This article originally appeared in the 2004 Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market (Writer’s Digest Books). All rights reserved.
So you’ve published your first book (or second, or seventh). Now you want to create a little book buzz. To visit or not to visit? School visits stimulate word-of-mouth attention and can increase book sales. But getting the visits takes a little work. And the impression you make on a school system or community begins the first time they open your mailing or visit your website.
A promotional mailing should tell the reader everything s/he needs to know about hiring you. At the very least you’ll need a brochure. Include:
- Who you are: brief bio, photo
- What you do: titles and descriptions of your books; general descriptions of visits
- How to reach you: phone, address, e-mail. (Some authors use a post office box to maintain privacy)
Don’t include fees, travel requirements, etc. on the brochure. Your fees will rise with demand and experience and you don’t want to have to reprint the most expensive item in your packet. This is also strategic: many buyers are turned off by price. Good salespeople don’t start with price, but with selling points. Focus on your books, your credentials and your style.
Booknotes should include covers, publisher, and positive review snippets. Credentials include teaching and speaking experience and educational background, if appropriate. Conveying style is a bit subtler… how might an audience describe your talk. Playful? Lively? Down-to-earth?
Program descriptions should include a catchy title, presentation length, target ages and group size, and a brief description of the content. Schools in search of speakers are generally looking for three broad categories of content: the writing life (how you got published, how you work, etc.); the craft of writing (how aspiring writers can hone their skills); and literacy topics (how parents and teachers encourage reading and/or use literature in the classroom). Make this a separate sheet on regular paper for easy e-mailing and editing. If possible, include quotes from satisfied customers.
To economize, do a broader brochure mailing and follow up promising leads with a smaller, more detailed packet that includes fees, program descriptions, and postcards or copies of your reviews. Author Shutta Crum (SPITTING IMAGE), includes copies of newspaper articles about her visits to other schools, which indicates satisfied customers and suggests that schools can turn her visit into a PR opportunity for their program.
Fees and travel expenses should be listed on a separate sheet from your brochure. Place them in the bottom of your materials (perhaps at the bottom of the page with your programs) so readers will see the price after you’ve piqued their interest. How to determine appropriate fees? Consider your record as a writer/illustrator and your skills and experience as a speaker. Survey the market in your area—what are other speakers charging? Don’t forget what I call the aggravation factor: inevitable bumps and wrinkles along the way. Charge a fee that covers the costs for your time and which anticipates some difficulties.
Seasoned speaker tip: rather than create a new presentation for each visit, develop several strong presentations that cover the range of your expertise. You can tweak them over time, but having pre-set talks and workshops makes it easier for buyers to find exactly what they need and will save you prep time in the long run.
As with any service transaction, the more specific you are about your fees, the more satisfied everyone will be. Give a breakdown along these general lines:
- One one-hour presentation for up to ____ students: $XXX
- ½ day visit (up to [2 or 3] [length of time] presentations: $XXX
- Full day visit (up to [4-5] [length of time] presentations: $XXX
You may or may not want to include a volume discount. Doing several sessions in one location saves travel time and paper work; on the other hand, long days are draining.
Travel expenses are straightforward. Expect schools to pay travel, meals, and mileage (cents per mile per the I.R.S.). Indicate how far you’re willing to drive without requiring an overnight stay. Use the contract to indicate specific preferences such as whether you’ll book flights and hotels yourself and be reimbursed, or whether you prefer to have the host make your arrangements.
Savvy sales pitch: include a note with suggestions for economizing. This reduces haggling and puts the responsibility for making the visit affordable on the school’s shoulders, rather than the author’s.
As soon as you do a mailing (or post your information on your website), be prepared for inquiries. A paper or computer spreadsheet works well to keep track of details as long as you update it diligently. Note contact information at each site, their interests, and dates. Also note how they found you—this information will help you better target your marketing efforts down the road.
CLOSING THE DEAL
To confirm a scheduled visit, you’ll need to send the school a contract or review theirs. Toni Buzzeo, author of DAWDLE DUCKLING, has examples of solid visit contracts on her website (link: www.tonibuzzeo.com). For convenience, include information about book sales: titles, publishers, prices, ISBN numbers, and ordering information (including required lead time). Author Rukhsana Khan recently added this information to her website and received immediate positive feedback from booksellers and schools. The easier it is for people to do something, the more likely they are to do it. When I return signed copies of contracts, I also include a photo and reproducible bio sheet to help promote the event.
Many authors and illustrators use postcards to alert friends and contacts to new releases and events. Modernpostcard.com and 4over4.com are two popular sources; both will design a postcard for a modest fee. Put postcards in your contract pack so the school can make big posters of your book covers for the visit.
Bookmarks are another popular giveaway. They feature a book cover, titles of other books and a review snippet or two. They’re so inexpensive to get done professionally that you may save money going that route—you’ll certainly save time. In addition to postcard producers, there are companies that specialize in bookmarks such as www.web-cards.com. Author Alex Flinn (link: www.alexflinn.com) gives bundles of bookmarks to reading groups that discuss her books.
Note to newbies: even though online companies can pull photos and covers from a website, you’ll get a crisper image if you send them your own high-resolution jpeg.
Educators particularly love activity guides and reading guides. An activity guide for a picture book can include related art activities and songs…more sophisticated guides describe cross-curricular activities that relate to your book. For chapter books and novels, readers’ guides include questions about themes, characters, and plot. These are not quizzes on content, but discussion starters. If you’d like to write your own activity guides, study those posted at many author-illustrator websites. Author Tracie Vaughn Zimmer has a collection of great guides on her website, (link: www.tracievaughnzimmer.com). Illustrators can make coloring pages with characters or scenes from their books. If you’re not up for an entire activity guide, pick one fun activity. Schools like cooking projects because they promote math, reading, science and social skills. For Rhonda Gowler Greene’s book, AT GRANDMA’S, we created recipes for two foods mentioned in the book. Four cards fit on a standard sheet; they can be printed on cardstock for cute giveaways, or schools and readers can download and copy them. Include your name and book title somewhere on every promotional piece.
Techno tip: any and all reproducible freebies should be posted on your website to save mailing costs and to make them available to readers who aren’t yet in the market for a visit. “Pdf” file formats make documents created in any program universally readable.
That’s basically it for function. Now let’s talk about form: good information is even more impressive when it’s wrapped up in a pretty package.
DESKTOP DESIGN ON A DIME
If funds are tight, you don’t need to hire a graphics designer to get an attractive, basic brochure. Remember four basic goals as you design your promotional pieces:
- Your materials are the first indication of your professional personality. They should be consistent. Using the same colors, fonts, and tone across all your materials will present a memorable image.
- Materials should reflect your personal style. Playful? Serious? Zany? Whatever it is don’t let it overshadow your content.
- Content is key. Avoid me-me-me syndrome. You may have numerous attributes and accomplishments, but your reader simply wants to know what you can do for her (or her program). Be sure to communicate what listeners will take away from your presentation.
- Polish, polish, polish. Beyond proofreading, have an independent reader check your materials for clarity and comprehensiveness.
DEALING WITH DETAILS
If it’s worth having a brochure (or website), it’s worth taking the time to make it good. (Besides, working on these extras is a great way to pass the time while you wait for your books to be published!)
When you choose a brochure format (size and layout), standard paper sizes make copying and mailing easier. Tri-fold brochures are popular because they’re easy to mail and have built-in sections to help you organize information. Some authors use a flyer, or single standard page. Others choose an unusual shape to stand out in the pile. I made an 8.5 x 5.5 double-sided card for author Lisa Wheeler; it fits into a standard “catalog” envelope. For Shutta Crum, I made an accordion-fold 11×17 page because Shutta wanted to include classroom suggestions for each of her several books. Her brochure does double-duty: even if schools don’t book her for a visit, they may use her activities and books in the classrooms. If you choose a brochure style that will be folded, be sure that none of the text or images is obscured by the creases.
Judicious use of fonts is one of the quickest ways to spruce up your image. Sans serif fonts (those that don’t have the curlicue tails) are easier to read in dense text. Too many fonts give a cluttered, chaotic effect. Choose two, maybe three fonts and stick to them in all your materials. Use one font for content and one for headings. They should complement each other and your “personality.” Make sure your font size is legible. Use boldface, italics, and underlining sparingly and consistently. Steer clear of cutesy fonts.
Formatting text is one place that armchair graphic designers tend to fall down on the job. Take the time to learn how to use your program’s formatting toolbars and shortcuts: indents, lists, line spacing, and tabs should not be a guessing game. If you position things by repeatedly hitting the space key or estimating when items are “centered,” you will spend lots of time chasing down stray spaces and dangling punctuation. Try to avoid hyphenating words. Many programs allow users to turn off auto-hyphenation, which cleans up the look of text blocks. Don’t leave a single line of text or word by itself; force a line break to leave two lines together or edit the text so the dangling word will fit in the previous column.
Clip art and borders are another sticky wicket. Art adds oomph, but can also make a brochure too busy. Less is more—leave some white space. It’s breathing room for your content…resist the temptation to fill it up with clip art clutter. White space shapes your text blocks and gives eyes a rest from processing lines and images. Make sure any clip art is appropriate for your design and that all the clip art in a promo piece has similar lines. As you arrange art on the page, be sure to evenly distribute the “weight” of the whole brochure.
If you include photos or book covers, give proper credit. If you want to use art from inside your picture book, obtain permission from the artist and include a copyright notice with each piece. Professional photographers may require a fee (in addition to credit) to grant reproduction rights. Book covers for promo purposes are generally fair use, but you’ll need to include the artist’s copyright notice and the publisher’s name. Photos should be high-contrast, high resolution (at least 150 d.p.i.; check your digital camera or scanner settings) for best copy quality.
The materials you use to create your promotional items also make a statement. Office superstores sell everything from glossy brochure paper to heavyweight, textured cardstock. Splurge on good brochure paper, as this is the piece that most people will hang on to. Some authors and illustrators choose to print their own materials. Color inkjet cartridges can print a good number of brochures and are an affordable alternative to color photocopies if you have a good printer. Optimize your printer settings for color/photo printing and specialty papers. Another way to print an affordable, expensive-looking brochure is to use colored ink on nice paper. I have freelance items printed at a print shop: three colors on linen paper in quantities of 500-1,000 for under 20 cents per double-sided sheet. Pick a color that’s dominant in your author photo or which complements it. If your photo’s not in color, choose two complementary colors and stick to them throughout your materials.
Timesaving tip: whether you print on demand or in volume, have a stash of at least 10 promo packets ready to mail out so you can send them right away when you get requests.
DON’T FORGET THE INFORMATION SUPERHIGHWAY
A website is one of the easiest ways to get author visits. As with promotional materials, your website does not need to be high-tech or flashy to do its job. It does need to be attractive, informative, and easy to use. All of the content and design elements discussed above apply to web pages. More considerations:
Domain name: Before you do anything, register your domain name. There’s a fee of about $30 per year to do so and there are multiple services which will register your domain name for you. (I did it myself at www.register.com.)
Download speed. Optimize your images so they don’t take forever to load. If you work with a high-speed connection, test your site with a dial-up connection.
Search engines. Search engines will find you, eventually. You can speed the process by registering (it’s free) with the big ones: yahoo, google, and alta vista, to name a few.
Metatags also help search engines find you. These are keywords built into your invisible web page headers. Include words such as children’s author or illustrator, your book titles, and content words. If you make your site content-rich (see below), include those words in your metatags, too.
Save all download documents as pdfs (portable document format) in order for web visitors to download them. Otherwise, only people who have the programs used to create the document will be able to read them. Macintosh OS9 has a built in pdf creator; Adobe Acrobat is the best-known pdf program but there are many pared down versions which can be adequate for occasional users.
Consider the expiration date of your information. If you can’t or won’t be updating frequently, don’t post anything that will quickly go out of date. You do want to update periodically to maintain traffic to your site; even doing so quarterly helps.
Timesaver: to make updating more manageable, structure your content so that only one or two pages of the whole site will need regular attention.
Format your website so that when people follow any links you include, your site window doesn’t close.
There are dozens of do-it-yourself web design programs available. Be sure that the domain host you select supports the program you want to use. If you have no interest in designing or maintaining a site, a skillful web designer will know how to address these issues and even more. How to find a good designer? Find sites you like and ask who did them. Prices, and quality of sites, run the gamut. There are plenty of affordable designers and hosts. The Author’s Guild offers site hosting and templates for members; smartwriters.com provides web design and hosting service. If you plan to do your own site, allow time. It takes a while to become fluent in the do-it-yourself programs.
What should a website include? At the very least, all the content of a basic brochure, as well as information about visits. Post your programs and e-mail fees upon request. Content-rich websites offer more: information about getting published, about literacy, about the factual content of books, as well as activity guides and suggestions. Some authors include reading list—favorite or related books. Posting content on your site will generate more traffic…and more exposure.
What’s the bottom line? Schools get piles of promotional flyers for everything from jugglers to plays to exotic pets. How to rise to the top of this slush pile? Put your best face forward. Ensuring that your promotional materials are attractive, appropriate, and accurate will put you at the head of the class when it comes time for schools to plan literacy events.