense and afterwards my blood sugar will dive. I have very basic requirements but I do need time to myself at some point. I am delighted to be sent out to get a sandwich at lunch, or for you to give me a plate of food in the staff-room and time to gather my thoughts for the next event. Please do not feel that you need to entertain me. I’m an introvert (which does NOT mean I’m shy; far from it – just that conversation and social interaction tax my brain more) and I need recovery time between events. Of course, it’s lovely when other members of staff and management want to meet me and chat – and I can happily chat for Britain – but please make sure I get chill-out time as well, especially immediately before an event, otherwise the talk won’t be as good. In short, my only needs are: a sandwich (eg), something to drink and a bit of time on my own. And the time on my own is the more important bit because I'll have brought my emergency fruit and nut supply anyway. I told you: nutty!
"I have no food allergies or special requirements but was once given a raw onion sandwich at a school event and now feel the bizarre need to request NO raw onion. Thank you!"
  1. Suddenly ask the author to “pop into this class and talk to them” if we haven’t agreed this in advance. 
  2. Feel that you have to entertain us, unless we've specifically asked for a song and dance routine. 
  3. Introduce us with the phrase, "X needs no introduction."
  4. Leave us alone with pupils – this is a condition of our Public Liability insurance and not because we are scared!
  5. Send (or escort) us along convoluted corridors (or even, in my case, one straight corridor) to the toilets and expect us to find our way back. Authors have disappeared like that.
  6. Allow teachers to sit and mark books - please ask them to be involved in the talk; I know they are very busy but everyone will gain much more if they are properly engaged and it's very off-putting when someone is sitting there not listening. (Actually, it doesn't bother me hugely but it bothers some people a LOT. And it's rude.)
  7. Tell us (as you're walking us towards the first talk, especially) how utterly GREAT so-and-so was and how he as the best speaker evah.
  8. Worry about anything. If you’ve done all the above, it’s going to be a great day.
Remember that we want exactly what you want: a great event that people will talk about for all the right reasons. Almost none of us are prima donnas (or whatever the male equivalent of that is) and anything that sounds like a pompous "demand" is really really really only so that we can give you our best event. But most of us are fragile: this whole authory thing is very exposing and our career, reputation and emotional wellbeing are on the line. And so, if you want to earn our undying gratitude, just do one more thing, if you possibly can: say "Well done - that was great." And gosh, I hope it was, because I worked hard to make it so.


Stroppy Author said...

Oh - now I'm even more reluctant to do events. There is so much to go wrong! I will just sit here and write, where it's all in my control. In awe, Nicola, as always!

Clémentine Beauvais said...

Oh this is such a fantastically useful post! thank you!!! I will link to it as much as I can. So clear and precise. It makes a huge difference when schools do things right - and you can just feel it in the kids' attitudes and engagement when the teachers and staff are happy and motivated.

Raw onion sounds like the kind of thing one should only give Louis Sachar on a school visit.

Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for this - I have done time with every one of the don'ts (with the exception of the raw onion sandwich) - and even with the full list, when the teacher said those magic words at the end, all was well again! (Or at least a whole lot better!)

I'm definitely one of the ones who is bugged bigtime when teachers sit and mark when I'm talking - I now pause until they notice the silence and look up, and say "Hi there! Join us! This is fun!" And then turn bright red, but hey, I do that anyway.

Joan Lennon said...

I've now read Duncan's advice about this situation and will NOT try to drag them in any more. Good to know, live and learn!

Nicola Morgan said...

Joan - hehe! Tbh, I think you can still do that, as long as you don't (and you wouldn't) blame the librarian, who will also be wishing they weren't doing it. Also, to hope that someone doesn't do something is not the same as failing to understand why it happens. We do understand, but just wish it wouldn't!

Clementine - yes, Louis Sachar might regret that them in Holes!

Stroppy - I may join you... This post and my Peterborough talk next weekend come at a time when I'm actually wishing I could stop the events, as I'm exhausted by them and the amount of prep I always do. Gah. But I do get a buzz.

C.J.Busby said...

Yes - I also get wound up by teachers marking, and I also have now learned that it's probably best not to get too stroppy about it! But I always quietly note it, and think it's a sign of a poor teacher, since if they want to get the best out of the visit with the kids afterwards, they need to be able to refer to what was said/done!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for giving me the chance to work with you on this subject Nicola. I hope that people will find the two posts together useful. Unsurprisingly there is much common ground between the two posts - this shows that we all want the events to be the best that they can be.

Duncan said...

Thanks for giving me the chance to work with you on this subject Nicola. I hope that people will find the two posts together useful. Unsurprisingly there is much common ground between the two posts - this shows that we all want the events to be the best that they can be.

Saviour Pirotta said...

Brilliant post, Nicola. I find the best way to deal with the bookselling after school is to hook up with a local independent bookshop. They organise everything and you only have to sign. I always ask a teacher to write the kids' names on a sticky note before I sign. There are so many different ways to spell a name nowadays that it's easy to ruin a book with with a wrongly-spelled name.

As for losing your way back from the loos, I once popped into a lav in a junior school and came out in the infant school. Still don't know how that happened.

Miriam Halahmy said...

I have read both posts and I think they are both excellent. I agree with everything that has been said and having been both a teacher and a writer in schools I think that all sides need to be clear, flexible, co-operative and determined to create the best event for all involved. I never had a raw onion sandwich and would have politely refused it and taken out my emergency supplies.

M Louise Kelly said...

Great post Nicola - and Duncan. So useful to have both points of view expressed. Lots of the issues seem to arise because of confused expectations, like the chatting to authors in the breaks - i'm sure teachers/librarians do it because they think it's required as a good host, so it's SO useful for them to know that it might actually be counterproductive and they should check whether it's wanted! Long live clear communication.

Kathryn Evans said...

Thsi is brilliant - and so timely - been worrying about this very topic!

Nicola Morgan said...

Miriam - emergency supplies are vital!

Thanks, all. Glad it was helpful. Duncan and I are creating a doc which all authors and schools/etc can have.

Anonymous said...

A great blog, although I still see no excuse for teachers sitting at the back and marking books. Author visits are not the same as a free period, those teachers would have to be teaching those kids if we weren't there. Also, and particularly with primary, how can you expect kids to sit quietly and pay attention when their teacher thinks it's fine not to? I'm sure if I sat at the back of their class and quietly drew focus while they were trying to teach they'd have something to say about it,.

Paul said...

Hi Nicola,
I recently gave a masterclass for SCBWI on the theme of Author Visits and I would love to be able to include a link to this post in the notes for the talk which I will be making available soon. Would you be happy for me to put a link in, with attribution of course?
Did you create the doc with Duncan which you mentioned above?
Many thanks,