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Authors and school library staff - how we can help each other

This blog has been written by Dawn Finch as part of the Development and Discussion blog - posts which deliver an element of CPD. Discuss on the discussion forum or on Twitter - don't forget to use '[at]uksla'. 

Authors and school library staff - how we can help each other*

*and anyone else who buys books or organises author/illustrator visits!

There has been a lot in the press recently about how writers and illustrators are struggling, and recent figures suggest they earn as little as £10,000 a year. The Society of Authors’ Children’s Writers and Illustrators committee have been at the spearhead of an ongoing campaign to support fair dealing for children’s authors, and many creatives have written extensively on the subject.

In his blog for the Society of Authors, top author and illustrator, James Mayhew, details just how little authors get from the sales of heavily discounted books. You can read his article here.

https://www.societyofauthors.org/News/Blogs/James-Mayhew/November-2016/James-Mayhew-Fair-Trade-for-Authors

In it he explains that if you buy a book on a £1 deal, it is likely that the author is getting less than 3p of that. This means that the author would actually earn more from each loan at a public library than from a sale. In fact, even a full priced book only earns the author around 40p from a £7.99 book.

So, where does this leave us? Library staff love authors and illustrators, and the last thing we want to do is support an industry that cuts them out. All book loving educators want bookshelves full of diverse, original, rewarding and challenging books, and we need authors! If they all give up because they can’t afford to continue, the only books we’ll have available to us are celeb authors and those put out by corporations like Disney. We need choice!

However, budgets are rapidly diminishing, and buying all our books at full cover price is simply beyond us, so what can we do? We all talk about fair trade, and are prepared to pay more for a fair deal for all sorts of products. We need to think this way about books too.

There is no doubt that book bundles from those massive discounters are tempting, but remember how little the author gets back from them. Here are a few tips on how to use those discounters and still help authors, and hopefully stretch your budget guilt free!

  • Avoid using them to buy the author’s most recent title. If you see the book on there, and you know it’s the most recent one, please don’t buy it. Many future writing deals for authors depend on early sales of a new title, and heavily discounted copies are often not counted at all. These are not remaindered or end-of-line books, these are editions printed especially for the company as part of what’s known as a “special deal”, and sales of them won’t be counted as overall sales of the book, and the author will get a very tiny amount back per book.

  • If you see a book heavily discounted, or packaged in a bundle, try contacting the author and ask if they have approved the deal. You can find many of them on social media, or try contacting the Society of Authors to send a message to them.

  • Only use heavy discounters for buying bundles or cheap books from really big-name authors, or dead ones. That sounds harsh, but I doubt Roald Dahl cares if you buy ten books for a tenner, and these cheap bundles can replace the hardest working standards on your shelves. I also think JK can afford it, don’t you?

  • Wherever possible, buy the book from an independent bookseller, or from the author or publisher direct. Buying direct from the publisher or author is unlikely to add to their Nielsen sales figures (and so add to the count in the bestselling lists), but it might sometimes be a better way of getting money directly into the pocket of the author. The best bet is always going to be to ask the author and/or publisher which method of sales suits them best, and to go with that. If you can organise sales of their books in advance, you can be sure of working out the fairest way for the author to reimbursed, and to ensure that pupils have a copy of the book before the event.

  • It is unlikely that you will see small or independent publishers featured in these discount catalogues, and that will limit your choices. It’s well worth following some of the smaller independent publishers and small presses on social media and buying direct from them.

  • If you can use independent booksellers and reps for your non-fiction, you will definitely get a wider choice. Most mainstream non-fiction authors will probably have been paid a set fee for the work, and so sales will not earn them any more money. That means you can safely go for discounts on those, but you might want to check with the author if it’s a big and lavishly illustrated title. Not all non-fiction books are published after a set fee. However, once again remember that doesn’t count for newest titles. That non-fiction author still  wants a contract for the next deal and if sales are invisible thanks to those “special sales” deals it is harder to prove your writing stands out.

We’ve covered buying direct, and fair trade for authors, but what else can you do to support them?

It is undeniable that an author visit supports the reading for pleasure agenda in your schools, and I’ve never met a member of library staff who needed convincing of this. Sadly, I have met far too many business managers and head teachers who still remain unconvinced, and who question the expense. Let’s break down a few figures on this to give you some ammunition to convince the people who hold the purse-strings in your school.

The Society of Authors has guidelines for the fees for an author visit, and these are around £500 a day. Lots of people might feel that this is a lot of money, but let’s take a closer look at that. For a start, you might only see the author for that one day, but what you are actually seeing in that day is work that might have taken weeks to prepare. The resources and materials that an author uses in a visit might have cost them hundreds of pounds, and would need updating and replacing on a regular basis. The visit that appears to come down to a few hours, is actually the end result of ten times that, and many years of hard work and rehearsal.

We need to stop thinking of author visits as just an opportunity to flog a book (although I’ll come to that in a bit!) and start thinking of it as a select performance event. If we stop thinking about the money as a per-hour price, and start thinking of it as a per-child price, things look very different. The average price of a child’s cinema ticket is £6. It costs around £7 to go ice skating or bowling. £15 for the zoo, or for a panto, and to see a favourite band it could cost anywhere between £10 and £100! The average cost of an author visit in a secondary school works out around £2 - £3 each, and often much less. That’s a few pounds per head to inspire an entire year group and raise reading levels. With well-planned follow up projects, and linked schemes of work, it starts to look even better value. You could get a whole half-term literacy and literature focus for just a couple of quid per pupil? Amazing! Anyone who has ever seen the author visit buzz first-hand should now see that £500 as a bargain. Try pitching it to your Head, per head (no pun intended).

Promotional materials support author visits, and encourage readers, but they are expensive. Most people don’t realise that authors actually pay for this stuff themselves. It might not seem like a big ask when we pitch out to authors for bookmarks and posters, but every pack of these is money from an author’s pocket. If you are on the hunt for promotional materials for your library, the first thing to do is contact the publisher direct. I find that asking them in a public way (i.e on social media) can often prompt them to be a bit more generous. It is also worth making friends with any bookshops in your area as they will be chucking out their poster when a new promotion rolls onto the shelves. If you want to make your own bookmarks and posters, don’t forget to ask permission from the author or illustrator before you use their images

One other thing worth mentioning – book sales. If you can possibly do this in advance, and directly with the author or the publisher, that is the best way. This way the author will get a fair deal on the sales. If you can't either sell the books while they sign or ask another member of staff to help out (sometimes if you do a bulk order through a bookseller they will send a member of staff as well). There are few things that can ruin an author’s day more than sitting with a cash tin and hoping that kids will line up to buy your books.

If you can’t do advance sales, make sure that everyone in the school knows the author is coming, and when they are coming. Put up posters all over the school, including in the staff room, and make sure reception know too. Send letters and order forms to everyone (parents, carers, primary schools if relevant) - and don’t forget to let all staff know that they too can order signed copies as gifts, or to keep for themselves! Sell as many copies as you can, and you not only help an author’s income, but their self-esteem too. It also means that any follow-up work you do can be supported by the pupil having their own copy of the book. Ownership is such an important part in reading for pleasure (see link below). Owning a signed book, when they’ve met the author and engaged with them in the real world is beyond inspiring and can genuinely be life-changing. Almost every author I’ve ever met can tell you about the first time they met a “real” author, and that’s not a coincidence. Talk to your SLT and see if its possible to use some money from the pupil premium fund to buy books for that cohort – it is vital they get the chance to buy books as well. Measure the impact through the number of children who take up the offer, and whether they start/finish the book. It might not have immediate impact, but it helps them realise reading is a cultural thing they do have access to.

If you can do all you can to turn that mingling line of kids, into a row of happy faces clutching books, you’ll make authors very happy indeed. We love signing books, do us a favour, and make our day!

Treat your authors well, and pay a fair rate for their work both in person and in print, and we’ll all get the very best we can out of the partnership.

Dawn Finch is a children’s author and former school librarian. She is a CILIP Trustee and former President, and a member of the Society of Authors’ Children’s Writers and Illustrators Committee. She writes both fiction and non-fiction for children, and can be contacted via www.dawnfinch.com or on twitter [at]dawnafinch

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