Free school visits ‘one of the worst things an author can do’

Free school visits ‘one of the worst things an author can do’

Following the debate over whether authors should be paid to appear at festivals, children’s writers have warned that fewer schools are now offering to pay for author visits.

Joe Craig [pictured], author of the Jimmy Coates series (HarperCollins Children’s), said a “couple of years” ago he began noticing that “school librarians were having to be craftier and tougher about getting hold of the money for an author visit”. Since then it’s “only been getting harder”, he added. “My impression is that there was a brief peak of schools booking authors for events, that must have been between about 2007 and 2010. Since then, my impression is that librarians (where they still exist) are having to chase particular pots of money, making specific applications for each event.”

Mélanie McGilloway, a school librarian who also runs a blog called Library Mice, agreed that “shrinking school budgets” are a problem. “For a school library which gets a tiny budget, £400 spent on an author visit is a lot of money.”

Alan Gibbons, a Young Adult author who takes part in around 150 school visits a year, said a “minority” of school management teams did not understand the importance of author visits, or the amount of work involved. “I’m usually there for four or five hours and do one big talk and three or four workshops. And if a school wants me to do something they are learning—recently I was asked to do something on the Siege of Baghdad in 1285—I have to prepare beforehand.”

Illustrator and author Clara Vulliamy said that schools should always offer to pay. “I know a lot of authors and illustrators find it awkward to ask but that’s totally unfair. The onus should be on the school to pay,” she said. “I’m often asked by new authors and illustrators about how to go about it and they say they are being asked to do it for free. I think that’s very unfair.”

Many authors follow the Society of Authors’ guidelines about how much to charge for visits (see blog), which suggests writers base their fee, pro rata, on the annual salary they would expect to earn.

On its website, the SoA states that members of its Children’s Writers & Illustrator Group charge £350–£1,000 for a full day and £150–£800 for a half-day, plus travel and expenses; or, a one-off fee of at least £150.

Authors Aloud, an organisation that helps schools to find authors to visit them, said writers should only do “two or three” free events at the start of their career as a learning exercise and ask for feedback from the school in return.

Vulliamy said all authors should charge a similar rate because “one of the worst things you can do is offer yourself at a lower price. That muddies the water and makes it harder for the rest of us”.

Craig found that schools actually took more interest in his visits when he increased his fees eight years ago. “As soon as my fee went up demand went up too, and the visits became far better organised and supported within the school. School managements seem to value an event according to how much they are paying for it, rather than being prepared to pay for something because they value it.”

Craig also said some of the best librarians team up with other departments to use their budgets: “One librarian asked me if I could talk about the translation of my books because that meant she could dip into a pool of money from the languages department.”

However, some librarians told The Bookseller that they do not always offer payment to authors. Matt Imrie, a school librarian in London, said he will accept an author visit for free if the writer offers, while McGilloway said there is a difference between author visits and book tour visits.

Book tour visits are organised by the publisher, rather than the school. These are usually free of charge and the school is expected to sell books, she said. “This type of session takes the shape of a talk and some publishers ask for big names,” she said, pointing out that by contrast, she will always pay for author visits. “I don’t think any school should expect to get this for free,” she added.

In any case, both authors and librarians agreed that school visits get children excited about reading and improve their literacy skills. Imrie said children listen to author recommendations on what to read next and start to think of books as more than just commodities; Craig said events showed children the world of books is “full of life, passion and thrills”.

He added: “The author visit is the platform on which to present students with a new interest in the people behind books, using the power of a strong personal appearance to drive interest in the books themselves—almost like
a [music] video sells a song. My aim with every school event I do is to make my visit the single most memorable event in the school life of every student in the room.”