Like so many wide-eyed innocents, prior to becoming an author, I held some quaint notions about what the day job would entail. There were laptops and lattes. Scarves featured heavily. My only money worry would be how to spend it in a single lifetime, while I frolicked in the playground of my imagination between lunches at The Ivy.
Four years later, the scales have certainly fallen from my eyes. Although in fairness, that could also be cataracts.
The reality of my brief publishing career has been a heady hybrid of performer, event manager, marketing director, administrator, tea-lady and occasionally, children’s author. I know very few creators in the kidlit sandpit for whom it is not so if we are to put lunch on the table, let alone laptops and lattes. There is an expectation of children’s authors/illustrators that, when not creating captivating, educating and entertaining books, we will also perform captivating, educating and entertaining events. It is surely in our financial and promotional interest to do so and we are blessed amongst creators that we have the opportunity to embellish our meagre earnings and PR thus. Aren’t we…?
But what if you can’t? Or indeed, what if you just don’t want to?
I read with interest the growing backlash amongst agents about contractual promotional obligations for kidlit creators. I’ve heard of these taking the form of anything from an agreed amount of social media activity to as much as six weeks of ‘promotional’ (ie, unpaid) events in schools. With so much social media now having the vibe of Christmas lunch five bottles of Lambrusco down and school events requiring physical, mental and temporal demands that many creators are not willing and/or able to give them, some agents are pushing back, arguing that creating is our job – promoting is the publishers’.
They make a fair point. Prior to Covid, I was doing over 150 days of events a year. These sapped time and energy from my family and writing and left me with little of both for either. In truth, the early lockdown was a heavily-disguised blessing to my weary body and soul. Devoid of the pressure and expectation of events, I wrote four novels last year, edging ever closer to that writerly utopia… right up until my partner returned to work and I was barely able to write my name for home schooling.
The school gig economy is a double-edged sword for kidlit creators. On the massively positive side, they are an opportunity to earn money and readers for which there are scant opportunities elsewhere. A good school visit can be uplifting and rewarding, leaving a residual glow of career-affirming satisfaction. A bad school visit can be soul-destroying and miserable, leaving a residual indigestion from a lukewarm jacket potato. However they go, they are always time-consuming, energy-depleting, take time away from other careers and caring responsibilities and may not even be possible nor practical for a plethora of reasons.
Social media too is beset with both opportunities and pitfalls that can require a great deal of time and resilience to negotiate. I’m currently taking a protracted break from it, in part to see if the time I spend/waste there actually has any material impact on my book sales. I’ll let you know how I get on. Assuming I haven’t had to burn my laptop for fuel.
And this is the nagging question for many of us – what self-promotion actually works? I’m not convinced anyone really knows. Certainly, good events can sell heartening numbers in the room and an unknown number outside of it – more than a pithy tweet is ever likely to achieve. But how many is enough? And how much time on social media is an investment, how much a distraction? Are you simply preaching to your own choir? Or are you raising important visibility of your personal brand?
It doesn’t help that sales figures are shrouded in more mystery than the Colonel’s secret recipe. It would be so much easier to make decisions on where to expend our creative energies if creators were given regular and reliable data about what is actually flogging our books. But when I hear tales of creators being turned down by agents and publishers, not on the strength of their talent, but their likelihood to hold a room, it troubles me greatly. There are many creators who love events and all power to them – anything that shows us to be flesh and blood humans is a good thing. But surely they shouldn’t be a requirement. Writers. Illustrators. The clue’s in the name. Ultimately our primary job must be to prove ourselves on the page, not the stage. Because hopefully, that’s where most kids will find us. And hopefully, that’s where we can do them the most good.
Maz Evans is the author of the Who Let the Gods Out? and Vi Spy series (Chicken House) and The Exploding Life of Scarlett Fife (Hachette). She’s available for weddings and funerals, unless they are her own.