Book signings at bookstores can be tough. Rick Riordan's account of some of his bookstore signings is a good reminder of how difficult and painful it can be to get books on the reading public's radar. I know his experiences are not unique.
Riordan's post reminded me of the story a parent told me about her family making a quick visit to a Books-a-Million, on a week-night, years ago. There was an author there selling his book. She said he was young and sitting pitifully alone in the less than crowded bookstore.
One of her daughters struck up a conversation with him while the rest of the family surfed the bookstore. As they got ready to leave, the daughter asked her mom to pu-leeze buy the guy's book. Feeling a bit cornered, but also like it was the least she could do, she agreed to buy a copy.
The young author turned out to be a guy named Christopher Paolini and for months afterward I was repeatedly asked,
"Mrs.P, have you read Eragon?
Aragorn like LOTR?
"No, ERAGON. It is sooooo... good."
Never heard of it.
In my defense this was when the book was still being self-published
BookMoot's Advice on School Visits
School visits are yet another way for authors to publicize their books. I have enjoyed the opportunity to host and participate in many school visits with wonderful writers and illustrators.
School visits are NOT for the faint of heart. Veterans of the school visit circuit have good advice to offer on the subject. Kelly Milner Haas has collected a page of pointers from authors that is well worth your attention if you are interested in advice from the writer's point of view. I have my own theories on what makes a successful visit so I offer these as you embark on this odyssey.
- You have to develop a spine of steel and sang-froid. Kids can be a tough of audience and they can smell fear. This will come with experience though so, if your knees are knocking at first that is ok. You will get more comfortable as you gain experience.
- You will be "Raptor-ed." So you will need a driver's license or other official ID with you.
- You cannot smoke on campus.
- If they forget to tell you, ask where the bathrooms are located.
- Keep your presentation to approximately 30 minutes. It will naturally go longer if necessary.
- You cannot assume the teachers and / or librarians will be in control of the kids. Most of my faculty were VERY conscientious about monitoring their student's behavior but it never fails that the one kid I need to make SERIOUS eye contact with will be in the middle of a sea of faces and I cannot reach him/her.
YOU can ask a kid to "cool it."
- If you have 'question-answer' time just know that a sea of hands will launch skyward the moment you announce it.
As you take the questions, it is ok, in fact I will bless you, if YOU tell the kids to put their hands down while you answer.
Kids need to be told to lower their hands. Besides hoping to be picked for the next question, they honestly also forget that their hands are hanging in the air like laundry on a clothesline.
It is part of audience etiquette to listen politely to answers to questions. This is a skill that needs to be taught to grown ups as well as children.
- You WILL be asked "where do you get your ideas from" and "how much money do you make?" I always
threatenedwarned my kids against asking these questions but you just never know. Have an answer ready.
- Watch the librarian for cues on which kids to pick. They have good instincts about who will ask an interesting question or which child needs the "face time" and recognition from you for other reasons.
- You will be asked questions like "I have a puppy" or "my brother threw-up last night."
These aren't questions.
- Don't start signing autographs at the end of your presentations. You will be crushed in on onslaught of humanity as kids shove hands, arms, and stinky shoes at you to sign. Their teachers will valiantly try to restore order but it may be too late for you. The librarian can create a page of bookmarks for you to sign and they can be copied for everyone.
- Have a good time. There is nothing like the energy and wave of enthusiasm that hits you when young readers are hanging on your every word.
Tell me a story.
So now, the ponder, what to talk about or do during this presentation. Authors have a gift. Their words move us, thrill us, take us away to other worlds or times and let us walk, for a time in another character's life and footsteps.
Now, sometimes writers can share this gift with their readers face to face and sometimes they cannot. All authors have unique styles and presentations. I've decided that the most engaging and interesting presentations occur when a writer is able to do, in front of an audience, what they do so well on the page--tell stories.
This does not mean you have to join a storyteller's guild although it wouldn't hurt to read up on their tips. Do practice your stories so you will get better. You will also learn timing and where the "gasp" moments or laugh lines are the more you tell in front of an audience.
The stories you share don't have to be out of the storytellers handbook.
- Jonathan Stroud told the "story" of how he come up with the character of Nathaniel in his Bartimaeus trilogy. He drew the character on an oversize pad, adding items to Nathaniel as the audience added their input. He admitted that he really only began "drawing" in order to add to his presentation but it was an effective story telling technique and kept the audience focused.
- Eric Kimmel tells folktales from his rich repetoire of books. He plays the banjo too.
- Susan Stevens Crummel tells the story of her family with anecdotes and pictures. Her "embellishment" of sister Janet Steven's photo resonates with every child (and adult) in the audience. If she just did a this-is-my-family or this-is-where-I-live slide show it would fall flat. It is the stories about her family members that make it so much fun.
- Brian Jacques knows his audience, connecting with rollicking tales for all ages. He saved the story of his early experience as a youthful member of the Merchant Marine for the "grown-ups" at the librarian's conference. He was serving with older uncles who would not let him off the ship to see the "naughty ladies."
It is ok to be a little gross.
A little mayhem goes a long way with a youthful audience (as does the word...underpants.)
- K.M. (Katie) Grant shares the amazing story of her Uncle Frank, the last Jacobite beheaded in England for helping Bonnie Prince Charlie. She had us at "beheaded."
- Eoin Colfer told a tale of his first experience with flight which involved a bike, a ramp and a desire to set a world record which ended up "in hospital." His hilarious description of an arm, broken in two places is not for the squeamish. You can meld hilarious with squeamish.
- In the mayhem department, and in a league of his own, there is the sublime Jack Gantos. His stories of growing up with neighbors like the Pagoda family or how he acquired the cat that would be later known as Rotten Ralph may cause problems for you as you try to breathe, cry and laugh simultaneously.
Do not instruct.
1. Generally, kids know how a manuscript becomes a book.
They've been there, done that.
What was something exciting, horrible, difficult that happened during the process?
2. Students have been taught how to use a library or how to do research . Share something interesting that happened or that surprised you while you did your research.
3. Talking about the revision process is interesting IF you can relate your challenges with their writing. It helps if the kids can see a manuscript page bleeding with corrections and suggestions. Have a visual (slide or overhead) that all kids can see easily. If you are lucky you will be presenting in the school library but be prepared for a gymnasium-sized venue. Do you have a funny nickname for your editor like Crummel does?
4. Writers of historical fiction sometimes share artifacts or facts from the time period they write about. That is interesting but share some true stories from that time too. Something drew you to writing about that event or time period, what was it?
Participation is a plus
- Susan Stevens Crummel (who was a teacher) asks a student to be in charge of her slide show. I was amazed how she instinctively picked a child who needed to bask in that responsibility.
She also involves the children in a reenactment of her stories. She finds the best participants for key roles by asking the kids "who is the funniest person in your class?" It never fails that all hands point in the same direction. By putting that child on-stage you are helping them, eliminating a distraction in the audience and making a wonderful memory for everyone watching. Kids like watching their classmates perform and they really do know who is the funniest person.
- Illustrator Michael Dooling gives kids an opportunity to hold his paint brush and add their own touch to a painting. He also tells stories about the people or events he writes about.
- Illustrators and artists like Mike Artell give drawing lessons. To watch an ocean of children earnestly bent over their drawing paper and following directions (especially the "following directions" part) is enough to raise a lump in your throat.
Finally, know that librarians talk to each other and word of mouth is your best friend. A successful event at one school will lead to others.