Tuesday 20 February 2018

School Visits and Book Sales - A Vexed Question by Joan Lennon

When I looked up "vexed question" this is what I found:

Vexata Quaestio. A question or point of law often discussed or agitated, but not determined nor settled.

Which pretty much describes the fit between book sales and school visits down to the ground.  Opinions for and against can run strong.  More and more schools won't even consider it.  What are some of the advantages, disadvantages and methods of making book selling and signing part of an author event?

The pros:
* There's something pretty special about having a book signed just for you - it's a connection - it makes that author your author.
* And for the author, it's a brief but lovely chance to make a one-to-one contact, answer a question, share a smile or a joke.

The cons:
* Books are expensive, and many families are under enough money pressures already without adding one more.
* What about the kid who doesn't get a book - everybody remembers how it feels, being the one left out.  

The hows:
* A local bookshop comes in and deals with it all - providing stock, doing the selling.
* The school deals with a supplier (bookshop or direct with the publisher) and has a teacher or someone on hand for the nitty-gritty.  
* The author carries stock with them and handles the money.

Should book sales and signing be part of an author visit to a school?  What do you think is the best answer to this vexed and vexing question?  Or if there is no single answer, what do you think is the best compromise?  What pros and cons and hows have you experienced?

Let the conversation/discussion/agitation begin!

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.
Walking Mountain.


Sue Bursztynski said...

Okay, let me talk about this wearing my school librarian hat. It all very much “depends.” I work in a disadvantaged school which can’t afford author visits anyway. But every now and then, over the years, we’ve scored. Once, a children’s book award organisation got some money and invited schools to apply, the deal being you took whichever writer they offered you. Another time, the State Library’s Centre for Youth Lit had a session planned, but not enough bookings and offered us a visit for which they footed the bill. There were a few times when, for whatever reason, we got a visit courtesy of someone else. I never bothered with the local bookshop; there just weren’t going to be enough kids who could afford it to make it worthwhile. When an author asked to bring stock, I’d agree, but warn them not many kids would buy. But I would buy a couple of copies for the library and a couple more from my own pocket for the author to award for the best question. They always sold a few and for the rest I would photocopy some book covers - never a lot, but if a few kids wanted a signed mini poster, they could get one. The authors never minded and I would give them the leftover book covers to take to their next school.

You probably mostly visit private schools anyway, which can afford to pay you, but I suggest you ask when you are sorting out the booking; the librarian will certainly be able to tell you!

Susan Price said...

Sue B, I'm with all the way until you say, "You probably mostly visit private schools anyway..."
What? -- I know Joan, as it happens, and neither she nor I mostly visit private schools. We visit some and it's true, these days, that they have more money to spend on school visits by authors and you can pretty much guarantee that, if selling books is part of the visit, you will sell some.
But Joan and I probably visit more state schools than private schools. Always have. The librarians and teachers are still struggling to fund author visits despite the cuts. I take my hat off to them.

Sue Bursztynski said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve Gladwin said...

I agree with Sue P here and I confess to being a little confused because its clear to me reading Joan's post that she's trying very honestly to open up a debate purely so that people can express what they think, (possibly due to one or two people's recent problems with individual schools!) and very deliberately doesn't bring herself into it. To put my fourpennyworth in though, I've hardly ever had an encouraging response from schools but am quite happy to explore any options which suit the most people, as long as I don't end up being exploited. That's only common sense.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Nice to hear, Susan! I do, however, keep reading blog posts by authors who visited this or that school that turns out to be a private school several hundred years old and have a library staff of about 37. Can’t blame me for making assumptions! ;-) Steve, I don’t blame you for not wanting to be exploited. It’s how you make a living. But there are, simply, schools that just can’t afford you.

Penny Dolan said...

Joan, lots of good points here today.

Sadly, school visits are rarely great places for selling one's own books these days. Many teachers are not interested and/or aware of that side of the author business, or the correlation between selling books and keeping oneself in print for one's publishers.

Some schools seem to view selling one's own books as an imposition. After all, the school is already paying you to be there, isn't it? Also your books could be in competition with the big, commercial School Book Fair arranged for that Book Week, which is where the school gets its cut of book-sales profit, in cash and/or in books. Besides, the SBF is probably how they are getting the cash to pay for YOU, so one can't complain too loudly.

Now I know one can plan ahead and take books along there with you: some authors are just excellent at that sort of promotional & PR angle. However, in the past, I have lugged and wheeled boxes of my titles around, and a weighty cash float. Yet so many schools forgot to tell parents or had no staff free to help etc etc etc, that I just gave up. (Huge gratitude, however, to all those shops and schools and staff who did help me in the past and did understand. You were like blessings!)

Three other things happened in the world of books. One: Bookshops like Waterstones became unwilling to get copies in for sale or return. Two: Big bookselling companies like Amazothe n & Book People began selling heavily discounted titles and tie-ins direct to customers & staff rooms. Three: As self-publishing became viable, indie children's authors began visited schools for free, pushing their latest titles. The deal was that the school would "pay" by doing a big sell on the indie's titles. How could I, an ordinary author, be expecting both a fee AND book sales? That was way too unrealistic and indulgent!

I admit I slowly gave up and let it stop bothering me, although I do take a few signed copies along to give to whichever school was welcoming me for their Book Day.

Sometimes, there ARE book sales in schools. Even now,I am always surprised when a teacher asks if I can bring along some books to sell. I direct them to their nearest bookshop, especially any children's bookshop, asking them to make arrangements there. Then I keep out of whatever's arranged - other than making sure I have a good pen - while feeling very pleased and grateful to all those involved and all those who do understand.

Susan Price said...

I find, Penny, that schools are asking me to bring in books to sell again. I went to one just the other day -- it was one of these new-fangled 'academies' which (for Sue B's benefit) are state schools run as a business by a company. (I don't approve, as these are neither fowl nor fish and can cherry-pick their pupils and then claim they are superior to the true state schools because they get better exam results, but since I can't get rid of the Tory Party on my own, I have to grit the teeth.)

It was in a rather affluent corner of the West Midlands and even had its own librarian -- a very good one -- who organised the visit and asked me to bring along books to sell. She asked me for an idea of the price-range of the books, and sent letters home with the children beforehand. I took along a mix of conventionally published and self-published books and sold a reasonable number. I was quite pleased.

But I have three further visits coming up and all of them have asked me to bring books to sell.

Sue B, I have indeed visited a few wealthy fee-paying schools -- but very few among the scores and scores of State schools I've visted over the past 40 years. I've visited schools in the Gorbals in Glasgow!-- Before it was a City of Culture. And in Belfast, during the Troubles, I talked to children in the library the staff nicknamed 'the Alamo.'

Anne Booth said...

Thank you Joan, this is a very interesting debate. I feel that if a school is keen then I am very happy (of course I am delighted to sell books! ) to have book sales, but on my own I would rather come, show my books, get paid for workshops and donate copies to the library and not sell, so as not to put direct pressure on children and their parents. Also, without teachers' support I find the logistics of selling books and doing workshops too stressful. If the school IS organising a book sale of my books (the lovely state school I am going to next week is so I am lucky) then I always make a point of reminding the children that they don't HAVE to buy a book and that there will be one in the library. That's because I came from a poor family and I have four children myself and I remember feeling very stressed when suddenly told that there was going to a book fair at my children's school. It is really hard because most writers are aware of the stress on schools with budgets and so can find it difficult to charge in the first place, but I would rather be paid by the school and have no immediate book sales than have to do a hard sell.

I have also, in the past, done free school visits to local schools, and will be going to a local nursery and playgroups soon, but I avoid that in general because a) it goes against Society of Authors' guidelines and undermines others b) it then means that book sales on the day become even more important and c) sadly, my experience is that sometimes, when you offer free visits, it can mean your visit is not valued or prepared for, so that is deeply unsatisfying. This isn't the case with one local school where I have done free workshops and loved it - and they then booked and paid me to come back - but others approached me, seemed to want me in to flog books and expected that to be my payment. I don't think that is good for anyone.

Re private schools: I am trying to make my money from, and spend most of my time on, writing, rather than lots of school visits (much as I enjoy them) and I am lucky, because at the moment I have lots of work, that I can do that. It might change for me - I may have years were I don't have much work. I know that some full time writers have to do lots of school visits just to get by, and sign up with agencies who will, I imagine, often send them to private schools as well as state schools. I think those may be the ones who blog about school visits to schools with fantastic libraries. I think it is a bit harsh to criticise them for that - the vast majority of full time writers earn less than teachers - I know that because I am a writer married to a teacher who taught only in state schools - and they have to live. If state schools can't afford to have them in for visits, then it isn't unreasonable for them to go to private schools . As writers, librarians and teachers we all really feel sad and angry about cuts in state education budgets and we have to work together putting pressure on the government rather than expecting anyone = teachers, librarians, writers, illustrators, publishers, to work for free and criticising them if they don't. There are things we can do for schools who just don't have budgets - be book buddies or possibly do Skype. I have tweeted to, and answered questions from to a book group which was easy and fun for me and, they said, exciting for me - so if librarians want to ask me to do that I'd be very happy!

Anne Booth said...

Sorry about my typos - I was rushing as I wanted to contribute but (ironically!) I have editing to do !!! I meant that the children found tweeting exciting!

Joan Lennon said...

Thanks, everyone, for comments!