Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Successful Author School Visits: For Authors

School Visit in Circleville, Ohio

The other day, we were discussing author school visits in one of the writing groups I belong to.  

The discussion actually started from my article about public public speaking.  One of the authors in the group then asked the following:
"Hi C.J. Thank you for another helpful article. However, for those of us who have never done a school visit, can you do another article on the content of your presentation? 
Do you talk about the writing process, read part of your story, ask a student to read a chapter? Do you include Powerpoint presentations, run a book trailer video? 
How do you run your session?" 
I will cover what I have learned through thirteen years of school presentations, but please keep in mind, this is only what worked best for me when planning, setting up, and doing an author school visit.

There are many variables when we're talking about how to do school visits.  Every author is different.  We all have different personalities, different styles of public speaking, and different ways to relate to children.  Always be yourself and do what you feel comfortable doing.

Use this only as a guide.  You will find your own groove after doing a couple of them -- and it will probably be much better than mine!

Setting Up an Author School Visit:

Author school visits are usually set up through the school's Reading Specialist, although each school handles this in their own way.  

Before I make my initial contact with a school, I call ahead to find out the name and title of the person who sets up their author school visits for the coming year.

Then you can make contact in several ways.  Some authors, (me included), have used post cards, which are printed much like a larger version of a business card, with a photo of your book(s) and one of you, contact information, the types of programs you offer, etc.  

Besides school visits, I also do poetry workshops and speak to PTA's and parents about the importance of poetry in schools.  This is something I also include on the post card.

Another way to make an initial contact is to send what I call a school packet, which is a modified press kit.  You can include whatever you feel is important, but this is what is in mine:
Past school visit references
A list of publishing credits
A copy of your book and a bookmark
Stickers pertaining to your book(s), or characters from your book(s)
Advance Book Order Form to send home with students w/price
An Intro Form to send home about you, your book(s), and your school visit
Copies of news clippings, magazine articles, about you and your book(s)
A list of ways I can work with the school so they can afford to hire me 
**This is all put in a folder with side pockets and dropped off, or mailed

What to Expect:

Schools want to know,"What can we do to make it a success?"

Authors want to know the same, "What should I expect and how can I make it a success?"

Always plan ahead.  Address as Much as Possible When You First Set it Up:

* Be honest and open about what you will do and how much you will charge. State your daily rate and the number of presentations you can, or will, do for that daily rate. 
Most of us set our own fees, depending on our experience level.  
In the case of an author with a first school visit, you might want to set a low fee to start, just to get your feet wet and to get some school visit references.  
The next year, as a more experienced speaker, and with the references you have from your first year, you could then raise your fee.
* If you are only able to do two presentations per day, make that clear in your first phone conversation with the school.  I can comfortably do five presentations in a day, before my voice gives out.  (I love the schools that only need you to do four ...)

* Be honest about the group size you're comfortable with. If you LOVE speaking to a full auditorium of teachers, students, and at times, even parents, then say so. If you would rather keep the groups small, then tell them that, as well. 
* Keep in mind, the smaller the group, the more presentations you will have to do to include all of the school's classes and teachers.
* Tell the school what props you will need to have on hand for your author visit: easel, pointer, chalkboard and chalk, chair, stool, rocking chair, rug to sit on, microphone, podium, bottled water, tissues.

* Find out where your presentations will be: auditorium (on stage), cafeteria, library, classrooms, hallway or loading dock. Again, talk to the school about the maximum number of students you would be comfortable speaking to -- this is very important.

* Find out where you should park and what time to arrive at the school to meet your contact, the office staff, take a potty break, and to set up.

What Do I Include in a Presentation?

You are  limited only by your own imagination.  Be inventive.  Be different.  Be yourself.

* First and foremost, the teachers and the children know you are a children's author, so if you don't do anything else, read your book(s), or part of your book(s) during your presentation.

I have found that the first five minutes are the most important.  I don't know them, and they certainly don't know me.  

Since I am a children's poet, I always break the ice with them this way:

"How many of you LOVE poetry?"  (gets a show of hands)
"How many HATE poetry?"  (usually one or two hands)
"C'mon, be honest.  How many hate poetry?  It's okay, really."  (more hands)
"Okay. I'm going to take that as a challenge!"
"Did you know poetry touches your life every day?"  (doubtful looks all around)
"When you listen to the radio, songs have lyrics and lyrics are what?"  ("Poems!")
"How about commercials?  Some have rhyme and rhythm. Those are what?"  ("Poems!")
(then I sing the Oscar Meyer wiener song and of course everyone laughs)
"When mom has a birthday, what do you buy at a Hallmark store?"  ("a card!")
(I have a couple of funny rhyming cards I read to them)
What did those cards have?"  ("Poems!")
"Another kind of poem that I know you know.  Tongue twisters!"  ("Yeah!")
I have one I use and I say it slowly first, then have them say it.
Then I say it faster and they will, too.
Then I split the room in half and do a challenge between the two sides ... 
Then I have only the teachers do the tongue twister and ask the kids, "Were they fast enough?" 
The kids always yell, "No!", so the teachers have to do it again. (lots of laughter)
After this, I ask again, "So, how many still hate poetry?"  (no hands at all, only big smiles)

CJ with Tongue Twister Behind on Easel
I use this tongue twister, but I've used others, too:
One-one was a racehorse.  
Two-two was one, too.  
When One-one won one race, 
Two-two won one, too.

Anyway, this is what works for me.  It's a great ice-breaker and the kids are  ready for my presentation, because they feel they know me.

More Things to Address Before the School Visit:

* Be clear and up front about what you charge for traveling, room and/or board, and any other expenses you might incur.

* Find out when you will be paid, i.e., the day of the school visit, or in the case of Title One, how long you will have to wait for the board's approval and your check.

* Find out whether the local media (radio, TV, newspapers) will be contacted about your school visit, whether they will attend, whether time will be set aside during that day for interviews and photos. 
Be sure to ask the media for copies of the newspaper article after it appears and make sure they have your address.  This can then be added to your school packet!
* Create an invoice (nearly all schools require one) for services rendered. It should have the name, address and phone number of the school, the name of your contact there, all charges, and a total for your school visit. 

Make sure your invoice has your personal contact information -- I have mine centered at the bottom in smaller print. Mail to the school in advance, and make sure you bring along a backup copy on the day of your school visit, just in case.

Book Sales:

Talk with the school about how book sales will be handled before your school visit.
When and where you will sign books: cafeteria, teachers' room, during lunch, office, etc.,
Who will collect the money?
How much you discount the price of your book(s).  I do, some don't.
Be sure to take pre-orders for books prior to the school visit.

School Visit Schedule:

* Ask for your school visit schedule as soon as they can give you one, so you can plan. You need to know:
How much time do you have for each presentation?  30 minutes?  An hour?
The ages of each group so you can modify your presentation to be age-appropriate.
When to be in your assigned area for signing books with pens, bookmarks, etc., 
(Again, make sure you know when you will do this. During lunch break? After the last presentation?)
* Keep accurate records (copies of everything) for the IRS: the total for the entire school visit, i.e., amount you received for the actual day, or days, of presentations, number of books sold and the dollar amount, any expenses incurred (gas, mileage, plane ticket, room, food, etc.) that were not already paid to you, or for you, by the school.

* After you get home, be sure and send a "Thank You" note to your contact at the school. You never know whether that might make the difference in them having you back another time.

Working With Schools so They Can Afford You:

I have a print-out that I always put in my school visit packet about ways to help a school pay for my author school visit.  Here it is:

"There are Ways to Get Me to Your School for Less"

1. Split the cost of a plane ticket, lodging, and meals with other local schools in your town. I'll spend one day in 'School A', one day in 'School B', one day in 'School C', etc.

2. Arrange to have me come to your school when I'm already going to be in your area and save the cost of a plane ticket, or a charge per mile to drive.

3. Have a school raffle and sell tickets for chances to win a copy of each of my three books, before my visit. I'll even donate the books for your raffle.

4. Arrange for a fun place in your area for me to bring my partner on a mini vacation: a cabin in the mountains, an apartment on the beach, a cute little Bed & Breakfast, etc. You arrange for accommodations for a few days, I'll spend a day at your school for free.

5. Have me come during the time you're having interesting people come. I love meeting other writers or illustrators and I just might lower my price for the chance to get to share ideas with someone new.

6. You're a friend, or relative and I'm going to be in your area for some reason.

7. Arrange to hold a contest: "Dinner with the Author Night". Open it up to the whole town, advertise in the local papers and radio, sell chances for $5.00 each. The winning family will have dinner with the author, the school will more than make the cost of the school visit, and everyone wins. I will even donate copies of my three books as a gift for the winning family.

You may laugh, but I've experienced almost everything on that list.  The ideas work, trust me.

I think that covers just about everything.  If you think of any other questions that I haven't addressed here, please feel free to email me. I'm always happy to help in any way I can. 

I hope you have a great school visit!

Also See:
How to Have Successful Book Signings

“A writer soon learns that easy to read is hard to write.” ~CJ Heck


Adrian Dingle said...


Some great advice and ideas here, thanks! A couple of questions;

1. Whilst I know that circumstances will vary, what are typical fees that you might charge for an appearance? What do schools generally find acceptable?

2. What have you found to be the single best strategy to obtain invitations?


CJ Heck said...

Hello Adrian,

You're welcome. Thank you for visiting CJ's Writer Thoughts. You've posed some interesting questions.

1. Your Daily Fee (your fee for the day at the school, including all presentations) is typically based on your experience. How many school visits have you done in the past and do you have references from those past school visits?

As to what schools find "acceptable", always work with the school, if you can, about the Daily Fee. The blog post covered several ways you can work with the school to help them afford your visit.

My first year, I charged $250 for the day (this included 4 or 5 presentations) and then I increased it for year two. I had 15 school visits and references by then.

Other fees you might have to charge would be:
Gas, (or a set charge of say, $.50/per mile), and any tolls, if you had to drive to the school.

If you fly, the school pays for the ticket, lodging, meals, and transportation to and from the airport to your hotel/motel/B&B and to and from the school, plus the shipment of (pre-ordered) books to the school, unless the school works out something with your publisher.

If you will be doing several elementary schools in the same town you are flying to, all of those costs are usually split among the different schools.

Lunch during the school visit day is usually handled by the school. Rarely are you on your own for lunch, if ever.

I have been the honored guest at a catered luncheon; I've eaten with the teachers in the teacher's lounge in a Q&A setting; I've eaten in a cafeteria with teachers and the students.

2. My favorite ways to obtain author school visit invites are already covered in the blog post; however, I will say that my favorite way -- and the one that brings the best results -- is also the most expensive, but the results outweigh the cost in my opinion.

This would be the "school packet" I mentioned. By the time you include everything, even one of your books, it can be expensive to mail, especially if you are targeting a town with six to ten elementary schools and you want to spend a day at each one.

I hope this helps, Adrian!
Thank you again.

J.C. RICE said...

Thank you for the nuts and bolts advice. I'm teacher of nearly twenty years so luckily my first school assemblies will be at my own school then hopefully at other schools in my district.

Since my first three books will be self-published I plan to start conservatively. I plan on doing assemblies for "free" as long as the school buys, say, $300 of my books. That way I'm selling books, getting my names out there, and that way the school will be motivated to sell my books so the assembly will then end up being free for them.

What do you think of that strategy?

Anyway, thank for taking the time to break down the packet you send and how you go about making contact. Although here in cash deprived California we don't have author visits. Well, we've had one in eighteen years because I made it happen.