Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Reaching Readers: Successful Public Library Visits

Today we're pleased to welcome middle grade author Rebecca Donnelly (How to Stage a Catastrophe, Capstone April 2017) to the blog with some incredible insights on staging successful visits to public libraries! Take it away, Rebecca:

As a middle grade author, you already know that visits and presentations will probably be a big part of your career. Most of those will likely be in schools, and some will be in bookstores when launch day comes. But what about public library visits, especially for a new or newish author? There are a few special challenges to public library visits that make them different from school or bookstore visits, and as a 10-year veteran of the library world (and newbie middle grade author), I thought it would be helpful to share some of the insights I’ve gained.

What makes a library visit different from visiting a school or bookstore?

School visits come with a captive audience, for one thing, and schools have specific curriculum goals and objectives that they need to meet with your visit. Bookstores have a specific goal, too: the bottom line. Bookstore visits are linked to sales, usually of new titles. Chances are you won’t find yourself doing a bookstore visit to support an older title if you don’t have a new book out, too.

The public library is a more forgiving environment. Libraries have an educational mission and they want to add value for their patrons, but they’re not bound to specific objectives in the same way that schools and bookstores are. Let’s go through some of the upsides of public library visits.

  • Backlist support: You might visit a public library to do a presentation on a backlist title, or your latest release. The library, unlike the bookstore, tends to keep older titles in circulation, so they’re just as happy to have you come and talk about an older title if they feel it would be of interest to their patrons. Jan Thomas came to the library in New Mexico where I used to work as part of an all-day Día de los Niños event and shared some images from a soon-to-be-published book, as well as several of her backlist titles.
  • Small groups: While I’ve seen some library-sponsored events draw huge crowds (Lois Lowry, for example), most will be small, which means you have the opportunity to try a presentation or project that wouldn’t work with a larger group.
  • Local support: A lot of public library visits will probably be local, since many libraries find it difficult to justify paying for an out-of-area author visit when they have no guarantee that an audience will show. But local librarians are eager to meet their local writers, especially those that are traditionally published, reviewed in the major journals, etc. There’s a lot of enthusiasm in the children’s library community for writers, and a successful library visit can lead to fans for life.

What are the downsides?

Some downsides are that a small local library might not expect to pay you (but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t!), you might have an audience of zero, and even if someone does come, there’s no guarantee that they will have read your book. It’s a rare public library that will plunk down the kind of money a school visit would cost, but there are a few things you can do. If you’re done any out-of-area school visits, you might also have visited a library for an evening or weekend event. Libraries often piggyback off of schools or literacy associations to share costs, with the school paying for transportation and a hotel, which reduces the library’s cost considerably.

If you’re interested in visiting local libraries, you might be able to apply for local arts grants to pay some of the costs. In New York State, regional arts councils offer decentralization grants to writers and artists living with their service area to work with schools and libraries. I’m in the middle of a series of 4 workshops at a local library, paid for with a 75% grant and 25% matching funds from the library. If there are no grants available, the library might ask its Friends of the Library group, which raises money through book sales and other activities for the purpose of sponsoring special activities and purchases. If neither of those things are possible, your library might be willing to ask a small fee for participation, especially if you’re doing a workshop rather than a presentation. A class fee, prepaid, can be a good way to ensure attendance, too!

What if no one shows up?

Every librarian has had their share of no-show programs. The key is to make your visit compelling and perhaps draw in people who might not think of coming for a traditional author reading/Q&A. For my grant project, I’m doing stop-motion storytelling with groups of 12 kids at a time. It’s the kind of project that I love, but that gets a little hectic with classroom-size groups. The use of technology plus storytelling is the real draw, and the fact that I’m an author is almost beside the point. I introduce myself as a writer, I make sure the parents know that I have a book coming out, but the project we work on doesn’t have anything to do with me or my book. It’s sheer spontaneous storytelling, and the kids are the stars.

Are slideshows required?

You don’t have to involve technology to create a compelling library program. Although I have used different kinds of amateur video software for several library projects, I’ve also done a kamishibai-style workshop (Japanese paper theater, where kids illustrated folktales on large sheets of paper and told the stories aloud to an audience of their families at the end of the project) and plain old writing classes. You might try crafts, which are always a hit in libraries, especially if they’re thematically related to your book, or art, or games. Some of the most successful book-based library programs I’ve seen have involved seed-planting projects, historical games, food, and crafts, and events that offer several activities for kids to go through at their own pace.

A word about ongoing projects: although I have done some ongoing projects at my library, it can be tough to get the same kids to come back for a four or six-week workshop, or even to come back for week two! A one-off event has a much greater chance of success, unless your librarian has had success bringing kids back for longer projects. The exception to this is groups of homeschoolers, which I mention briefly below.

The author at a storytime read-aloud
Doing a project rather than relying on a reading or Q&A also means that if no one has read your book, it doesn’t matter. While bookstore and school visits have a sales and signing component, that might not end up being part of your public library visit. If you’re touring libraries or coming as part of a festival, the library will usually arrange for a bookstore to sell your books on site. A smaller local library visit, however, might not include that. I see my library visits as less about selling my books and more about selling myself to the book-people in my community. I’m letting them know that a) I’m here and I’m local, b) I’m flexible and c) I’m creative and entertaining (I hope).

Networking & Other Benefits

A couple of other things have come out of library visits for me: a local journalist came to take pictures and write a story on the stop-motion workshop, and I was able to shamelessly talk up my book and wrangle an interview. The librarian I worked with to coordinate the grant project also passed my name on to someone who was organizing a local literary festival, who has invited me to moderate a panel on writing for children.

The public library can be a good way to get in touch with homeschool groups, too. Homeschoolers are always looking for enrichment activities for their children, and they also often belong to groups that will spread the word. I am plotting as we speak to approach a homeschool group that attends a weekly art class at the library where I work to invite them to my book launch and see if I can arrange a writing class. I’ve had much better luck signing homeschoolers up for longer workshops, six or even eight weeks, because the workshop becomes part of their curriculum instead of being an “extra” activity.

Look on your local library as a resource and a training ground. If you want to try out a new idea for a school presentation, but you want to test it first, try offering it at a library. If you’re having trouble getting in touch with local schools or other groups, ask your librarian. Children’s librarians usually have some kind of relationship with schools, daycares, after-school groups, homeschoolers, clubs, scouts, and on and on. The bottom line for a public library is that we love to help and we love to make our patrons happy, and if we can make our patrons happy and help a local writer at the same time, there’s nothing more we could wish for.

Rebecca Donnelly was born in England and has lived in California, Florida, and New Mexico. These days she writes and runs a small rural library in upstate New York. Her debut middle-grade novel, HOW TO STAGE A CATASTROPHE, will be published by Capstone Young Readers in April 2017.

Website | Goodreads

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