Tomorrow marks the beginning of Children’s Book Festival in libraries and schools across Ireland. For people like me, it’s easily the busiest time of the year for events, and this year I’m booked up for just about every school day (and a few weekend days) between now and the mid-term break.
This month, I’ll be a in few different places in Dublin, as well as Ardee and Drogheda, Skerries, Cashel, Thurles, Nenagh and Roscrea, Ballywaltrim and Bray, Castletymon, Manorhamilton, Cavan, Galway, Ashford and a few different places in Meath.
It’s a weird time, when you’re often exhausted but buzzing, and a couple of years ago, I wrote a piece to try and capture that feeling in the morning when you’re setting out, having already spent about two weeks on the road to different places.
This was a piece I originally wrote as a guest blog for the Children’s Book Ireland blog in 2011. It’s a bit dated, as I haven’t changed anything, but basically it’s an accurate depiction of the feeling mid-festival:
An early start. It’s dark, but the kids are already up. Our youngest, just turned one, isn’t sleeping. So neither are my wife and I. October is mental for both of us – a different kind of day every day. Our two toddlers are confused by our lack of routine. I rise like a zombie. Shower myself into something more human.
Try to remember where I am today. Monaghan? Louth? Leitrim? For places that are further away, I’ll wake in a hotel. A travelling salesman. As our two-year-old says: ‘Dada’s going to tell the girls and boys about books!’. I’m a couple of weeks into the month (which starts for me in September). Early in the morning, the exhaustion feels like it will never lift. Coffee. The kids help me wake up, but often I’m gone before they can jump-start my addled senses.
I have my two cases. One for the novels; one for the easel, the drawing materials, the Mad Grandad story-sheets. Always packed and ready to go. Sometimes I don’t even bother taking them out of the car. Notebook in the pocket of my combats. I’m almost always wearing combats. I like having that pocket.
Get into the car. A chance to sit in the quiet before I go. Take a couple of minutes to look at the map. Recheck the route. Then drive. The radio is always on, or some of my music, or an audio-book, helping eat up the miles. Get there early. Know you’re there, then pull in somewhere nearby and chill for a while. Have a coffee at a garage or in a café. Maybe a sandwich if breakfast was a long time ago. I’ll buy grapes if I can find them in a shop, if they look good. A good compromise snack for travelling.
I have a lap-tray in the car. I can work there if I want, or read, or listen to the radio. I always give myself some time, but that’s time to think about what’s coming. How many different places have I visited? Hundreds, anyway. How many individual sessions? And still the little edge of dread, the tension. A bit of a knot in my stomach. It’s not a reading, or a talk. It’s a one-man show. Time to get into character.
Every visit is a first impression. Every session for me, is the one and only time this particular bunch of kids is likely to meet me. You get one chance to have an effect – the right effect. The same applies when meeting the staff. Be nice to everybody. Remember names! Even if it’s just till you leave. Hundreds of new names every year. Staff rooms and cups of coffee. Turning down offers of scones or biscuits (most of the time). They add up. I used to treat myself to a fry-up any time I travelled. I gave that up pretty quickly.
It’s almost time. Always try and walk in about ten or fifteen minutes early. Time to say hello and shake hands. Use the loo. A bit of time to have a look at the place if I can, before I meet the kids. Check that things are set up right. Sort them if they’re not. But sometimes I’m just walked into a packed classroom and I have to wing it. Looking around and picking out the best place to set up.
Still in the car. I’m dawdling now. Putting it off. Time to go in. That turning in the pit of my stomach. I open the door and get out. Take my cases from the back. The air’s got a chill to it.
I look at the outside of the place. Trying to get a sense of it. Maybe there’s already some faces at the windows, looking out. I’m not so tired now. Almost ready. Meeting the kids, seeing their expectant faces, will kick me into gear – it always does. It’s a privilege to be here, to do what I do. To be the reason they’re having a special day. And yet, you can’t take their respect for granted. If you don’t get their attention in the first five minutes, you may not get it at all. But I’m fine with that – it’s part of the deal. I might be knackered, but I know I’ll be charged up, wired by the end. They have that effect on you.
With a case in each hand, I walk through the front door. Time to tell the girls and boys about books.
There’s been a lot of talk online about authors being asked or expected to do events for free, or virtually for free. So I figured I’d stick my oar in on this.
When I started out as an illustrator, I took crap jobs for crap money, because I figured it was the price of getting established. And it was. There was no back-up or support for illustrators, particularly in Ireland. You were on your own. I sometimes took even crapper money for good jobs, just to get those jobs to have in the portfolio. I don’t do that any more, because I’ve been at this malarky for a long time now, and I expect to be treated like a professional.
But one of the most valuable lessons I learned was that I had to sell myself as a tradesman. If you wanted my work, you had to pay me an hourly rate. If you wanted ideas, I would charge you for the amount of time I figured I could put into coming up with that idea, and what it was worth to you.
When I was first published as a writer, I had the good fortune to have a novel and a couple of young kids’ books come out in the same year, which gave me a very wide potential audience – something schools and libraries really appreciate. I had never done an event for children, but a few months after getting published, I knew for certain that if I didn’t push my books out there, they weren’t going to sell.
So I picked up a few tips and I started doing events. I didn’t know anything about doing an author session, so it was a steep learning curve. But I took a lot on – basically, I said yes to anyone who asked, for sessions for any age group – so I gained experience fast. And the more events you do, and if you do a half-decent job of them, the more you’ll get asked to do. I was working freelance as an illustrator, so I was able to fit my work around the events for the most part; something that’s very difficult to do if you’re employed.
As I did when I was an illustrator, I took on a lot of badly paid events, and free stuff and daft stuff, because I considered these the price of learning the ropes, getting established and getting publicity for my books. Most authors – particularly children’s authors – start off the same way.
I learned a lot. I learned how to manage a session, how to hold the attention of young kids for an hour or keep surly teenagers engaged for a two-hour workshop, how to handle the hecklers and attention-seekers and domineering teachers and adults talking at the back and people coming in late, the awkward questions and the librarian telling me the session was actually going to be half the time I thought it was. I learned how to talk while I drew a picture and I learned that audiences want to laugh, that they’re waiting to laugh.
I learned very quickly, the difference between a good events organizer and a bad one, and how often that can make a difference to who ends up in your audience.
The investment of time and effort was HUGE, but after ten years of this, I can now walk into a room and start talking from cold, and walk out an hour later leaving an audience – children or adults – smiling, stimulated, satisfied and curious about my books.
That’s not bragging. Any children’s author who’s done a lot of sessions can make the same claim. Part of my training was going and watching other authors whenever I could. Because being an entertaining speaker has become just another part of our job. I can assure you that it was never part of my plan, but it’s a fact of life if you want your books to sell.
If you’ve never done a session from scratch with a bunch of kids you’ve never met, try it and see how hard it is. And I don’t mean just reading them some well-known author’s story, because that’s somebody else’s work you’re reading, not yours, and if you think that’s all authors or illustrators do with their work, you’ve never been to a good session.
And while events are an essential part of getting publicity, if we were to do it for just the publicity, there would be almost no full-time writers, and therefore no one available to do these events, and certainly to do them to the standard that people can expect today.
Let’s say you run a festival, and you want a writer to do it for free – for the publicity. Let’s say they’re a typical mid-level, full-time author, so you’re confident you can get an audience for them: maybe fifty people. You could maybe get more in than that, but you don’t want to hire a bigger hall, in case you can’t fill it. Let’s be really generous – to keep the numbers simple – and say that the author gets one euro for every book that sells for ten euros (they often don’t) as a result of that session. If every single person in that audience bought a book, that author would get fifty quid for travelling to your event, and performing for an hour with skills and experience that take years to develop. Does that sound reasonable to you?
But of course, it’s rare for an entire audience to buy a copy of a book, and nowadays, authors are getting shafted by discounting along with most of the publishing industry. And because of the way royalties are paid in publishing, your author won’t see that fifty quid for about eighteen months. Yes, that’s the business they’re in, and they accept that. But you are in the festival business, and they are what your audiences are coming to see. The income for your festival depends on their delivery of an entertaining and stimulating session.
Granted, you might be a library running events, but you still need footfall. If you don’t get people through the door, that event is still a failure.
All the various people and organizations who build their businesses around books expect to get paid for the work they do, but it’s astonishing that writers, and to a lesser extent, illustrators, whose work is the foundation of these businesses, are expected to give their time for free, in return for royalties they may eventually earn after every other person involved in the sales chain – most of whom are employed full-time – has been paid first.
Do you work for a company or organization? Would you be willing to travel to another town or county to work for free, in the hope that you might get paid a little more somewhere down the line in return for this work . . . if you managed to excite your customers enough? Would you be happy to see someone else charge for your services, using your name and skills to attract people to your performance, but pocket the takings, telling you that you’ll get more business out of it? What? More of this kind of business?
Try taking that approach to payment with a builder, or a plumber or the washing-machine repair man next time you’re talking to them.
Yes, we are selling books, but our income is derived from that work in different ways. If you get a musician or comedian to put on a show, regardless of whether or not they have products of their own on sale, you pay them a performance fee, or a percentage of the admission fees. Because they are what people are coming to see.
If you run book events, and all you’re offering in payment is a bit of publicity, you may well get the people who are starting out, who are learning the ropes and still have to find their way. But if you want to draw audiences, you need professional authors who have proven they can deliver. And professionals get paid.
And if you’re running a big, prestigious festival that can draw audiences because it has a powerful brand, and you think you can offer little or no fee on the basis that an author should be grateful they’ve been invited, then bear in mind we’re all talking to each other a lot more these days. Word gets around fast. And the problem with brands is that once a company’s brand becomes tainted, everything they do and everything they’re associated with becomes tainted too. Negative values can become attached every bit as firmly as positive ones. There’s a lot more competition for festivals out there now, and more and more, popular authors are having to choose between events.
And those of us who’ve been around a long time, we’ve a funny attitude to all this. Because even though we came up having to do a lot of shit for free, it doesn’t mean we think others should too. Because we know what hard work it is, and we don’t like people taking liberties with other people like us.
Organizations like the Society of Authors, Poetry Ireland, Children’s Books Ireland, Booktrust and the Scottish Book Trust all offer fees that could be used as a base for events organizers to work off, and we could really do with some kind of base standard.
If you want people to bring their time and expertise to events you intend to hold, and you are counting on those people to attract audiences and make your events a success, you can’t expect them to come for free. We’re professionals. And professionals get paid.