Training for author events in schools

In regards to the current debate on whether authors should be paid for events in schools, the question, of course, is not should children’s authors and illustrators be paid a fee? Of course they should. In the words of a school librarian, quoted in this week’s Times Educational Supplement: “You wouldn’t tell your plumber, ‘I have a leak. Will you come and sort it out? But I can’t pay you.’ It’s a very odd thing that people ask authors to do that.” Yes it is an odd question but I think it is important for us to distinguish between schools who are genuinely stretched and those who fundamentally undervalue the resource of author visits. I have some thoughts about how to tackle the latter group – and feel it is vital that we do so.

Authors and illustrators  - who are not doing so already - need to turn their attention to how they can engage with schools in the most effective way and demonstrate superlative value for money as professional – forgive me - ‘service providers’. My @AuthorProfile colleagues PJ Norman, Amy Finegan and I are just concluding a second year of training 32 authors in best event practice through the National Literacy Trust’s groundbreaking 21st Century Authors’ programme, supported by Arts Council England. This training, offered free to authors at the beginning of their careers, is designed to build confidence, knowledge and professionalism from the outset. The journey authors go on from the beginning to end of three intensive workshop days focused on content, performance and logistics – which is then applied in a school context - is astounding.

Authors need to understand and address the expectations of teachers and students alike and to work hard - whether through a “stand-up event” or a workshop - to engage students across the spectrum from those challenged by literacy to the “gifted and talented”. Being conversant with the curriculum for the age-group you write for makes obvious sense. We challenge authors to move away from self-promotion to open up the heart of their process in an engaging, interactive, accessible way. It’s a big ask of authors and illustrators that they seize their audience’s attention with the same visceral power in person that they do on the page; time and again, we find they rise to this challenge, with rigour and creativity.

We also espouse the surely not so radical idea of an event day forming a central moment in a meaningful sequence of effective work with a school. In an ideal scenario, a teacher uses online resources to introduce the author/illustrator to their classes in advance of the visit, deepening the sense of anticipation for the big day as well as the more practical preparation. The day itself should deliver a range of agreed outcomes and outputs and above all prove energising and inspiring. After the visit, there should be springboards for further activity. This is how schools can derive the maximum value from author and illustrator visits – not by shopping around for the cheapest speakers.

I could beat my drum further by referring to the Society of Author’s statistic that a mere 5% of published authors make a living wage from their writing work. But frankly I think it’s time we stopped focusing on events in schools as a handy gig for jobbing authors/illustrators to supplement their publishing income. Instead, let’s focus on this exceptional opportunity for schools to connect with professional creatives who have the ability not only to inspire students to read more and write more but to embrace their own innate creativity more profoundly, to know the discipline behind the art and to witness first hand how someone has turned their ideas and dreams, into a tangible reality. I’ve seen the unique impact of this interface at first hand – as an author, publicist and trainer.

It’s high time to move the discussion on from fees - which should be an expectation for any professional service provider (a term I won’t even apologise for this time) and instead apply focus and commitment from both sides to evolve a genuinely 21st century approach to author and illustrator visits into schools. We need a results-focused, professional partnership between authors and educators in order to achieve life-enhancing, indeed life-changing, experiences for participating students.

Justin Somper (@JustinSomper) is a freelance author, publicist and trainer at authorprofile.co.uk.