EVENTS Virtual Debut Boot Camp 2021

It was stand by your beds on the weekend of 23rd and 24th January as drill sergeants Sara Grant, Candy Gourlay and Mo O’Hara took the new recruits of the publishing industry through their paces, writes David Richardson.

The two days provided a thorough training workout from the three experienced authors on how to succeed once published. There was plenty to take in about the industry and where to place yourself once that novel is written or illustrated.

Boot camp sergeants: (from l to r) Candy Gourlay, Sarah Grant and Mo O'Hara.

The necessity of using Zoom for the training camp was a bonus, as it opened the camp gates wide to include more than just traditionally published debut authors and illustrators. Those who hoped to self-publish in 2021 or who have self-published previously could also sign up.

The two days were divided into different sessions. Session one – ‘Planning for Publication’ was held by Sara Grant. Session two – ‘The How & Why of Digital Opportunities’ was overseen by SCBWI technical guru Candy Gourlay. And Mo O’Hara helped everyone focus on ‘School Visits: Getting Your Act Together’ for session three.

Planning for Publication

Sara took time out of her ‘multiple personalities’ of writing fiction for young adults, teens and young readers to put on her khaki and take the platoon through the basic training of planning for publication.

She prepared a worksheet that helped the newly published not only on what they had already achieved, but also on where to focus for the future. Considering your weaker areas can be the beginning of tracking your opportunities.


Studying what other authors and illustrators are doing is an excellent way to hone your skills. And finding ways to talk about your book in a conversational manner will avoid any off-putting, heavy sales patter.

She spoke of thinking in terms of your author ‘brand’ and your book’s USP (unique selling point) as the way to help you reach the right audience for your novel. A good relationship with the PR person in the publishing house can also prove crucial.

The How & Why of Digital Opportunities

With her experience in all things digital, Candy Gourlay (Honorary Chair for the 2020 Undiscovered Voices anthology) gave some great, straight from the training manual advice, on how to successfully navigate through today's internet world.


The many positives of social media and reaching out to your readership online were highlighted. She also had some excellent tips on engaging new readers and how to (let’s remember that as professionals, there is a need to make a living here!) boost book sales.

There are things to be wary of too. Assume nothing is private. Once a friendly photo or off-the-cuff comment is sent out into the blogsphere by a fan or reader, if you’re not entirely happy with it, there’s little to no chance of getting it back.

Thinking of yourself as an ‘information curator’ is an excellent way to oversee your online footprint. And you need to think about committing time to your internet presence. It’s about connecting with a community more than using the world wide web to sell books.


School Visits: Getting Your Act Together

It was back to the playground, sorry, parade ground come Sunday morning, where Mo O’Hara helped people to focus on Session 3 – school visits.

This is something that can be extremely daunting to a debut writer or illustrator, but one that can be very valuable. As Mo pointed out, done correctly and with a bit of practice too, school visits really are great fun.

She gave some great tips, such as making friends with the school secretary or librarian. Always be yourself – anything fake quickly shows up on the kids’ radar. Read aloud from your book when you’re there, it will boost sales, and follow up the visit with a thank you or request for a testimonial.

There is money to be made with school visits, but you need to be creative, entertaining and relevant.


More on Offer

There was lots going on outside of the actual weekend with the use of Slack. Attendees were able to connect beforehand and begin sharing ideas, documents and videos as well as asking questions in advance. There was also a sharing session after the final workshop and the opportunity to network into the days following.

To finish off the two days on the publishing parade ground, there was a panel discussion with all three drill sergeants. Some expertly timed advice was shared about dealing with COVID restricted activities. It’s encouraging to think that even difficult times can yield opportunities.

After all this exertion, with aching muscles and aching brains, for many it was a warm bath, a glass of your favourite tipple and an early night. It’s true to say, that even with a publishing contract in your backpack, there is still much work to be done.

A huge thanks not only to Sara, Candy and Mo, but to all those behind the Zoom scenes who worked hard to prepare and host a wonderful two days.

*All cartoons by Candy Gourlay.


David Richardson has been involved with SCBWI since way back in 2007. For a while he helped organise the London Professional Series with Sally Poynton. As well as writing, he is an experienced creative writing tutor. His focus in the last four years has been on his copywriting work, but COVID meant he lost his main writing contract. Finding a silver lining in that work cloud, he was able to finish his MG novel: Denny’s Momentous Day. He’s recently signed up to the Golden Egg Academy’s 12-week writing course and blogs (not often enough) on his website. He prefers a cuppa with his cake and a good meal with his wine.


Fran Price is Events Editor for Words & Pictures magazine. Contact her at

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