Tuesday 23 November 2021

On school visits....a school librarian's perspective from Dawn Finch

Recently, on Facebook, a new author was asking for advice about school visits. Dawn Finch, who has in the past been a prolific contributor to ABBA, put up a link to this post which she wrote on the subject in 2015, and it was full of so much good advice that I decided to hunt it out and re-publish it. So here it is! Sue Purkiss

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

On school visits....a school librarian's perspective from Dawn Finch

When I first started doing author visits as a published author, it wasn't really new to me. I’d been doing them for a very long time, but it had always been from the other side of the table (so to speak) as I spent ten years as a school librarian. During that time I’d learned a lot from the good visits, and even more from the bad ones. One day I'll blog about those, but only if I'm so rich and famous that the people concerned won't be able to afford to come after me!
 I’m the Vice President of CILIP, but was previously the vice-chair of the London and South East School Libraries Group committee, and early in 2014, we had our annual LibMeet. Part of this day was taken up with a workshop about author visits. Money is tight in schools and, even though librarians know how inspiring an author visit can be, they find it hard to convince their leadership team to stump up the costs. One of the key things that came out of this discussion is that whilst a freebie is great, it’s genuinely not the deciding factor. All of the librarians said that they had turned down free offers from authors that they felt had little or no merit or who looked “poor quality”. It was very reassuring to discover that they are looking for quality and will pay if they can convince their head teachers and business managers that it is worth it.
When librarians gather....not a "ssshh" in the house!

So, what are they looking for? All of the librarians agreed that they were looking for pretty much the same things from an author visit. Some of these points will probably seem completely obvious to you, but I hope that you find at least a couple of useful things!
Before the visit and from the first approach….
·         An author who knows the school and has taken the time to find out the librarian’s name.  
It sounds like a minor point but every librarian liked it when an author emailed them in person, and mentioned something about the school.
·         A package.
It sounds obvious but a clear package for your visits can make you stand out. School librarians get dozens of emails and flyers each year offering author visits and most are clearly sent out as a bulk email and are ignored. Please put the price on, and include your expenses in the amount. All of the librarians said that they prefer seeing a clear package and would be far less likely to follow up an author who is cagey about the price as it creates awkwardness all round!
·         An author who offers something to contribute to lesson plans.
Time is short in schools and they don’t know your books as well as you do. If you can offer some ideas for lessons relating to your books then they are more likely to invite you in. Think about the key curriculum areas and refer to them in your plans. If your books don’t tie in to specific curriculum areas then look at PSHE (personal, social, health and emotional) issues instead.
·         A pre-visit pack
Librarians are very keen to have the children prepared for author visits and appreciate linked materials in advance. If you can spring for a copy of your latest book as well as some publicity material that can often be the clincher for a booking. If you are not able to send a copy of your book, extracts are appreciated. (Don’t forget to check with the librarian which extract they have read so that you don’t repeat it on the day!) Offer this material in both disc and email format. Include a pre-order form for your books in this pack so that the librarian can tweak, add school branding, and send it straight out.
·         Competitions
As part of your visit offer a competition – a free signed copy of your book for a story competition is usually the favoured one among both children and teachers. Offer to host the winning story on your blog or website, and interview the winner. If you include the details of the competition as part of your package the librarian can start that off with the English department long before you arrive.
On the day…
Feel the fear...and do it anyway!

During the visit the librarians and literacy coordinators are looking for key things that will make them consider the visit useful and purposeful (“purposeful” being one of Ofsted’s favourite words!)
They are looking for an author who…
  • ·         relates to students the importance of good and accurate research and how they accomplish it
  • ·         communicates with the students well and in an unpatronising way
  • ·         talks about the work of other authors, and about books that were an influence in their lives
  • ·         is able to show that they got where they are by working hard, and that working hard is enjoyable and rewarding
  • ·         is able to do a presentation with or without technology (not all schools can afford it)
  • ·         gives a presentation that is lively, engaging and witty (even for more serious books they are still looking for lively performances)
  • ·         shares the hardships of their lives with the pupils in an appropriate way (I won’t write here about the author I once booked who shared way too much….!)
  • ·         talks about other media and not just books. They like you to talk about comics, movies, plays, blogs, social media – not all children want to talk about books
  • ·         gives the same level of performance to ten children as to a hundred...or more.

Things that the librarians found helped the visit along…
A little bit of bribery helps! Authors who had badges, bookmarks or little treats as rewards for asking a “good” question, coaxed much better questions out of the pupils and were remembered for longer.
Bribes (ahem..sorry) incentives.
Repeat the question. Most children are a bit mumbly and confused when asking a question and often can’t be heard by the rest of the room. If you repeat their question loud enough for the other children to hear you can tidy it up a bit, and make sure that no one else is sitting with their hand up and the same question in their head!
Trying to be cool does not help at all! The “cringe factor” can be the death knell of an author visit. Children have an expectation of mild eccentricity (ahem – speak for yourselves!) with authors and the ones who are a little like that are generally better received.
Keep moving. Make use of the stage or the area that you are presenting in and keep moving about. Young people drift off easily and if you keep moving, you are more likely to keep them engaged. Nothing wrong with being a little bit of a windmill at times!
Involve the pupils. Get them up to demonstrate something, or to be dressed up, or to wear a hat or hold a sign – anything that makes them part of the show will get all of the others sitting up and paying close attention. (I have a monk’s habit and pick a child to dress up, they love it, even very surly teens)
It's a bad habit, and I've no one to blame but myself.

After the visit…
"sooooo excited!" I love this picture.
Stay engaged after the visit, offer to help with a short story competition, or be interviewed for the school website or magazine. A few days after the visit (or when you send your invoice in) email the head teacher and thank them for inviting you to the school. (You’d be amazed how few authors say thanks after an event. I know you were working, but if you enjoyed it, please say so!) This is also a good time to email the librarian and send them a “further reading” list of other authors who write in a similar field to you.  You might also like to create an A4 poster of the books that influenced you so that the librarian can print this and display it in the library. After a successful author visit the pupils want to know more about the author and a couple of posters of “what influenced me” and “my favourite books” always go down well.
If a visit doesn't go very well it can often be saved after the event by an author being lovely and by staying engaged. I remember one visit when the author was not very well and he was obviously exhausted and not properly engaged in the process, and the children just didn't click with him. After the event he apologised and we did some online interviews and he sent some hilarious photos of him reading the children’s stories and in the end it worked out rather well – despite a terribly awkward visit!
Now, I can hear some of you screaming from the back, “what?! I don’t have time for all that! You've lost your mind woman!” Well, that is your choice of course and, if you are getting masses of bookings and repeat visits, then clearly you are already giving what people want. If you are GREAT BIG NAME, then you will be booked anyway and are possibly drowning in offers, but not all of us can claim that.
The bottom line is that librarians talk to each other. Most school librarians work alone and so to survive (and stay sane!) they have an extensive virtual network. There are almost a thousand members of CILIP SLG, and that's only a fraction of the school librarians in the country – and they all connect through various closed forums. If you are giving a fun, engaging, lively and purposeful visit then it will come up on the networks – and the same goes for a visit that doesn't go as well! The forums are often buzzing with “I've had an email from Miss Doobery Whatsit, children’s and YA author, anyone know what she’s like before I book?”
If you pitch it well, and give the librarians and schools what they need then your ears will burn as the forums light up with positive comments about you, and your email will run hot with bookings, and everyone wants that!

Written by Dawn Finch - School Library Consultant and author of Brotherhood of Shades

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Oh boy, was this depressing! Which I know is absolutely not the intent, by the way. I know there's more to being published than just writing; you have to be a salesman/woman too. But reading this makes me want to give up for good. It also made me realise one reason I write is to escape from the world. Selling myself like this just isn't me. Never was. Never will be.