Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Book Events Spin Cycle: Are You a Famous Author or Just the Entertainment? Helpful Hints I Hope

This past Saturday officially marked the end of a book event season that stretched for me from May, when my picture book Duck Sock Hop came out, through National Jewish Book Month and my local town's Holiday Stroll this November. In between I went to schools, libraries, bookstores, and community centers on the multi-pronged mission of promoting my books, developing a career as an author who teaches, and getting kids to love books and be excited by readings and writing.

Mostly, in the big world of books, I feel small. Most people don't know my name, and I don't know that they ever will. I've been lucky to get some great reviews, but nothing so far that has broken that invisible (though context dependent) barrier between known and unknown. And doing events can be a great way to experience the discombobulation of not knowing what your place in the world as a writer IS yet. Sometimes you get greeted like a star, with an excited audience, sometimes no one shows up. Sometimes people show up, but no one seems interested in talking to you, let alone having a book signed. Sometimes you get treated like the babysitter (a hazard of writing for very young children, I think) and sometimes you get treated like a guru. It can really take your self-image for a rough and tumble ride in the spin cycle.

I'd like to be helpful to other writers out there who are getting out and doing book events. What can I tell you that's useful? Here's an eclectic list of things I've learned as a writer/teacher/entertainer.

The role of children's author has changed. Sure you can just write your books. But you might not be able to get any more of them published if you don't do something to boost your sales and get your name out there. I'm an avid reader about the history of children's books, and I've also been lucky enough to hear some of the greats speak about how they got started. There were intimate bonds with editors, and not as much of a role for agents. Tours, if they happened, were arranged by publishers. And when you spoke, it was more like speaking at an adult book signing. You read from your book. You answered questions. That's how our elder statesman still do it. I recently attended a great talk by Lois Lowry about her new novel, Son. She stood on stage, next to poster on an easel, and talked. That's all.

The rest of us, though? We're expected to do much more. We're expected to teach and entertain. Unless we're lucky enough to have a big prize medal on one of our books (and maybe not even then), we need to sell stores and other venues on what else we can do to bring in folks who have so many choices of how to spend their time. What fascinating and fun activities can go along with your book? For Duck Sock Hop, I combed discount stores for wacky socks, made a colorful sock box like the one featured in my book, borrowed my mom's record player and rock and roll records from the 50's and 60's, and held sock hops for the preschool set. I provided white socks and fabric markers for a sock decorating craft. I read my book aloud, but I also became a dance leader and an art teacher. It can be sock boxes of fun, but also exhausting. And, see above, some groups may shower you with praise and others may treat you like the free entertainment. Develop a thick skin.

Preparation Will Take You Far, but You Never Know
Different places are different. Communicate as much as possible with your venue before you go. Make sure they know ahead of time what set-up and materials you need. Give them the details of what you plan to do, and hopefully they'll advertise. Advertise it yourself to the best of your ability. But even if you do all this, you never quite know what you'll find when you arrive. You might be greeted by enthusiastic booksellers or community program organizers ready to run around and get you whatever you need. Maybe you'll get a goody bag and a gift card and an escort to drive you from school to school. Maybe they'll have been talking up your program for weeks. Or maybe there will be one librarian on duty and a crammed room filled with overexcited children and parents who won't even help you get the kids to scoot backward so you have room to stand. Or maybe despite all your emails with the event coordinator, the booksellers on duty when you arrive are barely aware that you were meant to show up. Roll with it. You may still make some great connections with children and parents.

The Dilemma of Grown-ups

That brings me to grown-ups. If you write for children, you're probably a bit kid-centric in your planning. That's as it should be. I've found that my school visits tend to go more smoothly than my family events, in no small part because kids, even toddlers, pay more attention in a school group setting than they do when their parents are around. Did you know that moms and dads? It surprised me. When kids are with their parents they tend to be distracted by their parents as well as shyer about letting go of mom and dad and participating. Some parents are great at getting their kids interested and joining in, but others are more likely to sit in the back, not modeling the kind of involved behavior that their children might emulate. Others talk the entire time, which makes you have to repeatedly ask for quiet, which can really throw off a program. I know parents are stressed and sometimes overwhelmed. I wish that we could work together for a better experience. But how do I better involve the grown-ups? I've tried to bring things that might interest them (and older kids) and leave them where they can take a look. I try, if possible, to invite them to ask questions. But what else? Here I could use some advice.  I'd love a good talk on this topic with other writers, especially those who do preschool presentations.

The Signing/Sales Table
Sometimes you're not giving a presentation, you're sitting at a table full of your books as people walk through the store or festival. People are shy. Most will glance at you and walk past. Unless you make eye contact, smile, say hello, and, if they look at all interested, give a brief line about who you are. So many times people will look surprised and say, "Really? You wrote those books? How wonderful!" and they'll come take a look. Why did they think I was sitting at a table full of books? I'm not sure. I think my "Meet the Author" board with information about my books has helped, but, frankly, most people don't look at your signs. But if you reach out in a friendly way, they are often happy to have a brief chat and, if you're having a good day, buy lots of books. (Grandmothers, by the way, are your dream customers.) I'm an introvert, so this has never come completely naturally to me. I'm grateful for my years of working in a bookstore for helping me get comfortable talking to strangers.

What Makes It Worth It
A couple of days ago I received an envelope in the mail. It was full of letters from students at a school I had visited. The students wrote extremely well (great use of commas by 4th and 5th graders is very impressive), and I could tell from their letters that they had really listened to what I'd said and taken from it what I hoped they would. They talked about a new resolve to write despite feeling discouraged sometimes. One girl, inspired by my "never give up" mantra, thought she could be a doctor after all. Ultimately, this is what it's all for. So take that ride in the spin cycle. You might come out dizzy, but you'll also feel renewed.