Book Festivals

Life as a Professional Children's Writer - the Low Down

This evening I am the guest on #MGiechat on Twitter, run by the wonderful E.R. Murray. To prepare I’ve been thinking about the questions she has set and I have posted some answers below in case they are useful to other writers.

Q1: What’s your definition of a professional writer?

Interesting question. A professional children’s writer is someone who makes their living from writing or activities linked to their writing. Most professional writers do not earn their living solely from advances and royalties. And royalties and advances go up and down, so it’s a good idea to have a second (or third!) income stream.

I’m not sure relying on your creativity to earn you a crust is the best way to encourage and nurture it either. Elizabeth Gilbert is very good on this in her book Big Magic. She explains putting demands on your writing can scare it away.

Personally I cherish my creative life more and more as I get older. I spend 2 to 3 days a week writing, and 3 to 4 days doing other work. Yes, that adds up to 7 days sometimes!

As well as writing I also:

Programme book festivals (ILFD, Dubray StoryFest – 29th Sept in Airfield, Dundrum – do go!).

Write children’s book reviews for the Irish Independent

Mentor Children’s Writers for the Irish Writers Centre and teach adults for them also (writing for children and teenagers)

Give training days for librarians and charity workers who are interested in children and creativity (I recently did one for Trocaire)

Work as a consultant for Dubray Books – at the moment I am working on a new Dubray recommended reading guide for 2019 (and StoryFest)

Run writing clubs and a drawing club for children in Dún Laoghaire

Do some voluntary work – I’m currently helping CBI and Poetry Ireland with a project

Visit schools and libraries and do workshops and events at book festivals (and other creative festivals)

The common thread to all of this – CHILDREN’S BOOKS!

Roughly 1/3 of my income comes from book advances and royalties, 1/3 from teaching, schools visits and other events (I’ll come back to this later as it’s important), 1/3 from programming and other work.

Q2: People believe the holy grail is to be getting paid for just writing - but how realistic is that? How does a professional writer really make a living?

See above! For about 8 years I wrote full time, my income came from advances and royalties. But the books I want to write and work on now are not series books and are not as commercial as my previous books.

My latest two - Blazing a Trail which is out in October and A Sailor Went to Sea, Sea, Sea (with Lauren O’Neill and Steve McCarthy) - are books that are mainly for an Irish audience. I have adored working on them both with the team at O'Brien press. But it does mean I need to work on other projects to pay the bills. But that is my choice.  

And the next two are similar – passion projects. I’m lucky to have that choice.

Most of my children’s writer friends are similar – they have some years where they are writing full time, other years when they are doing other work too. That is normal. In my case it suits me, it keeps me engaged and interested. I’m not sure I’d be able to go back to just writing. I’m having too much fun!

Q3: How much should a writer charge for their time? And how do writers go about having this conversation?

Writers should always charge for their time when it comes to events. If you have a new book out your publisher may ask you do to some promotional events, that is of course fine and I always support my publishers in this way. But schools, libraries, festivals – you must charge for your time.

There is an excellent piece on the Words Ireland website about fees for events which includes this from Children’s Books Ireland:

‘For our annual conference, we cover travel, accommodation and meals for speakers and offer a fee of €250 for someone speaking alone, €200 each for a duo, €150 each for a panel unless the author/illustrator in question is including the event in a promotional tour.* For our education work, we pay a €200 fee plus travel and accommodation for a schools workshop, which runs usually for up to 2.5 hours.’

* It is standard practice that writers do promotional events to publicise a book and don’t receive a fee, though they are earning their usual royalty on sales generated by such events. This should occur in the weeks or months ahead of, and just after, publication of that book.

The full piece is here:

http://wordsireland.ie/words-ireland-pay-scale-information-for-writers/

When a school or library approaches you to do an event – quote these recommended fees. Then prepare your event meticulously. Make sure you give your all at the event. Arrive punctually and be professional at all times. I often give the school a copy of one of my books for the school library.

I have also pasted a link below to a blog about approaching or pitching to festivals. The ones I programme are curator led, so I don’t generally take many proposals (1 out of 25 events might come from a proposal and it’s usually a workshop), but some other festivals do.

More on this here: How to Pitch to Book Festivals - Practical Tips for Children's Writers

https://www.sarahwebb.info/blog/2018/3/20/how-to-pitch-to-book-festivals-practical-tips-for-childrens-writers

And here is a piece from The Bookseller about why writers should not do free school visits:

Authors Aloud, an organisation that helps schools to find authors to visit them, said writers should only do “two or three” free events at the start of their career as a learning exercise and ask for feedback from the school in return.

(Clara) Vulliamy said all authors should charge a similar rate because “one of the worst things you can do is offer yourself at a lower price. That muddies the water and makes it harder for the rest of us”.

https://www.thebookseller.com/news/free-school-visits-one-worst-things-author-can-do-306293

Q4: People need practice, but working for free undermines other writers. What advice do you have for writers starting out with events?

Tips for Events:

If You Have No Experience – Go and Get Some.

Prepare an event and deliver it on a trial basis in creches, schools, libraries, retirement homes. Anywhere that will have you. Make your mistakes early and learn from them. Ask for feedback.

Ask an experienced writer if you can shadow them. Or go to events at festivals and see how other writers do it. Learn from them and then come up with your own event.

Ask the teachers to give you an event ‘reference’ eg ‘Mandy Bloggs was wonderful. She kept JI and SI highly entertained with her stories about African animals and they learned a lot in a fun and innovative way.’

Prepare a script for your event and practice it until it’s perfect. Most events are 60 mins. Break this down: 20/30 minutes talking is perfect. Add  1 or 2 x 5 min readings within or after the talk (never more) + 20 mins for questions at the end.

Your event is not a hard sell for your book. In fact some of the best talks I’ve ever heard are not about the artist’s book at all. Eoin Colfer is one of the best in the business (watch him in action on You Tube) and he rarely mentions his books.

Think about using props, music, dance, theatre, images (although powerpoint presentations can go wrong so always be prepared to deliver your event without it).

Think about using costumes or at the very least looking visually appealing to children (see Sarah McIntyre and Philip Reeve’s costumes).

Q5: You wanted to talk about the reality of book advances @sarahwebbishere – fire away!

At one of the #ProperBook events for writers recently Grainne Clear from Little Island was open and honest about advances:

She explained that advances are paid to a writer based on how many books the publisher thinks they can sell and the price of the book.

Little Island pay a standard advance to all writers, both new and established of e1k this was something I hadn’t realised and useful to know. Authors usually get 7.5% royalty of the recommended retail price of the book. The average Irish print run is 2.5k copies Grainne said.

For more on this see this piece:

https://www.sarahwebb.info/blog/when-are-you-going-to-write-a-proper-book-the-lowdown

And finally an article from the Irish Times about Writers’ Pay in Ireland by Martin Doyle and Freya McClements which includes quotes from Donal Ryan and Liz Nugent.

“Maybe now people will stop asking me why I’m driving a 13 year old car,” says Liz Nugent.

The article says: ‘The most recent survey of Irish authors’ incomes – published by the Irish Copyright Licencing Agency in 2010 – found that in 2008-09 over half the writers consulted (58.7 per cent) earned less than €5,000 from writing-related income. Indeed, the commonest response – given by more than a quarter, or 27.9 per cent of respondents – was that they earned less than €500 a year.’

https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/the-500-a-year-career-do-irish-writers-get-paid-enough-1.2965310

BlazingATrail FINAL COVER.jpg

Now go write! Write the book of your heart and enjoy the writing journey!

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

How to Pitch to Book Festivals - Practical Tips for Children's Writers

These notes were prepared for Mindshift at Irish Writers Centre March 2018

 Notes by Sarah Webb, Family and Schools’ Curator, ILFD, Literary Advisor to Listowel Writers’ Week

One of my festival events with Alan Nolan for age 7+ 

One of my festival events with Alan Nolan for age 7+ 

 

Schedule of Programming

Many book festivals start programming six months to a year in advance. Many key names would be in place 6 to 10 months in advance for the children’s programme: ie Francesca Simon, Judith Kerr (or sometimes more).

If you are thinking about approaching a festival (and more on how to do this in a moment), make sure you don’t leave it too late. I would suggest at least 4 months before the festival is on.

What I Am Looking For:

1/ International names who will attract a large audience and fill a theatre (300+ seats) eg Francesca Simon, Eoin Colfer, Julia Donaldson, Michael Rosen.

2/ Strong, award-winning names for individual events and panels – esp writers who have written outstanding books (anything from 120 seats to 300+ seats depending on the artist) eg David Almond, Louise O’Neill, Patrick Ness, Katherine Rundell. Most festivals like to vary the writers they invite every year (although in the children’s world, the audience changes every 2 or 3 years – as they grow up!)

3/ Writers who are excellent at performing for school audiences and who have a strong body of work behind them. Experience is key for school events in a theatre (or in any venue). Ex-actors are particularly good, people who can also draw are useful. Eg Guy Bass, Steve Cole, Niamh Sharkey, Marita Conlon McKenna, Oisin McGann, Judi Curtin, Alan Nolan, Nicola Pierce.

4/ Exceptional storytellers eg Dave Rudden and Grainne Clear.

5/ Exceptional workshop leaders eg Dave Lordan, Celine Kiernan, Niamh Sharkey, Claire Hennessy, Sarah Crossan. The best ones engage 100% with the young writers/illustrators and bring something unique to their workshops.

6/ Exceptional new/newish writers for panel events featuring new voices – eg Catherine Doyle (for her MG book, coming in July) would be on my wish list for autumn 2018, Bethan Woollvin, John Kane – new picturebook makers. 

I am lucky to be sent early proofs which I read eagerly. If you have written a brilliant, original and exciting book you have a good chance of being invited to a book festival. FOR ME IT ALL STARTS WITH THE BOOK.

7/ Exceptional picture book makers to give talks/workshops to children and also masterclasses to adults eg Yasmeen Ismail, Oliver Jeffers, Chris Judge, Chris Haughton, Niamh Sharkey.

8/ Unusual and original book related events. Esp non-fiction events in fact – history, natural history, science, maths. Come up with a unique and inspiring event and practice, practice, practice.

9/ Artists who are willing to work hard and go the extra mile. Artists who will muck in. Artists who offer to fill in for other artists when there’s a last minute illness or delay. Artists who are fun to work with and above all, professional. I’ll never forget Sarah McIntyre and Philip Reeve mucking in at one of the festivals I programmed when one of speaker’s children was rushed to hospital. They did his events for him.

10/ Strong local talent – writers, poets, storytellers, illustrators, picture book makers and more. Experienced and debut writers alike.

What I Am Not Looking For:

1/ People with no experience. Get out there. Start with your local school or library and build up your experience. See below for some ideas.

2/ Writers of books I have not read or heard of (if you’re a new writer, ask your publisher to send me your book). If you’ve written an amazing book, you have a great chance of being invited to a festival on that basis alone.

3/ People who think a book event means standing and reading your book for 40 mins and then taking some questions. Unless you are Judy Blume or Jacqueline Wilson, this will not work. Not that Judy or Jackie would ever dream of doing this!

I’m a Self-Published Writer, Can I Apply to Appear at a Festival?

Most festivals are curated festivals. This means the curators select the artists. Yes, you can apply to appear, if you think you can offer something original and exceptional (and your book is professionally produced and an excellent read – children deserve the best literature we can give them). But please note that very few artists who apply directly are selected; most artists are invited. This goes for all writers, not just self-published writers.

What I’d Love to See More Of:

1/ Non-fiction events – science, natural history, history. If your book is fiction, you can still offer a festival a non-fiction event. I have put together an event called ‘Talk Like a Dolphin, Sing Like a Whale’ for festivals/schools – based on whale and dolphin communication. I have some Blazing a Trail events coming in the autumn based around remarkable Irish women.

I’d love to see some interesting suffragette events offered to me, workshops around diversity or equality. Think outside the box.  

2/ Innovative workshops – offer me something different and put time and passion into developing your idea. Again, you need experience. Offer to present your workshop at a local school. Ask the students and teachers for feedback.

For eg I have created a Book of Kells workshop for Hay Festival in Kells, with real vellum and swan quills; a Jane Austen workshop for mothers and daughters and I do a rhyme, song and craft event around A Sailor Went to Sea, Sea, Sea. Be inventive! The more prep work you put in, the better a workshop or event will be.

3/ Innovative pairings – dancers, musicians, artists, puppeteers, other writers. For eg  in 2016 I teamed up with Judi Curtin and we talked about our friendship at lots of the major festivals. It was our ‘Friendship Tour’. Previously we have toured with Oisin McGann (The Ideas Shop) and Sophia Bennett (Your Wildest Dreams Tour). Team up with someone interesting and put together a cracking event. It’s also a lot of fun!

4/ Events for children with special needs. In previous years I put together a How to Catch a Star workshop with Deirdre Sullivan for children on the autistic spectrum.

5/ Early years events and workshops – age 0 to 5. There is a growing demand for quality, creative events for very young children and their associated grown up/s.

How to Apply to a Book Festival:

Before you do – research the festival and make sure it actually programmes the kind of event you are thinking of offering. Start local.

1/ It’s best to apply thorough your publisher. Tell your publisher you are interested in appearing at (X) festival and ask them for their opinion. They will either a/ say yes, great idea or b/ suggest you might need a little more experience. If their answer is b – go off and get that experience and go back to them.

2/ Be a festival supporter - it’s important to attend and support festivals if you’d like to appear at them. You also learn a lot by watching and listening to other artists doing events. Take a notebook along and jot down things that work and things that don’t work.

3/ Make a demo video of yourself in action and upload it to You Tube. Nothing fancy – you can take it on your phone. Let programmers see you in action.

4/ If you don’t have a publisher, you can apply yourself. Email the children’s curator/programmer - outlining your book, the events you’ve done and what you can offer them: workshops, events etc.

It is vital to have a professional photo to send festivals for their brochure. It must be high res, clear and should show something of your personality. No frowns, please. Ask someone to come along to one of your events and take an in-action photo if possible.

The blurb for your event and your biog should be short, well written and relevant. I rarely get sent interesting titles for events – be the one who sends me something unusual and clever!

If the programmer says no, do not hound them under any circumstances. That is not going to make them change their mind.

Tips for Events:

If You Have No Experience – Go and Get Some.

Prepare an event and deliver it (yes, free) in creches, schools, libraries, retirement homes. Anywhere that will have you. Make your mistakes early and learn from them.

Ask an experienced writer if you can shadow them. Or go to events at festivals and see how other writers do it. Learn from them and then come up with your own event.

Ask the teachers to give you an event ‘reference’ eg ‘Mandy Bloggs was wonderful. She kept JI and SI highly entertained with her stories about African animals and they learned a lot in a fun and innovative way.’

Prepare a script for your event and practice it until it’s perfect. Most events are 60 mins. Break this down: 20/30 minutes talking is perfect. Add  1 or 2 x 5 min readings within or after the talk (never more) + 20 mins for questions at the end.

Your event is not a hard sell for your book. In fact some of the best talks I’ve ever heard are not about the artist’s book at all. Eoin Colfer is one of the best in the business (watch him in action on You Tube) and he rarely mentions his books.

Think about using props, music, dance, theatre, images (although powerpoint presentations can go wrong so always be prepared to deliver your event without it).

Think about using costumes or at the very least looking visually appealing to children (see Sarah McIntyre and Philip Reeve’s costumes).

Growth Areas:

Events for the under 7s

Family events that the parents will enjoy as much as the children – eg Monster Doodles, innovative storytelling, book-related puppet shows

Events that combine yoga/fitness with books; music with books; dance with books

Events for children on the autistic spectrum

Drama workshops for children; screen writing workshops for children; animation workshops for children – also the same for teens.

What the Festivals Are Looking For:

Writers’ Week, Listowel:

We would love any writers to contact us either through their publisher or directly themselves, but we would like a brief biog about themselves and their writing included.

The events that we are looking for are fun, interactive events, and creative writing workshops.

Aoife Murray, Children’s Books Ireland

How to approach a festival: For me I don’t mind if it’s via agent/publisher or on your own bat as long as the contact is respectful, informative and useful to my purposes eg: I want to know what age you do events for, what type of events you prefer and how much you want to charge. I feel it’s essential to research the festival to see if you suit it, otherwise you are banging on a closed door and it’s important to remember that the programmer has a vision and if you don’t fit it, that’s unfortunately just how it is on this occasion.

Events we’re looking for: Something more than the standard reading and signing, as this doesn’t generally work for younger audiences. In demand at the moment are events for 0-2 and 5-8.

Sample Pitch

1/ A Sailor Went to Sea, Sea, Sea:  Family Rhyme and Art Fun with Sarah Webb and Steve McCarthy                   Age 5+ and the whole family    30 minutes

 Join writer, Sarah Webb and illustrator, Steve McCarthy for this interactive event for the whole family. Revisit favourite childhood rhymes and songs such as She’ll Be Coming ‘round the Mountain (an American song with a very interesting Irish link), A Sailor Went to Sea, Sea, Sea and The Owl and the Pussycat, and discover new ones from Ireland and beyond. Join in the skipping (jump rope). Watch Steve draw owls, pussycats, boats and sailors, and draw along; and create your own colourful sailing ship. Sea-filled fun for everyone!

Workshop Details:

This workshop is designed to give children a playful and engaging creative experience. Songs, rhymes and poems are part of every child’s literary heritage and we will share them with the audience in a novel, interactive way. Most importantly we aim to make the event dynamic, playful and inspiring for the audience.

Step by Step Guide to the Workshop:

Sarah and Steve will welcome the children and associated adults as they arrive and give each of them a personalised name sticker. When all the participants have arrived Sarah will share some favourite rhymes and songs from A Sailor Went to Sea, Sea, Sea with the audience and Steve will draw along.

Steve will then show the audience how to a sea creature and the audience will draw along.

Sarah will then turn a skipping rope and encourage the children and adults to join in some Irish skipping games – including Cross the Crocodile River and Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear.

Finally they will help the children create their own sailing ship using collage materials – felt, coloured card, scraps of material, metallic paper, lollypop sticks and straws.

Watch the experts in action:

Sarah McIntyre and Philip

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1jGKikDb4QU

Katherine Rundell

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_rwqp5uSIYQ

Michael Rosen

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wckNoTA5r-4

Eoin Colfer

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wrV1kguaHEs