If you’re a best-selling author, then 50 copies is chino-change. But if you’re one of the thousands of emerging authors all trying to establish a foothold, 50 books a year might seem like a pipe dream, even when you count ebooks. So 50 printed books? In one week? That’s monumental. Unthinkable.
For those who don’t know me, I usually write YA fantasy novels. But last month, I launched my first picture-book. Like my other titles, it’s a fantasy, but this one is aimed at young readers, between 3 and 5 years old. And that means that when it comes to marketing this one, I’m back at square one. I have some inkling about how to reach teens, but reaching little kids is entirely new territory to me, and I’d been somewhat perplexed about how to get started.
But that all changed a few weeks ago, when I went in for parent-teacher night at my daughter’s school. After talking at length about how beautiful and talented she is, I happened to mention the new book. And that’s when the conversation jerked to a halt. The teacher looked at me with hunger in her eyes and asked the pivotal question: “Would you come in and talk about your book to the class?”
“Sure,” I said. “Why not?” After all, I’m no stranger to working in schools. When my first book came out, I spent the next year visiting high schools and talking about writing. I’d even taken Squeak! (the new picture book) to my daughter’s preschool class the year before. But at that time, I was just a dad showing kids some preliminary sketches and reading the story. I didn’t have any actual books to show kids that age.
But now I do.
So when I got home and started planning the visit, I thought it might be fun for the kids if they could have a copy of the book to take home afterward. You know, signed by the author and all that? I quickly put together an attractive little order form, and since I know how busy teachers are, I figured I’d save my daughter’s teacher the hassle of writing an explanatory note to parents, so I included that on the form. Just a quick note about my upcoming visit. Then I added a few lines pointing out how much more engaged kids are with books when they’ve met the author, and about how having those connections can help foster their love of reading. (You can have a look at my form here:
I also decided to reduce the price of the book, offering parents a 20% discount over retail prices. After all, with direct sales like these, there is no bookstore taking 40 or 50%. And when I thought about it in those terms, I realized that I could take another 20% and use that as a small fundraiser for the classroom as well. Thanks to a business venture I tried many years ago, I am well aware that public school teachers spend nearly a thousand dollars a year on classroom supplies out of their own pockets. So if I could raise a small fund to contribute to buying more books or writing supplies for the classroom, my visit would be helping the teacher in a practical way, as well as educationally.
And then, in the interests of making myself look like more than just a one-book wonder, I put one last thing on the order form: my other books. I figured that if any parents were interested in picking up books for older siblings, or nieces, or nephews, then I would be happy to offer them the same discount. After all, what could it hurt?
Then I sent the form off to my daughter’s teacher to get her feedback. But what I got back from her was so profoundly unexpected that I very nearly cried. She had shown the form to the other teachers in the school, and every single one of them had asked if they could participate too. Suddenly, I wasn’t going to visit 22 kids in the first grade. I was scheduled to visit 300 kids, ranging from preschool to eighth grade. And each teacher wanted me to focus my visit on a different one of my books.
That’s when the panic set in. Suddenly, this was becoming a big thing. What was I going to talk about? And how was I going to deal with the older kids? Most pre-teens are obnoxious little twerps in a classroom setting, aren’t they? That’s what I recall from my own school days. But I needn’t have worried, because in reality, the next week of my life was one of the most professionally satisfying things I’ve ever done. Kids were excited to talk to a real author. They were riveted by my readings, and they asked some fabulous questions. They’re not jaded like most adults we encounter. To school kids, writers are as exciting as rocket scientists. No, really.
To make the visit seem more official, at the end of every talk, I did a quick signing for the kids who had pre-purchased the books, giving them a sense of what an author signing or a con is like. And as the week wore on and more of the students had already seen me, I got a secondary thrill. Every time I walked down the hall I was greeted with smiles, hellos, and high-fives. The kids really do get excited about connecting with an author.
So how did it pan out? By the end of the week, I’d visited 12 classrooms, spoken to 290 kids, and sold 56 books. And even today, 10 days later, order forms are still coming through from the school. They even ordered my entire back catalog to put in the school library. (Plus I got a few cartoon ideas out of the visit, which will be appearing in the strip over the coming month or two.)
But perhaps the most rewarding experience of all was what started happening toward the end of that visit week. By about the third day, kids were coming up to me with breathless excitement: “Mr. Smith! I’m reading Strange Places and I love it! Tayna is so cool and those nuns are terrible!” Then they’d squee with delight and we’d have a quick chat about what part of the book they were at, and what they thought would happen next. And that’s when I realized that these kids weren’t just fans. They were becoming true fans.
Following that visit, I have continued to engage with a few of the teachers. We’re setting up writers’ clubs, where the teacher meets with the kids weekly, and then I’ll go in once a month or so to spend an hour with them, offering professional critiques, leading writing exercises, etc. I look on it as an outgrowth of my tough-love book review series (ImmerseOrDie) but with a much softer tone that’s more appropriate for young beginners. And the teachers seem to get just as much from these as the kids do. After all, many of them are being asked to teach creative writing based on little more than the curriculum as a guide. Few teachers actually have the time for creative writing on the side. So I’m able to give them a shot of content that they can play out in the class over the weeks between my visits.
I’ve been so energized and encouraged by that first visit that in the time since then, I have begun reaching out to other schools in the area as well. And so far, I’m getting the same kind of response. Eagerness. Excitement. Appreciation.
If anyone were to look at this through a dollars-per-hour lens, they’d say I was delusional. Fifty books a week is not enough to live on. But I choose to take the long view. I’m not being underpaid to teach. The money really isn’t even a concern for me. This is about growing my audience and meeting my readers. They’re not “customers.” These are my people, and we’re bonding over the books we love. My books. What more could an author ask?