10 Tips For Authors Doing Library & School Visits

Last month I posted tips for organizers hosting an author event. There are a lot of responsibilities on the host, but there are just as many (if not more) on the author, and so this month I'm sharing what I've learned from four years of driving around the state, eating Whoppers while I drive, and - hopefully - finding some new readers along the way.

Authors - the first thing everyone must know is that having a book signing is not a red carpet event. I don't know if it ever was, but somewhere in my mind I had an idea (probably gleaned from films) of an author sitting at a table, stacks of books piled on either side of them, staring down a long line of adoring fans.

And that does happen - for like, 1% of writers.

More often you're at a festival, flanked by two authors with a larger fan base than you (especially if you're just starting out), and you're staring down at tunnel made by the long lines of either side of you. It looks like a gauntlet, and that's exactly what it is - a gauntlet for your professionalism. Smile, be polite. Don't sulk. It hurts. It sucks. It's demoralizing. Welcome to publishing.

However, all of these people standing in line are bored, waiting their turn to meet their favorite author. Their eyes are wandering and whether they pick up your book or not, your name, cover, and title are making a visual impression on them, and that's important. You are gaining exposure, if not sales. You are there. You are in front of them. And that does mean something.

When my second book, IN A HANDFUL OF DUST, released I had an event that zero people showed up to. I mean that. The library staff didn't even pop in. I drove three hours, set up my tech, pulled up the first slide of my presentation... and waited. Nobody showed. Not a single soul. I waited 15 minutes, took a pic of the empty room, and left.

Yes, it sucked. But here's the thing - that was rock bottom. Never again would I feel hurt or shamed if only one person showed up. I would be grateful for that one person.

Lesson learned.

Others came, and I'm gathering them here so that fellow authors know what to expect - and not expect - from an author visit.

1) Always have copies of your own books on hand. If you're able to set up a bookseller to be present to handle sales at a school or library event, great! Still have your own books on hand. Twice I've had booksellers commit to showing up, and then fail to do so. Travel with boxes of books and enough cash to make change. The back of my car has literally hundreds of my titles in it. If I ever get rear-ended on the freeway I'm going to look like the world's biggest narcissist.

A caveat to handling your own sales: If you're going to do this and are traditionally published, make sure that it's permissible according to your contract. Some houses prefer that you not do this. Some are fine with it. Ask your agent for clarification. I won't go into how to handle reporting sales and applicable taxes here, because that could be it's own post. However, if that's something you're interested in knowing, say so in the comments.

2) Ask the organizer to recommend an Indie to handle the sales. Indies are more likely to take a personal approach, and to remember that the event is happening. Typically you'll be dealing with a single person at the store to handle you, and not relying on messages to be relayed on - and possibly lost. You're also sowing good faith and putting yourself in front of someone who makes the decisions on what gets stocked on their shelves - not corporate.

3) Know your tech. Really. Seriously. Know your tech. As a librarian for 15 years I've had presenters (not authors - they're smarter than that) show up with a laptop I don't have a convertor for, no thumb drive, demanding a screen, a projector, and speakers 5 minutes before go time. Those people suck. No one likes them.

Be in touch with your host before hand. Ask if they have a projector, and what inputs it has. Know your own laptop. What ports do you have? What kind of convertor do you need that will make it compatible with just about any projector? Buy one. Travel with it. Have your presentation on a jump drive, or available online (Google Drive or Dropbox) so that if your own laptop won't fit the bill (and it happens) you can pop the jump drive into their laptop. And if that isn't software compatible (and it happens) you can do it from an online platform. And that line of last defense? Make sure you know your Dropbox or Drive password. Did you change it recently? Check before you leave so you're not resetting passwords and clicking confirmation links while your audience patiently waits.

4) Get there early. Aim for half an hour. The library or staff or organizers will want to greet you, show you the presentation area, and get some face time. You will want to use the bathroom, check your breath, and get a drink. Allow time for these things. Nobody wants to see you pee down your leg.

5) Have something for everyone. Yes, making sales is nice. Not everyone who shows up is going to have the financial freedom to buy. Give them a bookmark. This puts your name, your title, and your cover in front of them. They may request it from the library, recommend it to a friend, or put it on their Christmas list. Putting yourself in front of people is always beneficial, immediate results or not.

6) Establish a mailing list. Here's something else you can offer for free that gives people an inside track, and keeps you (and your books) in front of them after they leave the building. I use Mailchimp. It's easy. You can go as simple as having a notebook and a pen for gathering information, and asking people for their name and email addresses.

Mailchimp offers an app that you can set up on your phone or tablet where people input their information and it's synced to your mailing list. Know your audience - if they are younger they are more likely to use the app. If they aren't, they will shy from the tech and not sign up at all, even if they are interested. Have both. The pen and paper has a downside - you have to input everything manually when you get home, and sometimes you can't read people's writing. However, it's better to have a chance of gathering a new reader than not at all. Make sure you pitch upcoming works during your presentation, then at the end mention the mailing list and say if they want to keep updated on when that new book is coming out - or for a cover reveal - they should sign up.

7) Ask Staff to be present, especially if you're at a school. The vast majority of schools are going to have teachers with their classes when they come to your presentation, but I've been in situations where I was shunted into a gymnasium with the entire high school body, and all the other adults shut the doors and sprinted away.

8) Be aware of any recent events in the community. I know that might seem like a lot, but bear with me. I usually book talk NOT A DROP TO DRINK when I am in schools, which opens with a girl shooting someone. I did a school visit where there had been a shooting a few years before, with multiple fatalities. I asked the librarian ahead of time if there were younger siblings, or people closely related to the incident still in the school so that I knew what I should - or should not - be stressing in the presentation. If I had launched into talking about gun violence casually, it could really land wrong. Fast.

9) Be aware of the politics of the community. A simple question ahead of time about what you should - or shouldn't - say in front of your audience is smart. How conservative is the crowd? Can you make a sex joke with the seniors? Better to ask than have a teacher standing in the back making a SHUTUP face at you.

10) If you're at a school, be chill. Not everyone is going to listen to you. Trust me. There are going to be pockets of kids that could care less. The teachers are there to handle that, not you. If you call out a kid, they might be chagrined. Or - they might answer you with an attitude that makes you look like the idiot, not them. Should they respect you? Yes. Will they? Not always. This is my personal take after 15 years standing in front of kids in the day job. If you're going to call someone out, make sure you're capable of shutting it down instead of amping it up.

I could go on... and on. I probably will in a separate post at a later date.


Ask me in the comments!