How to Succeed with School Visits
by Kevin Gerard
If you write fiction for children, school visits are an enjoyable and profitable way to promote your books. With a little finesse and a lot of persistence, you can develop rewarding friendships with school librarians close to where you live and—if you dream as I do—maybe all across America.
I’ve found that preparing for and executing school visits correctly increases my fan base and makes some good money while I’m having the time of my life.
I write fantasy adventure novels for middle-grade and young adult readers. Over the last eight years I’ve traveled the country doing author talks at countless elementary and middle schools. I’ve spoken to every type of group you can imagine, from a dozen students in a single classroom to more than 700 kids gathered in a huge auditorium.
The number of students I speak to varies from school to school, as does the number of talks I perform. I personally prefer a group of about 200, but I’m always prepared to do whatever a school librarian requests. I’ve done from just one to as many as six talks in a row at some schools, always with a preset time during my visit when I can sell signed copies of my books.
My Kit Contents
As one of many marketing efforts, author talks can generate significant sales when you work closely with the school librarian to prepare students for your arrival.
Weeks before the date of a visit, I send a Librarian Kit that I’ve assembled over the years. It contains electronic files, including JPGs of my book covers, interior illustrations from the books, a customized price list that students can take home to their parents, and various iMovies or PowerPoint presentations about the books. I also snail-mail a complete set of 12″ × 18″ book cover posters, which I get at Costco for $3 apiece, and they look incredible.
Librarians can upload the book covers to the library computers, so the students see them every time they log in and work. Also, they can print copies of the interior illustrations and have coloring contests that any student can enter. I work alongside them to judge contest entries, and then I award books, posters, or T-shirts to the winners. The iMovies and PowerPoints are sensory wonders, brimming with illustrations, music, sound effects, and text, narrated by yours truly.
By the time the students are exposed to everything in the kit, they generally can’t wait to show their parents the price list and ask if they can buy a signed copy when I visit their school.
Librarians who are passionate about their jobs and love the kids they work with will go all out to help you sell books. I usually bring 50 copies of the first book in each series of mine and 20 of each of my other books. When the librarian has taken preorders, I know exactly how many books to bring.
You’d be amazed at how many students come with cash or checks from their parents, sometimes enough to buy an entire series. I don’t allow credit transactions, which I think might not be practical, and I’ve never had one check returned in eight years.
Pointers for Effective Presentations
Be ready for anything. You have to adapt to any possible situation. Among the hundreds of schools I’ve visited, only three are always prepared for my arrival. There, everything is ready; all I have to do is show up, plug in, and go. At the other extreme, I’ve arrived at schools to find that the room where I’m supposed to talk is locked; the guy with the key is nowhere to be found, and the students are already lining up outside the door for the presentation.
Other glitches are common too: Your projector breaks; your laptop won’t sync with the school’s A/V setup; your PowerPoint file gets corrupted; there’s too much light in the room; it turns out you have only 17 minutes to do your perfect 50-minute presentation. Expect all this and more to happen, and you’ll be fine. And don’t ever show anxiety. Think of yourself as a duck, serene on the surface and paddling like hell underneath.
Here’s a seven-point checklist for you:
1. Run through your presentation the night before, using your own A/V equipment. Better to find any glitches before you get to the school; and you’ll have a fallback in case the school’s equipment doesn’t work.
2. Find the school the day before your scheduled visit. You don’t want to get lost in a strange city with only five minutes to go before you’re supposed to begin your talk.
3. Arrive at least 30 minutes before your scheduled start time. For a first school visit, make it 60 minutes. Give yourself plenty of time to get set up, run through everything, and relax. You want to be at your best when the flag goes up.
4. If you think you’re going to get there too early, go anyway. I learned that one the hard way. Better too early than too late.
5. Be exceptionally nice to everyone you meet at the school. I mean syrupy sweet. Whether or not you get invited back will largely depend on the overall impression you make. From the receptionist to the principal, pour it on. They’ll love you.
6. Remember that kids are kids. They’re going to love you, but they’re still going to fidget, talk, joke, try to look cool, and do everything else kids do. I just stop talking and stand still when they start to get a little rowdy. They get the message.
7. Send a personal thank-you card to the librarian who worked with you to arrange a visit. If the librarian handled sales for you and you sold a lot of books, include a $10 gift card for Starbucks or some other popular local place. Trust me; even just a thank-you note will make you shine brighter than the sun.
You’ll find other things to be mindful of, I’m sure. But whatever you do, remember that school librarians are the most overworked and underpaid professionals around. When you call them hoping to schedule a visit, bend whatever way they want; if they say they can’t talk, thank them very much and tell them you’ll call another time. Polite and considerate persistence should pay, and for me presenting to kids is the second-best part of being a fantasy adventure author.
Kevin Gerard, who lives in San Diego and teaches sociology and statistics at Cal State San Marcos, reports that he lives with a couple of crazy cats and enjoys walking the grounds at the San Diego Zoo, hitting the waves at Cardiff State Beach, playing Halo on the Internet, and hanging with his brother, nieces, and nephews at the local Pizza Port. To learn more: Kevin@cryingcougarpress.com.