Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Virtual Authors

Jonathan Emmet

Virtually visiting a school in Atlanta
Much has been written recently about the benefits of authors and illustrators visiting schools and how such visits are seen as an effective way of promoting reading for pleasure to children. A Society of Authors report published in 2013 noted that schools recognise the benefits of author visits and that most schools would like to hold more, but that lack of funding prevented them.

Like many authors I charge a fee for my school visits to cover the time spent preparing my sessions as well as the time spent at the school. Unfortunately, with budgets being tight in most state schools, such fees deter many schools from booking author visits. The problem is particularly acute for small schools in rural communities where the cost of the visit on a per child basis can be three or four times that for a child attending a larger urban school. I’m a picture book author, so I visit primary schools. The last primary I visited told me that I was their first author visit in four years. At some primaries the gap has been even bigger and it’s not uncommon for a child to go through all seven years of school without an author or illustrator visit.

So how do we get authors and illustrators interacting with schools more regularly and with less expense? One solution that’s become popular in the US is virtual visits. Many US authors use Skype video software to read their books and talk to children in US schools. While many authors charge for longer in-depth virtual visits, most offer short visits for free and I think this is one reason that virtual visits have become so popular, so quickly in the US. 

A few of my picture books have been published in the US and eighteen months ago an elementary school in North Carolina asked if I would virtually visit to read one of them. It went so well that in June last year, I started offering a limited number of free virtual visits through my web site. Since then I’ve visited lots more US schools but so far very few UK schools have shown any interest. 

And another in Pennsylvania
I think the main reason I get so many more requests from the US is that my name is on a couple of US websites. Author Kate Messner has a page on her website listing authors who Skype for free and the “Skype an Author Network” is a directory site listing authors who offer both free and paid Skype visits. It occurred to me that a similar directory site for UK authors willing to Skype with UK schools might help make virtual visits more popular on this side of the Atlantic - which is why I’ve set up virtualauthors.co.uk 

To get the ball rolling, I’ve decided to follow Kate Messner’s example and only list authors and illustrators who offer free 15-20 minute visits — although authors and illustrators can obviously offer longer, paid-for virtual visits in addition to this. At present I’m restricting the directory to authors and illustrators who have had their work traditionally published in the UK (not at the author's expense and not solely in print-on-demand/ebook format). There is no charge for being listed on the site. 

My aim is to kick-start virtual school visits in UK schools, so I’d like to get as many authors and illustrators listed on the site as possible. If each author or illustrator offers just one free 15-20 minute virtual visit a month during school term time, that's potentially 10 schools a year, some of which may never have had an author or illustrator visiting them before. 

A school in Vermont  from my end.
The schools I’ve visited have been very appreciative. Teachers often follow up with classroom activities and schools have sent me letters, drawings and even an ebook the children created in response to my visit. And schools often order in copies of my books before and after my visit, so there’s a sales angle too. 

 Here’s what a couple of UK schools had to say about my virtual visits with them:

"The Skype session was fantastic and the children really enjoyed it. It was great to be able to get the children to write questions and then have answers to them. I would certainly recommend it to other teachers. The parents all heard about it when their children got home from school and it certainly impressed them." Cossington C of E Primary School, Leicestershire, UK 

  “We thought the session was fantastic - just what we needed, a real life author to give out the messages we continually say … It is a brilliant opportunity to speak with you virtually and move into the 21st century! … The session was very clear and just the right time for year 3.” Corrie Primary School, Manchester, UK 

I’m hoping that virtualauthors.co.uk will encourage more schools to invite authors and illustrators into their classrooms. Virtual visits are no substitute for an author or illustrator visiting a school in person but, who knows, once schools have seen the benefits of a quick virtual visit, they might book a few more actual visits too


Jonathan Emmet is a children's author, paper-engineer, part-time astronaut and full-time fantasist working from home in Nottingham, England. You can find out more about him and his books here.

3 comments:

  1. I do know of a couple of other authors who do this and they do charge - a fraction of what they'd charge for a "real" visit. Do you no think a small charge is in order? After all, it is still time and effort!

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  2. It does still take a little time and effort but so does answering readers' letters and emails - and I doubt there are many authors that charge to do that. Nevertheless I limit my own free skype visits to a maximum of two 20 minute visits a week and most weeks I only do one or none. Other authors might decide to limit them to one a month.

    I think one of the reasons author Skype visits have caught on in the US is that while US authors often charge for longer virtual visits, many (if not most) offer 15-20 minute visits for free. As I said in the post, all of the authors on Kate Messner's site offer free visits and if you go through the listings on the "Skype an Author Network" site you'll see that many (if not most) of the US authors listed there also offer free short visits.

    Although skyping has been practical in the UK for some time and there are a few UK authors offering visits (on a free or fee paid basis) it doesn't seem to have caught on over here in the same way. I think following the US "free sample" model could be the key to making the practice more popular.

    Speaking personally, another reason I'm happy to do a limited number of short visits for free is that I really enjoy doing them! They are a quick and easy way for me to interact with readers and a nice break from writing.

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  3. Not only authors go virtual! All education system has been turned virtual. The model and idea of classroom has changed with the touch of technology.

    ReplyDelete

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