I often see questions on librarian listservs about hosting authors: how do I make contact, what happens if they agree, what about virtual visits? The first time I hosted an author, I had no idea what I was doing. It showed and while the author was super nice about it, my lack of knowledge and preparation left an awkward tinge in the air.
I recently spoke with the accomplished, hilarious, and generous YA novelist Cynthia Leitich Smith about the ins and outs of author visits. Cynthia is a well-traveled writer who loves visiting with fans and fellow writers. She also is the author of the addictive and excellent Tantalize series, which is still keeping me up at night. Whether you are a newbie host or seasoned visit veteran, hopefully this guide will help you be the Martha Stewart of author visits. While we talked about author visits at schools specifically, her advice applies to most author visits (unless you plan to do something like auction off a date with the author or take them to a bar…both of which are solid don’ts.)
Q: What prep work should a librarian do before making contact about an author visit?
A: First, read the author’s body of work, or if s/he’s particularly prolific or has had a long career, the more recent books. Make sure that you can truly commit to sharing that person and their literary art with your students. Keep in mind that if an author reserves a date for you, s/he may be turning down other invitations.
Ideally, the librarian should first foster support for a visit in her school—give the teachers a heads up, talk to the administration. Figure out budget, the possibility (and logistics) of a book sale, venue, and number of students in the intended audience(s). Consider the types of events that might work best for your school—a larger group presentation or more intimate one. Will all students be eligible or only those who have done specific preparatory work in advance?
Having this information handy gives the author a lay of the land so she can consider whether she’s the best fit and/or should recommend someone else for the job.
Q: How should a librarian make contact?
It depends. Some authors prefer to be contacted through their publishers, others directly, and a few don’t visit schools at all. Start with the author’s official website and look for a page on “events” or “contact” for direction. If the author does not have a site, try the publisher.
Keep in mind that a “no” isn’t personal. Authors book well in advance, and as much as we love connecting with librarians and readers, we also have to protect our writing, honor our deadlines, and balance time on the road with time spent with friends and family.
Q. Do most authors have a speaker fee? Any advice for how librarians should approach the $ issue with an author?
A. Yes, most charge a fee. My recommendation is to simply ask in the initial query. Say something to the effect of: “We would be delighted if you could join us during X time window for a visit with our middle school students. Please let me know if this is of any interest, your availability, preferred formats, speaker fee, and if you’d be open to joining a few faculty members that day for lunch at an awesome Mexican restaurant.” Or, in other words, be friendly, get it out up front and don’t make a big deal about it. The author will let you know and appreciate that s/he doesn’t have to be the one to initially broach the subject (we find it awkward, too).
Q. What information do you need before you visit and when is it helpful to get that info?
A. The basics include: venue, grade level, number of students, preferred formats, book sale logistics, provisions (feed the author!) and an opportunity to express dietary preferences/restrictions. Tech availability and support information is increasingly critical.
I also appreciate a description of the student body (heavy on ESL kids, assisted lunch, top-performing test scores, etc.) We’re interested in curriculum tie-in information and your preparation strategy for the author visit event. If, say, your eighth grade AP English students are reading A Tale of Two Cities, I’ll spend a little more time talking about how that novel influenced Eternal (Candlewick, 2007, 2008).
When the event is almost upon us, then we’ll also appreciate any travel tips (“avoid heavy highway construction by taking this alternate route”), parking information, and inside information about anything pressing on the culture of the school.
Is there a threatened closing, a recent death in the faculty/student body—really anything that might impact our choice of words and/or demeanor? Is the school in a particularly conservative area when it comes to language or content? (I strongly believe in free speech, but I also strongly believe in not getting the librarian fired, especially during a recession.)
Confirm the tech situation; authors often say their stress level falls sharply once they see that their presentations are up and running. (I try to email my file in advance.) But please try to limit this correspondence to the invitation email, responses to our follow-up questions, the confirmation/contract, and last-minute confirmation/check in. Many of us do fifty-plus events each year. It’s a lot keep up with.
Q. When you do visit, what tips can you give librarians for making visits run smoothly?
- prepare students in advance with class readings, author studies, assigned reading—whatever is appropriate.
- please stick to the plan—don’t add sessions or double the audience at the last moment.
- provide sufficient space for the author to move – at least ten square feet, preferably marked off by tape.
- supervise the student audience. While authors have strategies for disruptive kids, we (and they) are well aware that we have no disciplinary or classroom management power. Also, if classroom teachers are not present, how will they be able to reinforce the points we’re making?
- role-model respect and enthusiasm for the author speaker. Please don’t use the presentation as a time to check messages, grade papers, chitchat or staple.
- provide water at all times.
- provide bathroom breaks.
- know you’re working with someone who’s committed to making the event a success. Authors take school visits seriously while trying to make them fun and entertaining. At the same time, we’re human beings. We may slip or have an off-moment. Be supportive of us in the way that you are of your students and each other, and we’ll rebound fast.
- role model for your students the attitude that they should take toward us and the event.
Q. What’s your favorite part about author visits?
A. I particularly enjoy speaking to students who’ve read my work in small, more informal groups—say, up to fifteen. It gives me an opportunity to really validate them and also get valuable feedback. This sort of mini-session is often well suited to library reading clubs or the school literary magazine staff or any other group with a strong interest in books and creative writing.
Q.What about virtual visits? What makes a virtual visit successful?
A. Many of the same steps as above—to the extent they apply in a virtual context. Beyond that, tech preparation is critical. Plan to do a practice run with the author, and if you’re asking the author to work with your special program/system, keep in mind that what’s obvious and familiar to you may not be to someone new to it.
Remember the time will pass quickly. Preparation is important—including the preparation of questions from the students. If they can participate in a more active way, standing to ask their question directly into the microphone, it adds more of a three-dimension element to the event. It heightens the immediacy.
(Volume is important, too. Make sure the author can hear what’s going on.)
Q. Anything else you think librarians need to know to make an author visit successful for everyone?
A. For many schools, providing authors with a hospitality bag and/or providing them a gift has been a tradition. You may want to take the authors dietary restrictions/preferences into consideration as well as airline guidelines on carry-on luggage (a lot of authors don’t check bags) and consider the ease of packing something small, light, and flat.
And, many of my author-illustrator friends request the use of an easel. Ask them how they plan to use the easel. Please open and assemble the easel a few days before the visit. Otherwise, there may be an unfortunate delay while an easel is located and assembled (especially if–oops!–parts are missing).
Q. Any favorite memories from visits?
A. I’ve met a couple of girls who were the living embodiment of Quincie from the Tantalize series. Really, they could play her in a movie. That was charming…and a bit disconcerting but in a good way. I’ve been served countless fangtabulous Sanguini’s dinners (also inspired by the books). But what really stands out are moments when it’s clear the readers have brought the books into their worlds—when they whisper that they left an abusive boyfriend because of Quincie or recognize the Chicago Chinatown setting in Eternal or have a best friend who’s just like Joshua. Those small moments hold great meaning to me.
Cynthia Leitich Smith is the New York Times and Publishers Weekly best-selling author of TANTALIZE, ETERNAL, BLESSED, DIABOLICAL and TANTALIZE: KIEREN’S STORY (Candlewick). Her award-winning books for younger children include JINGLE DANCER, INDIAN SHOES, RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME (all HarperCollins) and HOLLER LOUDLY (Dutton).
She looks forward to the release of FERAL NIGHTS (Book One in the Feral Series) and ETERNAL: ZACHARY’S STORY (both Candlewick) in February 2013.
Her website was named one of the top 10 Writer Sites on the Internet by Writer’s Digest and an ALA Great Website for Kids. Her Cynsations blog was listed as among the top two read by the children’s/YA publishing community in the SCBWI “To Market” column.