Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Fee vs. Free Author/Illustrator Visits: What's the Difference and Why It Matters by Todd Burleson

Meeting an author or illustrator can be magical for both kids and adults.  The Society of Authors recently released their intensive survey of the impact of author visits.  As a Library Media Specialist for the past five years, I've had the good fortune of welcoming some of the best into our school.  This post is meant to encourage teachers/librarians/parents to explore the multitude of opportunities to connect with authors and illustrators.  We'll look at the difference between a "Free" vs. a "Fee" visit and the benefits/challenges to each.
Caldecott winning author/illustrator Jon Klassen visited my school in 2013; the year he won for I Want My Hat Back.

First of all, in my opinion, there is no better way to encourage children to read than to meet an author.  Books still evoke a sense of magic in children.  Meeting the person behind the pictures and/or words is like seeing the magician doing his tricks in slow motion.  It encourages and challenges students to strive to create their own stories/images.  

 Marc Brown: author/illustrator of the Arthur Series.

Whenever an author/illustrator is scheduled to come to our school, it provides a chance to meaningfully explore their work.  We read everything the author/illustrator has done and develop questions we hope to be able to ask at the visit.  

David Shannon, author/illustrator of the David books.

The very best way to get 'connected' and find out about author/illustrator visits is to form a positive relationship with your local independent book store.  In Winnetka, we have a phenomenal book store named:  The Book Stall. 

Jon Muth, author/illustrator of Zen Shorts and many more titles has visited Winnetka several times over the past three years.

I interviewed Robert McDonald, the Children's Specialist at the store, to get some insight into arranging and facilitating author visits.  All of the author/illustrator visits we have had through The Book Stall have been free.  I wanted some insight on how these are arranged and funded.

Jon Muth and I last year when he visited to promote his newest book, Hi, Koo!

1.  What is the process you and The Book Stall go through to connect with authors and find out that they are coming to your area?

Publishers send us a "grid" or list of what authors they are sending out on book tour. We place our requests based on who is coming and if we feel that we have several good area options for schools to place those authors.  We don't always get every author we request, so we don't know for sure which authors we will be able to work with in a given season until 1-3 months before the event. Generally we get no say in what day or date we have an author. This varies a bit from the usual way a paid school visit  would work, where the school and the author would reach an agreements about timing. Of course the advantage for the school in working with a bookstore is access to nationally recognized authors and illustrators with no honorarium involved.

We do also foster relationships with local authors, and at their request will place them for free into schools when they have new books coming out. 

Wendy McClure visited last year to promote her new book, Wanderville.

2.  What two or three points would you say make for a successful author/illustrator visit to a school?

I've been to hundreds of school visits now, and here's what I think really helps make a visit work well:

A. The kids and teachers have been aware of the event well in advance, and are all familiar in some ways with the visiting author's work.  This may include reading the first few chapters of a book aloud, reading several of the picture books to younger grades, and/or showing the book trailer to the classes.  Any way that the staff can figure out ways to work the author's art and writing into curriculum, and emphasize to the students that this visit is a lucky event helps pave the way for the author to have that much more of an impact.  When an author arrives to see welcome signs made by kids, and maybe have artwork based on their book, it's going to make for a happier, more engaged author.

 Author/illustrator Steve Barnes visited our school in 2013

Be aware that these free author visits are free because the publisher wants to get more buzz and attention for an author's work. They also want to sell copies. The bookstore will want the school to promote book sales prior to the visit, so that the author has a good stack of books to sign for kids the day of the event. In general, there's no set number of books that MUST be sold, but in the long-term a bookstore won't be eager to work with you if author visits do not generate any sales. 

B. Kids model what they see, so if I ruled the world I'd insist that staff attending an author presentation be fully engaged, and NOT using the time to grade papers or catch up on email.  If the educator is paying attention, she has that much more insight and material she can use to reinforce and expand on lessons learned.  And the kids will take the visit more seriously.

C. There is almost always a Q and A section of an author visit.  Prep the kids beforehand, and discuss as a class what good questions could be, or even have a class contest to get your question "chosen" to ask the author in front of the large group. The better the questions, the better the visit will be.

Dan Gutman, award winning author, has a page on his site to help prepare for a successful author visit.

Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, visited last spring to promote his book called, Grandfather Gandhi.

3.  What advice would you give a teacher/librarian who would like to begin working with an independent book store to arrange author visits?

Look and see what authors are visiting a local bookstore.  If a store in your area is having in-store children's author events, they are almost certainly placing authors in schools for free. Call and ask to speak with the children's specialist.  Be willing to be flexible--an author out on book tour might not be able to stay at your school all day and see every student in the school, but if you are willing to work with independent bookstores  (or Barnes and Noble for that matter--many of them do arrange free author visits in schools) you may be able to host multiple authors in a school year, a picture book author for K-1 one time, something for the 4th-5th grades another.  I have a lot of schools now that are able to host 2-3 authors a year.

If your local bookstore does not yet arrange free author visits, reach out to them and suggest they start!

Invite a bookstore to help you with a visit you are already arranging and paying for--if you sell books through a bookstore, you'll make your visiting author happy  (They love to see book sales at the schools they visit) and you'll be establishing a relationship with a store--they will think of you the next time they have a big-name author in town.

Not all of our author/illustrator visits are free.  Usually, about once a year we reach out to an author/illustrator to arrange a Fee based visit.  We do this usually because we are hoping to expand on the traditional author/illustrator visit.  Last year we arranged an author visit with Steve Cotler, the author of the Cheesie Mac series.

Because this was a sponsored visit, we were able to arrange several more presentations with him as well as some specific work with our older students on developing 'writer's voice' and writing dialogue.
 This year, our school is sponsoring an author visit from Kristy Dempsey.  She is the author of several children's picture books, an educator and a Library Media Specialist who currently lives and works in Brazil.  I was curious as to her take on the difference between a Free vs. Fee author/illustrator visit.  Coming from the dual perspective of both author and librarian, I knew that her insight would prove very valuable.

Kristy Dempsey (photo courtesy of the author's website)

How do you feel about free vs. fee author/illustrator visits?

When free visits are possible, I absolutely believe in them. I think there are a couple of kinds.  There are visits that the author is willing to do completely for free. I have done some of these visits at Title 1 schools that have no PTA and few resources. ( I have also done paid visits at Title 1 schools that have received grants for visits.) I know other authors who sometimes donate their time like this and when it's possible, I think it's great. Because of travel and schedules and such, it's often not possible, or perhaps it's cost-prohibitive for the author. Mid-list authors don't make a ton of money from royalties, so they would be paying out of their own pockets for this. Or often, the school (or in conjunction with a bookstore) will use the profit from doing book sales to pay for an author visit, which seems to me a way to do a "free" visit that still supports the author. 

I do have concerns, as well, about free visits. I don't view author visits as just entertainment or even simply cheerleading about reading and writing. And my fear is that unestablished authors (self-published or otherwise) that do free visits, without truly understanding how to make the visit valuable for teachers (connecting to standards, etc) as well as inspiring students, are misleading schools about how valuable a school author visit can be. (Whew. Be careful if you quote me on that. I don't want to bash anyone. In fact, some self-published and unestablished authors are VERY good at this.)

So ultimately I believe that the difference is that a paid visit (especially with established authors and illustrators) is held to a higher quality control. Authors and illustrators who are making part of their living off of school visits are literally in the same business as teachers. They are designing their instruction to benefit student learning. And if they're not, they won't be invited back (or "keep" their jobs!) 

There are many other ways to bring authors/illustrators to schools as well.  With technology, many author/illustrators are willing to do Skype visits, or Google Hangouts.

There are thousands of resources online to help connect author/illustrators with schools/libraries.  One of my favorite is the listing on the Scholastic web page for children and young adults. 

I hope that this post has been helpful in helping you think about the power of author/illustrator visits.  You never know the impact of one of these visits on the young minds of writers.  Someday they may be in the position to be a visiting author/illustrator themselves!


  1. As a school librarian and as a visiting author, I've had opportunities to see this issue from both sides--and you've done a good job of presenting both perspectives. You seem to enjoy the visits as much (more?) than your students!

  2. Pat,
    You are right! I do love meeting new authors and illustrators. I think my excitement spills over to the kids, teachers and parents. I know the value of these visits and hope that this post encourages other teachers/librarians/authors/illustrators to reach out and invite authors to their schools/libraries/book stores. There's nothing quite as magical as meeting the people behind the greatest magic in the world: reading!

  3. Hey Todd, I love this post and it helps authors and educators understand the ins & outs of paid versus free visits. I, like you, loved having authors come to my school. As librarian, I was the facilitator between the authors and the educators and we planned for months to get our teachers and kids really engaged w/an author/illustrators' work. I am going to piggy-back off your post to show the facilitator's side of the author visit very soon.

  4. Kathy,
    For sure! I work with classroom teachers to expose all the kids to the authors. We often have authors who are relatively unknown. I know the authors really appreciate feeling connected to the kids in that way. As an author myself, everything that happens is seen through a very different light. I so look forward to visiting schools myself as an author. I know the impact it can have on kids, teachers and parents!

  5. What a wonderful and detailed post. Thank you. T

  6. Your work as a Library Media Specialist at Hubbard Elementary School, always impresses me. You do so much to instill the importance of literacy in all students. As a former Title I Bilingual ELL Coordinator, I always made sure that monies were appropriated for author/illustrator visits throughout the school district. Authors and illustrators were treated with respect and given a warm welcome. Students and teachers appreciated and looked forward to the very important guests. The expectation, established by the campus administrators, was clearly stated and modeled. Everyone was attentive and partcipated, as they knew the visit was a treat and there much to learn from the VIPs. How fantastic that your school can work in partnership with a local bookstore, The Book Stall, to make some of the author/illustrator visits happen. Thank you, Todd.

    1. Thank you Suzy!

      I'm so fortunate to be in a school that truly values reading and creativity. We have some tremendous authors/illustrators coming to visit with us this year and it is going to be fantastic for the kids to meet them. Of course, being an author myself, I'm constantly looking at the situation through multiple sets of lenses. All the best,

  7. Great post on school visits, Todd. I used to work for a company that facilitated author visits, and I can confirm your tips for a good author visit. A well-prepared student body and an air of excitement makes for a terrific visit. On one occasion, I remember taking an author to a school that didn't even know he was coming! We had to scramble to find a space, with the two of us cleaning and folding up lunchroom tables to make things work. A memorable visit for us, in all the wrong ways.

    1. Patty,
      I can't imagine that happening! I love having authors/illustrators visit. It's like a rock star to our kids!


  8. Excellent Post, Todd. I always wanted to know how author visits really worked and you've provided an in-depth answer. Thank you! - Donna L Sadd :0)

  9. Thank you very much! It's kind of fun to peek 'behind the curtain' a little isn't it?

    Thanks for reading!


  10. It's clear that your author/illustrator visits are splendidly orchestrated by you Todd & by The Book Stall. Hope to visit your library & that bookstore, some day!
    I've also enjoyed reading about children's responses to the visits at your library & seeing their artwork in your links on your facebook pages. Your events achieve mighty fine results. I'm sure some of the students are planning on being authors or illustrators or both as a result of the high-energy events they've enjoyed with you.
    Luv this post.

  11. Jan,
    We would love to have you visit! Thank you for your very kind words. We never know what the impact the seeds that are planted in the meeting of an author/illustrator. That goes for us teacher/writers too!

  12. Hi! I am one of those mid list authors you mention. Thank you for this really great article. You did a fantastic job explaining the particulars, but I wanted to add a bit more. The author/illustrators you get for free are only the handpicked ones who are top of the list for the publisher that year. Most books don't get this type of treatment. The book is going to do well (sell lots) and part of the reason is the machine behind them--the publishers pays for the tour which includes the free visits, pays for travel, meals, etc. and does all the planning. This is marketing budget. The rest of us are out there doing our own publicity. We won't sell as much because we can't do that kind of marketing. Don't take this to mean anyone not getting the star treatment is complaining. We're all a pretty supportive bunch and we are thrilled when one of our friends is being treated so well. I don't expect to ever be on a 'book tour.' I do for-fee visits. My visits aren't based on selling books or a particular book I've just published. They are about talking to students about being a working writer. I have been doing them for almost 20 years and (I think--I hope) I am pretty good. But, I cannot do it for free. Most of us can't. In fact, I joke (though it's fairly true) that I am paying for (my daughter's) college, one school visit at a time. But, it's getting harder and harder to book these visits because of the free visits. (Again, I am explaining, not begrudging). I am very happy to hear that, though you are taking advantage of the free publicity-based visits, you are also hiring an author each year. The last thing I'd like to remind everyone is that the book tours with corresponding author visits follow a pretty similar path. The publishers work with the same bookstores (because they are awesome) most of the time so, though you are able to get great authors, there are lots of places that don't have the same geographical luck.
    Again, thanks for the great article. It was the first really comprehensive comparison between free and fee visits--a subject I have had tons of long conversations about!

    1. Goodness. Sorry. I didn't realize my comment was so long!

  13. Thanks for this post. I invite you and your readers to join our Facebook Group which is focused on Creating Engaging School Visits.
    I just shared this post in the group.

  14. Wow, Todd, this post is so very helpful. I was actually one of those authors who didn't really know what I was doing when I did school visits several years ago. I had self published a parent teacher resource book filled with picture book suggestions and craft and cooking activities...and I visited local schools once a week,doing back to back story and craft presentations for the kindergartens. I never asked for money...worse, I didn't send a pre order form home to parents before the visit. This wasn't a book kids were going to want to was a book for the parents. I'm so glad I spent all that time with the kids...but I will be much smarter this time around with my traditionally published picture book that launches in March 2017. Again, thank you so much for an informative post.