Interview with Nicola Morgan – Award-Winning Author and Professional Speaker
Nicola Morgan knows a lot about schools. She should – she was born in one! Her parents were teachers, and so was Nicola, until she began to earn a living from writing. She has written almost a hundred books, fiction and non-fiction, including two thrilling historical adventures for 9- 11s called ‘The Highwayman’s Footsteps’ and ‘The Highwayman’s Curse’, mind-widening YA novels such as ‘Wasted’, and fascinating non-fiction about adolescence, such as ‘Blame My Brain – The Teenage Brain Revealed’.
Nicola is currently writing ‘The Teenage Guide to Stress’.
Book Walrus wanted to talk to Nicola about a blog post she wrote recently, which got authors talking – http://awfullybigblogadventure.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/whats-author-event-worth-by-nicola.html – in which she discusses why it’s important for authors to charge for school visits and other author events.
1) Hello Nicola. Can we begin by asking how many school visits you usually do each year?
Including school visits, festivals and conferences, I guess 40-50, including overseas trips. Fewer than I used to because I say no more now, to try to leave time for writing.
2) Is this amount typical for a children’s author?
It’s hard to say whether it’s typical. There are authors who do many more school visits. I certainly do more conferences than most, because I have two areas of “expertise” that are fairly rare.
3) What do you usually charge?
It varies because the type of events and audiences vary. Absolute cheapest would be £150 (plus expenses) for one simple, standard talk but only if the school were booking at least two and only if they have bookselling; I’d also need to feel that the invitation was a really positive one, in other words one where the school really wanted me. (“We want any author for our book fair – are you free?” isn’t positive!) Most expensive might be a keynote speech for £850 or so. Bear in mind that that keynote will take four days and if it’s far from home there might also be a day travelling on each side of it. All the time that the organiser and I are emailing, for example, is time when I’m not otherwise being paid.
I worked out that on average, one talk takes two days out of my life. And I have to consider overheads such as insurance, and pension. These are the facts of life that self-employed people have to consider when setting a fee.
I’m NOT moaning, just trying to give a sense of how we have to set fees. It goes to cover a lot that waged people often don’t realise.
The most frustrating (and ignorant!) thing is when someone says, “Gosh, I wish I was on that rate!” when they see you’ve charged £250 (or more) for an hour’s talk, but not appreciating that, as I said above, the fee is for ALL the hours that went into preparing, setting up, travelling to, delivering and travelling from the event. Another annoying thing is when someone says “I wish I could afford to take time off my fulltime job to do school events” – but this is my fulltime job! Did they think it was a hobby?!
4) Have you ever done any school visits without charging?
I can’t remember ever having done that, except for launch events.
Obviously, I have done speech days and launches and charity things for bookshops for nothing. But I have to be really careful not to accept many things like that, as I simply can’t afford it. I also feel that if I did a free event, that might hurt another author trying to earn a living.
5) Do you think all authors should be paid the same rate? If not, how should the amount be determined?
No, it wouldn’t work like that (though they should be paid the same for festivals – e.g. Edinburgh pays everyone £150, whether you are Salman Rushdie or me.) Authors must determine what is right for them, perhaps by equating it with the salary they feel they would be on if salaried, and working out what it costs in terms of time and energy. Certainly, newish authors need help in understanding how to work out a fair fee and often forget to include all the work that leads up to the actual event.
6) Do you know how many children’s authors make more money from appearances than from their writing?
I don’t know but I know that for most of the ones I talk to it’s a crucial part of our income. Most of us simply couldn’t survive financially without it. It’s not an extra – it is part of our work. I do also know that most children’s writers earn pitifully little from writing.
7) Some people say authors should visit schools for free as it’s good publicity for their books – what would you say to those people?
They haven’t a clue! (Not their fault. I’m trying to educate!) I have literally never done a school event that I’m aware had any positive effect on promotion at all, and precious few that sold any books! Bearing in mind that we earn only a few pence on each book sold, we’d have to gain an enormous amount of promotion to affect income.
People who say this know nothing about the reality, I’m afraid. When an article is written about my visit in the paper, for example, it doesn’t make a difference to sales. Or, imagine for a moment that two people saw it and bought a book – if they buy the book at discount, I may get 20p per book. Or less. So, I’d have to have amazing publicity for it to make up for being unpaid. There is, of course, the chance that the event leads to another event – but how many unpaid events would I have to do before that happened?
8) Do you have evidence (for example, letters from children) that shows how much these visits mean to the students you visit?
Yes. Masses. All authors who do school events have those letters. They are wonderful. They keep us going and remind us of the importance of what we do. Sometimes people argue we should do this for nothing because, “It’s so valuable, so worthwhile.” Yes, it is. Exactly. And because it’s valuable and worthwhile, it should be paid for. Another wonderful thing is that after a school visit, the librarian will usually tell me that all my books have been borrowed from the library or that I’ve gone shooting up the borrowing rankings. This is lovely and DOES make it all worthwhile and is why I do it. But I still can’t afford to do it unpaid.
9) What’s the highest number of books you have sold during a school visit?
I usually don’t sell many because I am not good at pushing them. I have done a couple of private schools where I might have sold 150 each, but normally it’s more like 20 or less.
Sometimes, there’s no book-selling at all because some schools don’t want it.
10) What’s the worst thing you’ve experienced during a school visit?
Five senior boys charging through the hall, hitting my audience members on the head, chased by a teacher.
11) What’s the best thing?
So many lovely things! Pupils who didn’t dare ask questions in front of their friends coming up and bombarding me with questions afterwards. The incredible silence when I tell them about the beginning of Fleshmarket. Their faces. How it’s often clear that at first they didn’t want me there and then they don’t want me to leave. The time when I was ushered towards the hall with the librarian saying “We aren’t really a book school” and then the pupils buying loads of books and asking deep questions. So many lovely experiences.
12) Have you heard any real horror stories about school visits?
Oh yes! But they are mostly things we can laugh about afterwards. It can spoil your day but no one dies. It’s usually something a teenager has said, something thoughtless. And we get to go home that evening and not go back to the school, whereas the teachers have to go in day after day. But most school visits are exciting and wonderful and we get to see teachers and librarians doing their difficult and amazing job.
13) What’s the funniest question someone has asked you during a school visit?
“Why does someone as nice as you write such nasty books?”
14) What can schools do to make author visits go well?
Choose the right author. Believe that this is going to be a really valuable experience. Talk through the details in advance. Enthuse the pupils. Engage the teachers. Be kind to the author. Follow up with pupils afterwards.
15) What can writers do to make author visits go well?
Think ahead to every detail. Be clear about the things you need. (For example, I badly need a bit of peace and quiet between events, and something to eat and drink, otherwise my blood sugar drops.) Be clear about what works for you. Yes, be flexible, but don’t agree to something you aren’t comfortable with. Be supremely professional and keep smiling if things aren’t right. Just do the job as brilliantly as you can. And realise that the organiser is often much more nervous than you are.
Book Walrus loved talking to Nicola Morgan and learnt a lot from her. To find out more about Nicola, to buy her brilliant books, or to ask her to come and visit your school (paid for, of course!) you can find details on her website – http://www.nicolamorgan.com/