Thursday, April 3, 2014

This is Not A Hobby, It's Our Job

Yesterday a friend of mine, a fellow children's book writer, put up on Facebook for discussion a message she'd gotten from an irate parent at a school she was scheduled to do a Skype talk with. Skype talks are a new thing; instead of paying an author to make a visit in person, one pays an author for a Skype visit--no travelling expenses involved.

I've shied away from Skype school visits so far. I'm not really computer savvy, and while I have full confidence in my ability to hold the interest of 200 middle school students packed into a gymnasium in person, I'm not convinced I could do it from a little screen. My style is not flamboyant.

I ought to also confess that while I think I'm good at school visits, they require lots of preparation time and lots of energy; I'm not convinced that the amount I charge, though in-line with others of my experience and background, is really worth it to me. So I don't market myself very intensely, or pursue this line of business very hard. Others differ; for some writers, speaking engagements are a big part of their income.

If I do start Skype visits, I'll charge a pretty good fee per hour, because of the prep time, because I think my presentations have value, and because I need to make it worth my while. Nearly every published author charges for Skype visits as well as in-person ones, and it's the official policy of the
Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators that they should do so.

Apparently the school in which my friend is scheduled to speak decided to pass the cost of the Skype visit directly to the students: they charged $5 per child for the author Skype, and any child who didn't pay could not participate. Now I do think that is dreadful. I once, at a school visit, signed a book written by Betsy Byars, because a child asked me to--it turned out he was in foster care, he'd earned the book through participation in some school program, and it was the only book he'd ever owned. He was thrilled to have my signature on it. I don't think Betsy would have minded at all. I've been to plenty of Title One schools filled with kids who could never, ever, afford to buy one of my books themselves or pay for any part of my visit, and some of them are fantastic eager book-loving students who will get my books from the library and gain a lot from my presentation. But please note: it was the school's decision to charge the students, not my friend's.

So the parent email blasted my friend for not doing her Skype visit for free. The parent said that she volunteers at the school, so why wouldn't my friend?

Yesterday I also got yet another email asking me to contribute a signed book to a school's silent auction--this one was somewhere in Missouri. I get these emails so often you would not believe. Please note that the school, which I am not connected to in any way and have never heard of before, is asking me to take a book that I have personally paid for (I get a discount, but I don't get unlimited free copies), sign it, buy a padded envelope, drive to the post office, and pay for the postage to send it to them, which sounds like a damn lot of work given that they probably won't make more than ten bucks for it. So I don't give books. I'll happily give signatures. My standard response is that if they send me one of my books with a paid envelope, I'll sign it and mail it back. I've never had a school willing to do that.

Here are the things that the parent who blasted my friend doesn't understand, and the people who email me don't understand: 1) this is not a hobby, this is our job. Our real job, our bill-paying job. It's no more incumbent upon us to give their child's school something for free than it is for the teachers there to teach for free, or the custodians to clean the school for free, or the crossing guard at the school to wave her arms for free. I'm not being facetious: I love the crossing guard at my daughter's school, who is always cheerful and always keeps the students safe. I think she deserves to be paid. I think I deserve to be paid as well.

2) your school is not my children's school. Of COURSE I didn't charge my children's school for visits. Of COURSE I gave them signed books for fundraisers. But there are an awful lot of schools in the world. The parent who thought my friend owed her child's school something was not realizing that my friend has children and grandchildren of her own--that she has volunteered plenty where it matters to her.

I give signed books in support of any charity I feel personally called to. I'm speaking at a meeting of Bristol's History Club on Monday, and they've graciously invited me to bring books to sell. I could take the profits, but instead I'll ask club members to donate to Faith in Action, which will be win-win all around.

I'm sorry my friend got called out; I know she felt grieved. She didn't need to. I've heard her speak; the woman's amazing, and I would definitely pay to Skype with her.

P.S. When I speak at the Bristol Public Library, they honor me by insistently paying me the same as any other speaker who was not from our town. I pay them back in overdue fines.