A Question of Worth

Visiting schoolsI love my job, and there are few occu­pa­tions I would trade it for. I love writ­ing, of course, and I look for­ward to oppor­tu­ni­ties to meet and speak with teach­ers and librar­i­ans at the var­i­ous con­fer­ences and book fes­ti­vals I attend. The chil­dren’s book com­mu­ni­ty is the best! I also enjoy con­nect­ing with young read­ers as I trav­el the coun­try each year vis­it­ing schools. That said, there are some aspects of my occu­pa­tion that cause me to scratch my head.

Recent­ly, an acquain­tance, one I have not set years on in years, casu­al­ly asked me to drop in on her class as a favor and con­duct a sto­ry hour with one of my books. When I declined, explain­ing that school vis­its are some­thing I do pro­fes­sion­al­ly (i.e., some­thing for which I am paid), she became very snip­py with me. Sigh.

In the days that fol­lowed, I found myself won­der­ing if she’d be inclined to ask a car­pen­ter, one who had not laid eyes on her in years, no less, to drop by and build her a book­shelf, just for the fun of it. Or if she’d ask a doc­tor to drop in and give her an exam, for free, just because, you know, he lives near­by. Some­how, I don’t think she would. Nor would she expect free ser­vices from any oth­er pro­fes­sion­al, includ­ing anoth­er teacher, which is why her snip­py atti­tude rubs me raw.

To be fair, she is not the only teacher, par­ent, librar­i­an, or fel­low church mem­ber who has casu­al­ly asked me to come work for free. She’s sim­ply the lat­est. Yet, for some rea­son, I haven’t been able to shake off this most recent exchange. Now I know this piece won’t keep peo­ple from treat­ing chil­dren’s author like unpaid labor, but some­times a girl’s got to vent.

I’m a full-time author and speak­er. Unlike the authors of Har­ry Pot­ter and Twi­light, I am not wealthy, nor is the aver­age chil­dren’s author, or adult author, for that mat­ter. Most of us are either in the work­ing-class or low­er mid­dle-class tax brack­et. As such, our earn­ings go towards the usu­al basics: rent or mort­gage, util­i­ties, phone, health insur­ance, and the like. Why do I men­tion this? Because, aside from the occa­sion­al pro­mo­tion­al book tour, we can­not afford to offer speak­ing engage­ments gratis, nor do we have the great reser­voirs of “free time” some seem to imagine.

The author’s dai­ly sched­ule is packed with writ­ing, rewrit­ing, copy­edit­ing, con­fer­ence calls with edi­tors, agents, and mar­ket­ing direc­tors. We give inter­views, main­tain web­sites, con­duct research„ pre­pare keynote speech­es and work­shop pre­sen­ta­tions. We orga­nize school vis­its, book flights, sched­ule ground trans­porta­tion. We wear many hats, and have to change them mid-dance. Then, of course, there’s the ordi­nary stuff of life. You know: shop­ping, laun­dry, house­work. In oth­er words, chil­dren’s authors, whether sin­gle or mar­ried, are as busy as any­one else. We ask that you respect and val­ue our time, just as you would wish for us to respect and val­ue yours.

Think twice before you ask us to donate our time and tal­ent. Instead of say­ing to your­self “Would­n’t it be nice if Author A dropped by to vis­it my class?”, con­sid­er whether, giv­en your own job and respon­si­bil­i­ties, you’d have the time and incli­na­tion to leave your desk, or office, or class­room for a few hours to do the same.

Inter­est­ing­ly enough, on the very day I draft­ed this piece, I received a note from pre­mier poet­ry anthol­o­gist, Lee Ben­nett Hop­kins about a pub­lish­er who had the audac­i­ty to sug­gest that poets should sim­ply write poet­ry for chil­dren’s antholo­gies for free. Have they no shame?

To be sure, most of us believe in giv­ing back, no more so than in the chil­dren’s book com­mu­ni­ty. We often donate books for fundrais­ing cam­paigns, lend our voic­es to caus­es dear to our hearts, and occa­sion­al­ly offer our time and tal­ent for free, at our largesse. Oth­er­wise, we expect remu­ner­a­tion. And why should­n’t we? A ser­vant is wor­thy of his hire, the bible says. That’s my word for the day. I hon­est­ly hope you hear it.

35 Responses

  1. I agree with you Nik­ki about vol­un­teer work with­in your own pro­fes­sion is (almost) impos­si­ble. But I can under­stand the teacher also since I’m one too. I’m free to plan the course and I’m expect­ed to include excur­sions and spe­cial projects but it must not cost any­thing. To bring in a pro­fes­sion­al writer would be inspir­ing for the kids. As it is now, we catch on to any­thing the city offers, free from charges for the local school. If it suits your gen­er­al plan­ning is not impor­tant. At least it is some­thing dif­fer­ent from dai­ly rou­tines. Enough said about our sit­u­a­tion but I total­ly agree with you.

  2. I wish you could talk to the authors who under­val­ue them­selves as school vis­it pre­sen­ters. I’m often told that they feel “fun­ny” ask­ing for mon­ey from schools or that they think $500 a day is way too much for their time. I try to explain that a) schools have bud­gets for these things, b) if the author asks too lit­tle or noth­ing for his or her time the school may think they aren’t very good, and c) until they believe bet­ter of them­selves the whole world will keep see­ing chil­dren’s book authors as hob­by­ists. Thanks for writ­ing this piece. I’ll be refer­ring authors to it now.

  3. Amen Sis­ter. I can add my own sto­ries, but it would take anoth­er blog entry. I will add that I am author and illus­tra­tor, so add in all the art-part, too. I also very will­ing­ly donate my books to school auc­tions and just caus­es. I don’t think they always real­ize that authors/illustrators have to buy their own books. 

    If you want to see a pro in action, watch the doc­u­men­tary on author Har­lan Elli­son called “Dreams With Sharp Teeth.” His rant about writ­ers not being paid what they are due is price­less. No pun intended.

    Thank you for vent­ing. You are right on.

  4. Amen. But the best trick I learned from Willa Brigham, sto­ry­teller and emmy award host­ess of the TV show Smart Start Kids. When some­one asks her to speak, she quick­ly says, “Sure, I’d love to. My reg­u­lar rate is _______ (fill in the blank with the amount you’d like to be paid.) then she waits a beat to see what the reac­tion is. If it is some­thing she wants to do, she’ll then say “But since this is some­thing I believe in, (or since you’re my long lost friend)I’d be will­ing to cut you a deal. How much mon­ey do you have to work with? Is there any­way you could write a grant or some­thing to have me come?” It leaves the deci­sion total­ly in the hands of the per­son ask­ing you to work. It also asks them to do some work.
    I real­ly like this because it does­n’t close doors, but you have to be quick and get that first sen­tence out fast.
    Thanks for a great comment.

  5. Very well-put and so true. Calls to mind one author friend in par­tic­u­lar who gets a bit tired of explain­ing to those ask­ing for free appear­ances that she’s got to take a DAY OFF from her reg­u­lar job to come vis­it them and, well, there’s quite a cost to that! Thanks for shar­ing. I’ll be back to read more.

  6. Thank you! I have been an artist in res­i­dence for over 15 years. I am teach­ing in artist e‑pprenticeship class next month and this is a HUGE issue for artists. 

    I can­not count the num­ber of times I have been asked to do a “lit­tle mur­al” or a “quick pre­sen­ta­tion” or a “drop in presentation”. 

    If we are going to be pro­fes­sion­al, we have to val­ue our work, or how will any­one else?

  7. Well said, Nikki,

    Ear­ly on I did events for free in my local dis­trict because I knew the librar­i­ans and knew the sit­u­a­tion. Our school dis­trict seems to have mon­ey for every­one but those direct­ly involved with kids. 

    I had to change that tune because as I pub­lished more I got:

    a: more requests on short notice for “free” appear­ances and end­ed up with lit­tle time to write (my real full-time job)

    b: mul­ti­ple requests from peo­ple who them­selves were being paid a salary and ben­e­fits (includ­ing a woman who was a paid “moti­va­tion­al speak­er” who asked if I would dri­ve two hours each way to her daugh­ter’s school in exchange for buy­ing a few of my books)

    c: short notice cancellations

    Some­one post­ed that schools have bud­gets. That isn’t always true. I’ve found a num­ber of urban (and sub­ur­ban) dis­tricts cut­ting back on teach­ers, librar­i­ans (here in my city many rotate to mul­ti­ple schools), and stu­dent cen­tered resources. So it’s a del­i­cate bal­ance we walk. It helps to direct them to fundrais­ing activ­i­ties and state grant sources.

    Still — most peo­ple don’t know they’re in left field with the request. They aren’t call­ing because they deval­ue us, they call because they are bom­bard­ed by self-pub­lished authors who offer to come for free in exchange for book sales. I’m hear­ing more and more schools tell me about aggres­sive mar­ket­ing mate­ri­als and pitch­es from those authors. As a result, some schools may assume all authors work that way, and that we have case­loads of books in our garage.

    So gen­tle edu­ca­tion goes a long way. I found that when I set a rea­son­able and fair rate, no one bats an eye.

    I once told the engi­neers that worked for me, bend over back­wards, but don’t bend so low you become a floor mat.

    May it be so for authors and illus­tra­tors as well.

    Peo­ple will only val­ue us as much as we val­ue ourselves.

  8. As a visu­al artist I have been asked to give to art orga­ni­za­tions’ fundrais­ing events. I always felt insult­ed not to be invit­ed to the expen­sive event for free while they were tak­ing my (expen­sive) dona­tion. What’s up with that? Of course I had to tell them how I felt.

  9. I feel the need to chime in from the oth­er side for a moment. (And I’m not try­ing to be snip­py here, so please excuse me if I come off that way, it has been a long try­ing day.) I am also not say­ing that what you do does­n’t deserve recog­ni­tion, or that you don’t deserve to be com­pen­sat­ed for a vis­it. Just anoth­er side of the coin. I also don’t think the indi­vid­ual in ques­tion had any rea­son to get upset when you turned down her request.
    Not every place has the bud­get to pay for author (or any oth­er pre­sen­ter) vis­its. I’m a teen librar­i­an and I sim­ply have no bud­get in either my chil­dren’s bud­get por­tion, the teen por­tion or any com­bi­na­tion there­of (my entire sum­mer bud­get is $150 as an exam­ple) for this kind of expense. If I had to pay sev­er­al hun­dred dol­lars it would mean no more books for the year. And not every library/school quai­fies for grants. We aren’t count­ed as a non-prof­it, so that cuts us out of about 95% of grants out there. So I have no prob­lem ask­ing *any­one* to donate their time. And yes, I have asked car­pen­ters to donate their work. And when they could­n’t donate 100% worked out a deal that was ben­e­fi­cial to both of us.
    I also donate a large por­tion of my time to my library and the local schools. If I did­n’t the kids in my area would­n’t get school vis­its, out­reach, or heck, half the sup­plies for activ­i­ties (which I pur­chase on my own dime at my own time). Does it bug the heck outa me? Of course it does. I try to look at who it ben­e­fits though.
    How­ev­er, I also don’t take offense when I am polite­ly turned down. I have asked, and got­ten, YA authors to come infor­mal­ly speak with my teen book group gratis. I make it clear to my kids the author is gen­er­ous­ly donat­ing their time to us, time tak­en away from their work and fam­i­ly. I am more than hap­py to write out a receipt for donat­ed ser­vices, that is then tax deductible. I have also got­ten turned down for free vis­its. In that case I usu­al­ly try to find some way to make it hap­pen if it is impor­tant to me. Whether that means ask­ing the pre­sen­ter in ques­tion to let me know of spe­cials, work­ing in con­junc­tion with oth­er towns or whatever.
    I don’t think you should get upset when some­one asks you to donate your time. Be flat­tered that they think enough of you to ask, and then explain why it isn’t always pos­si­ble to do so. Be pre­pared for dis­ap­point­ment on both sides though. 

    If they get mad at you, then all bets are off though ;).

  10. Nik­ki, thanks so much for post­ing this! Next time I feel the slight­est bit squea­mish about ask­ing for a speak­ing fee, I’ll remem­ber your wise words here.

    I’d also like to say that if schools or libraries can’t afford more than a basic hon­o­rar­i­um (or even expect the author to comp the vis­it), they can com­pen­sate some­what by offer­ing the author’s books for sale.

  11. I would like to add my voice to this con­ver­sa­tion. When I first began pric­ing my school pro­grams, my father told me some­thing that I will always remem­ber. Charg­ing too lit­tle or giv­ing it away for free, though it seems like an act of char­i­ty, harms the oth­er authors and illus­tra­tors who are com­pet­ing for those jobs.
    I’ve been think­ing a lot about this late­ly because of Skype vis­its. I think that more class­rooms being able to have authors and illus­tra­tors talk to them via this new tech­nol­o­gy is a good thing. But, at the same time, it changes the mar­ket. Peo­ple who count on that income stream (most of us can­not live on roy­al­ties alone) are strug­gling. Just some­thing more to think about.

    1. Hei­di, yes Skype Vis­its are becom­ing more pop­u­lar and I charge for those too. In fact, I have a whole Skype Author Vis­it Guide on my web­site (under “About Dianne”). Just because we’re not leav­ing our homes does­n’t mean our time is less valu­able. I under­stand that teach­ers are in a bud­get pinch, which is why I offer so many oth­er resources like book activ­i­ties for free on my web­site. But author vis­its, whether in per­son or via Skype, are fee-based.

  12. I won­der if taxi dri­vers will shut­tle us back and forth for FREE to our “vol­un­teer” appoint­ments? Or per­haps the gas will be free when we stop to fill up our tanks on our way to the free school vis­it? Or maybe, just maybe, the gov­ern­ment won’t tax us on mon­ey we make since we are doing so much for FREE? 

    You’ve made excel­lent points, Mrs. Grimes. Excellent!

  13. I am a (now retired) read­ing spe­cial­ist and have worked in an inner city school dis­trict the past 20 years. I have also worked for sub­ur­ban dis­tricts that have a lot more resources. I under­stand a teacher ask­ing for the favor of a vis­it­ing real life author to excite the kids into read­ing. There usu­al­ly is not any spare mon­ey to pay for this. So…I have, indeed, writ­ten grants to make this hap­pen. (Includ­ing one to get Bruce Cov­ille to come for an evening spe­cial event.)
    Now you are mak­ing me think about how I val­ue myself, as I am used to just doing any­thing I can to pro­mote read­ing with­out expect­ing reim­burse­ment. Time for some re-evaluation.

  14. Teacher’s work hard. There is not doubt about that, but they are paid a salary that mag­i­cal­ly appears even when they are not work­ing. I should know, I used to enjoy that mon­ey arriv­ing in my account every two weeks with­out fail. Now that I am try­ing to have a go as a writer, I am amazed how dif­fi­cult it is to make any mon­ey! Time is very valu­able, if a school wants you in the school the PTA is often hap­py to pay for it, as is the Rotary Club, etc. 

    Right now, I’ll speak for free. My book has­n’t been picked up, but once I’m pub­lished I do expect to be paid. What a dream!

    1. FYI, Julie. The salary that “mag­i­cal­ly appears even when they are not work­ing” is mon­ey that was already earned. Teach­ers are sim­ply get­ting their pay­check spread through­out the entire year rather than just get­ting paid in the months they work. I real­ize that this thread was­n’t about that, but I did­n’t want non-teach­ers to get the wrong idea.

  15. This is why Neil Gaiman charges obscene­ly high fees for his per­son­al appear­ances … and reserves the right to waive them as appro­pri­ate, or to donate said fees to char­i­ties of his choice. Sure, he may not need the mon­ey per­son­al­ly, but by putting a val­ue on his time/energy/skills, he’s mak­ing it clear that he’s a busi­ness­man in his own par­tic­u­lar man­ner, and his time (i.e. time not spent writ­ing) is worth some­thing to him. It keeps the more casu­al peo­ple at bay, and gives him lee­way to do pro-bono work if the cause is wor­thy, or help out some­one else.

    I’m not in a posi­tion where any­one’s clam­or­ing for my pres­ence, or to demand mon­ey for my time, but someday.…

  16. I’m with you, sis­ter. If I want to donate my time and effort, I am the one who gets to choose where, what, and when. Don’t expect it. And don’t get mad at me if I can’t do it or won;t do it. As I explain to peo­ple who call for dona­tions, I get paid regularly–twice a year. Send me your request and it will go on the Big Pile.


  17. I agree, well said! And so need­ed to be said. The notion that what we artists and writ­ers do isn’t quite *work* is per­va­sive. Unfor­tu­nate­ly it can also erode the artist’s belief that their own work is of val­ue. Thanks for say­ing so, Nikki.

  18. Nik­ki,

    I agree with Joy. I have found I have to state my rate up front, even with a friend. Or, I refer peo­ple to the “rates” page of my web­site. Anoth­er prob­lem I have since becom­ing a pub­lished author is peo­ple ask­ing me to read man­u­scripts for free. Same deal. I refer them to the web­site for rates. Hope we all begin to get paid what we are worth. Thanks for this.

    FYI, there are two com­mas instead of one in the fol­low­ing sen­tence: “research„ pre­pare keynote speeches…” 

    Best to you,
    Askhari John­son Hodari
    Author | Life­lines: The Black Book of Proverbs

  19. First, may I link to this?

    Sec­ond, I’m con­stant­ly asked to low­er my rates. Peo­ple don’t realize/get/care that as a shy per­son (I cov­er VERY well) I have to work myself up to a high lev­el to per­form. This means that it isn’t just that day I lose in terms of writ­ing. I lose at least one day per gig in recov­ery time after­ward. And when it comes to dis­tant gigs, it’s not “just one day,” as they tell me. Trav­el to and from con­sumes at least one, if not two, more days of work time. (I can’t work on the road.) If I’m going to take that big a bite out of my work­ing time, I need to be com­pen­sat­ed. It’s not like I don’t give them one heck­u­va show for it.

    Thanks for post­ing this, Nik­ki! I do know what teach­ers strug­gle against, but as an author, I strug­gle too. I always try to cut local folks a deal, but I don’t like being tak­en advan­tage of any more than the next per­son, and if the next per­son is Har­lan Elli­son, I’ll let *him* explain it for you! 😉

  20. We all have cer­tain things we do for free (help a neigh­bor, care for our fam­i­lies, pitch in at church.) And writ­ers aren’t the only ones who get this. (Day­care providers are often assumed to be quite able to take on extra kids for free, since they’re home any­way, regard­less of legal and san­i­ty lim­its.) The chal­lenge is to acknowl­edge this to our­selves and to oth­ers, with­out get­ting roped into every request from ran­dom strangers. Here’s one idea. “Oh, I’m sor­ry. I make X free/charity vis­its each year, but I’m already booked up this year. Do you want to apply to receive one of them next year?” This points out that you make a point to give to the com­mu­ni­ty, that you only can give so much, and that what they’re ask­ing to receive some­thing free that most self-respect­ing peo­ple expect to pay for. This will make a lot of free-load­ers back off, espe­cial­ly if they aren’t in the habit of con­tribut­ing their own ser­vices for free. If it sim­ply hadn’t occurred to them that this is how you make a liv­ing, they’ll ask for your rates. If they real­ly are in a tough spot and they go to the both­er of writ­ing out a real­ly touch­ing request, you might decide to help them or to sug­gest a way to pay for your ser­vices. But you have a ready response to peo­ple who think they’re doing YOU a big favor by invit­ing you to come. Mean­while, rant­i­ng to oth­er writ­ers is also per­fect­ly reasonable.

    Lau­ra Nielsen

  21. Amen. I usu­al­ly ask about their bud­get first thing if they’re hint­ing on a free­bie. Then I tell them the fee and usu­al­ly that ends the conversation.

  22. THANK you, Nik­ki. So many things per­pet­u­ate this prob­lem so the more we shout about this, the bet­ter. In fact, I’d like to reprint this in my newslet­ter! Will you give me per­mis­sion? (It goes to almost 2k ded­i­cat­ed sub­scribers, many of them teachers).

  23. Nik­ki — Your post is so impor­tant, espe­cial­ly in today’s eco­nom­ic cli­mate. Every­one is des­per­ate — schools for resources, authors for work. There’s been a down­turn in school vis­it invi­ta­tions for most all across the coun­try. This sit­u­a­tion leads to faulty think­ing: “Some­thing is bet­ter than noth­ing” (i.e. a low­er fee, a book-sales-only gig)which ends up devalu­ing the con­tri­bu­tions of artists every­where. If we don’t val­ue what we offer to chil­dren and edu­ca­tors, then how can we expect them to val­ue us and our art? There are so many great com­ments here. I hope we can stand strong — and per­haps write more books dur­ing those days when we had to turn down anoth­er vol­un­teer appearance.

  24. I’m a lit­tle late to the dis­cus­sion, but as a teacher-author I might have anoth­er use­ful thought to add. Today I went to the gro­cery sto­ry and spent $15 on veg­eta­bles to make sure that when they read “Tops and Bot­toms” with me tomor­row, my kinder­garten­ers will know what a beet is–and then be able to paint it from life. Like all teach­ers, I’m used to spend­ing from my own stash of reg­u­lar-pay­check cash, not to men­tion donat­ing uncount­able hours of unpaid time to make my class­room work the way I want it to. I won­der if, often, a request for an unpaid author vis­it may grow out of an edu­ca­tor’s sense that going above and beyond “for the chil­dren” is the norm, with­out real­iz­ing that there is no reg­u­lar pay­check for full-time authors.

    Wher­ev­er it comes from, one who makes such a request should be pre­pared to take denial gracefully!

    Thanks for mak­ing the case so com­pelling­ly, Nikki!

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