How Writers Earn Money #3 (Part 2): Public Speaking in Schools

As I mentioned in Part 1 of my post on festivals and libraries, public speaking is one way to earn extra money as a writer. Children’s writers (and illustrators) have many more opportunities to make money from public speaking, largely because of the education sector’s hunger for support in teaching creativity and literacy. Children’s authors Andy Griffiths, Meg McKinlay and Deb Fitzpatrick share information about their income from public speaking at schools below.

School events usually involve 2 to 3 one-hour talks in a day at 1 school, or 1 or 2 long workshops for a full day’s pay at ASA rates ($650+/day). In addition they tend to involve larger audiences than most adult events: usually a minimum of 25 but occasionally groups of 200+ resulting in a flow-on effect for building audience and growing sales.

Case Study 1: Meg McKinlay

‘My first novel came out in early 2007 and I had no presenting work at all that year. In 2008, I think I did around $3,000 total, almost all of it during Book Week** itself. This income stream has built up gradually as I’ve published more work and developed a higher profile in the local writing community. While I’ve certainly made sure that people know I’m available for speaking engagements – via my website, general word-of-mouth/informal networking etc – I’ve mostly let this build-up happen organically, responding to invitations that come in rather than actively looking for work; I’ve never sent out flyers or contacted schools/libraries directly.

This is partly because I have the generic creative/introvert resistance to trying to sell myself in any way, and partly because until very recently I was fitting other employment in around my writing and presenting work, which can be a tricky balance.

As my income from presenting has become more consistent, and significant, I’ve been able to scale back what I do in other areas and commit myself more fully to writing-related work. These days, the balance is more about being careful not to take on so much speaking work that I my writing time gets squeezed. I’ve started saying no to things where I never used to, and making sure I block time out across my calendar every year.

It also helps that I write across age groups, with my work for children ranging from picture books up to YA. This means I can effectively work across K-12 in schools, as well as adult audiences. I now have 15 children’s books published, with new work coming out most years, which makes me pretty versatile as I always have new material to present.’

**’Book Week’ is a bit of a misnomer as that period of work can stretch for several weeks. Some regional centres run their official Book Week the week after metro BW in order to have better access to presenters.

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Case Study 2: Deb Fitzpatrick

6 books in print: two YA, three children’s and one adult fiction.

Earnings from school appearances:
2016 $20,000
2017 $17,000

‘My appearances have increased with the increase in books published, but it also does go nuts when you have a particularly loved book that connects with kids/librarians.

Some were organised direct with schools; others were arranged by The Literature Centre, which arranges for writers and illustrators to speak to school groups. Some of that figure will typically be made up in one week-long residency ($3500).

Most events are Perth metro. If I travel beyond Mandurah/Joondalup, I charge for travel (kilometres or petrol), but not my time.

Most schools pay ASA rates. Some can’t, or don’t know about it. I have been asked to speak for free and I have done so a handful of times when it’s obvious the school has no budget.

I now have a philosophy of doing one unpaid gig a year, by my choosing, as a very small contribution for all that I’m so lucky to receive the rest of the year. The Literature Centre pays a slightly higher fee than ASA rates and has an entire bookshop which they take on the road with them, so every gig you do for them is backed up by book sales.

I actively do NOT hustle for work, as I find it a bit demeaning and I think that’s bad for my morale as well as bad for my books. After a gig, I always send an email of thanks to the organiser and express my happiness to return in future if they have the need and interest. Some schools have and do invite me back regularly; others don’t and of course this might be due to a smaller budget, or different literary interests or philosophies about getting in visiting speakers.

I think that interested schools/teachers/librarians/libraries will contact people if they have the funds to engage you, and will use their networks to figure out which writers will be a good fit for their needs. Word-of-mouth recommendations have worked well for me in the past. I have a ‘testimonials’ page on my website telling people I’m happy to visit schools.’

Case Study 3: Andy Griffiths

‘After Just Tricking was published in 1997 I published one book a year at the same time every year. My years at that point consisted of working in schools from February to November, trialling and developing story ideas in front of live audiences and then converting them into written story form.

The royalty returns from these early books, while healthy, were comparatively modest to the money I was able to earn in schools, but the school work definitely helped to promote the books and the growing popularity of the books definitely helped to get more work in schools.

In 2001—after I had 6 books published which were all returning a steady stream of royalties—I was gradually able to wind back the amount of time I spent in schools and invest more time in developing new books. It was a balancing act for the next few years until the books were firmly established and the royalty streams were solid enough to rely on as a full time income.

These days I no longer have time to do paid school visits as I spend around three months a year on publisher-organised book tours both in Australia and internationally. (I spend the other nine months developing each new book.) I don’t get paid for these book tours directly — but the publisher foots all the bills and I benefit indirectly from increased book sales.

It may surprise people to know that at the beginning I didn’t necessarily like public speaking any better than anybody else but I realised early that since I wrote unconventional left of centre humour that it was up to me to get out there and sell it—nobody else was going to do it for me and they certainly weren’t going to give me medals or grants. So I decided that I would learn everything I could about public speaking and would do it so much and so often that I would lose the fear of standing in front of an audience. Telling stories to large groups is just story-writing by other means—the two modes really do complement each other. Effective public speaking is not an easy skill to learn—partly because the only way to learn it is by actually doing it and you don’t always succeed—but it’s definitely worth sticking at it and will definitely increase your earning potential as a writer.

Huge thanks to Meg, Andy and Deb for sharing their information. I believe transparency benefits us as writers. If you have similar, or very different experiences, I would love to hear from you.

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