How big are “virtual” author visits to schools? So big that the headmistress of children’s book sales, J.K. Rowling herself, recently apparated (via a live webcast) from Edinburgh, Scotland, into classrooms with 1.2 million students and teachers. “It’s an extraordinary way for students to be visited by a well-known author,” says Billy DiMichele, producer and on-camera host.
Like Harry Potter’s creator, some of the best-known names in kid lit—Avi, Ally Condie, Patrick Carman, Jeanne DuPrau—are beaming into schools through live video and Skype. And why not? They can be a presence for book-buying kids in far-flung locales without leaving their families or their writing desks. “It gives them more opportunity to reach their audiences,” says Scottie Bowditch, director of school and library marketing for Penguin Young Readers Group.
The tech talks aren’t perfect: Internet connections can fail, and authors can lose younger kids’ attention when they remotely appear, Wizard of Oz–style, on a screen. But the price is right (from no charge to a few hundred dollars), and the potential to reach millions of possible book buyers is huge.
“I welcome this as an opportunity to do more author visits,” says Gail Dickinson, president-elect of the American Association of School Librarians and professor of school librarianship at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. “Being able to erase that barrier of geography and location is very important.” Nowadays, she notes, even her childhood school in Appalachia could get an author in this fashion.
With livestreaming and Skype, authors can talk to kids at schools that can’t pay the $3,000 or so for the plane fare, hotel room, and honorarium for an in-person visit. “It’s not who can afford the person,” says Nick Glass, founder and executive director of TeachingBooks.net. “Equity is essentially what you’re talking about.”
So far, the virtual visits seem to be supplementing rather than cannibalizing in-person visits, which are an important income source for authors. “Schools that invited me virtually wanted me in person the next year,” says Jarrett J. Krosoczka, creator of the Lunch Lady graphic novel series. “And vice versa.” Each year he visits 70–75 schools in the flesh ($1,900 to $2,500 per visit) and 15–20 virtually ($450 per). The fee includes extras such as a Lunch Lady apron for an in-school helper, three 10-minute videos produced in Krosoczka’s home studio, and the original drawing he creates during the chat. “I make the kids feel as if they are quite literally visiting the studio,” he says.
Do these tech talks translate into book sales? It’s hard to quantify exactly, but anecdotally, yes. For Skype chats, Krosoczka signs and personalizes copies for schools that buy from his local store, Broadside Bookshop in Northampton, Mass. “We have had orders from as far away as California, Washington, Newfoundland,” says Nancy Felton, Broadside’s co-owner. “They’re orders that we definitely would not have gotten otherwise.”
Some authors offer free Skype visits to schools that buy their books. One New York school purchased a few hundred copies of Trent Reedy’s Words in the Dust. “I will be Skyping with them for a couple of years when the unit rolls around!” Reedy says. “I would much rather that they bought books for their students than paid for transportation for me.”
Virtual visits help authors with family and writing obligations, too. “It’s always been difficult for me to travel a lot,” says Savvy author Ingrid Law, the single mother of a 17-year-old daughter. Her full honorarium for an in-person visit is $1,500—but she does free Skype chats for students who read her books. “If I go out of state on a trip, I can count on that taking five or six days out of my writing schedule,” she says. An Internet visit is faster and easier. “I’ve done it in my bedroom,” she says. “I’ve even Skyped in my car.”
With technology, authors can be ubiquitous. Author Kate Messner, a former middle-school teacher who says she knows all about “tight funding,” typically dedicates one day a week to doing seven or eight free 15-minute Skype q&as with classes that have studied one of her books. That would be impossible to do in person. “There’s only one of me!” she says.
To help schools set up visits, Messner posts on her Web site the names of more than 100 other authors who Skype. Like many of them, she is a parent (of a 16-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter); she does just eight–10 in-person visits a year, at $2,000 a pop, but squeezes in more than 100 Skype visits. The author puts schools in touch with her local independent bookshop, Bookstore Plus in Lake Placid, N.Y., where she can personalize her books.
Names of authors who are available via Skype may also be found on some publishers’ Web sites. Scholastic, for example, lists Maggie Stiefvater and Patrick Ryan. Next year, HarperCollins is incorporating a free Skype-chat component into its Class Acts promotion of middle-grade authors such as Maryrose Wood, Gordon Korman, and Bryan Chick. Publishers say they are seeing a big demand for virtual visits.
“Absolutely, I see it growing,” says Antonio Gonzalez, associate marketing manager for author visits at Scholastic. Over at Simon & Schuster, Michelle Fadlalla, director of education and library marketing, also sees the potential. “Many highly in-demand authors, like Laurie Halse Anderson, Avi, or John Corey Whaley, just physically cannot be at all the places they’re asked to go,” she says. “When a request comes in—‘Do you have a half hour to Skype to my class?’—it’s very appealing. It doesn’t require flying or leaving their writing schedule, but it gives them a chance to connect to their young readers.” As a result, she says, it “will increase their exposure, leading to increased book sales.”
At Perry Meridian Middle School in Indianapolis, librarian Leslie Preddy recently got parents and kids to read Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm before the author Skyped in—for free—to 120 of them in the school cafeteria. Gidwitz also told his audience about his sequel, In a Glass Grimmly. “The next morning I had a million requests for that book,” says Preddy. Her school’s PTO (which has a $3,000 line item to cover honorarium, airfare, and hotel) still hosts in-person author talks every year, with Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie author Jordan Sonnenblick due to visit in January and Among the Hidden author Margaret Peterson Haddix coming in 2014.
Like Gidwitz, who recently Skyped in to third through eighth graders in St. Kitts, Newbery Medalist Avi likes the reach of virtual classroom visits. “I went to a one-room school house in the Aleutian Islands. I’ve been to Hong Kong, I’ve been to Honduras,” he says. “There was a wonderful visit I had way up in Idaho in a tiny mining community.” He charges $100 –just to ensure the booking, he says – which he shares with the publicist who sets up the Skype talk. Avi, a veteran of more than 100 Skype talks, says that the talks must boost sales because kids read the books before he talks to them. But his goal is never to peddle his novels. “You’re not there as a salesman,” he says. “You’re there to be supportive of the curriculum, reading, and writing.”
Another proponent: The Dark Hills Divide author Patrick Carman, who has visited more than 1,200 schools in person over the past decade and 300 or so through Skype in the past two and a half years. “The Skype visits tend to have more of a book club-y feel to them,” says Carman, who also runs an annual live webcast called Walla Walla Kids Read (with guest authors such as Jon Scieszka and David Shannon) that some 25,000 students see for free.
Skype itself is promoting virtual visits. All authors and publishers can use it for free, but the company’s official Skype in the Classroom publisher is Penguin, whose free Skype in the Classroom authors include Jay Asher and Nancy Krulik. Even the Gates Foundation has gotten in on the act by funding Educurious, which uses Skype and other technology to engage kids and reduce the dropout rate. For a pilot project offered for free to 1,000 students in seven states, Educurious has filmed such authors as Chris Van Allsburg, April Henry, and Blue Balliett. “It went far beyond a Skype visit,” says Balliett, who let a film crew into her laundry-room writing space and led them on a tour of places in her books.
Scholastic, too, is embracing virtual field trips. Recently, Brian Selznick served as the host for a trip to the American Museum of Natural History, a key location in Wonderstruck; next up: a 39 Clues–related excursion to a major museum with David Baldacci, who is writing the final book in the franchise’s current series.
But even fans of high-tech talks want them to supplement, not replace, in-person visits. “I’ve enjoyed the Skype visits I’ve done, but it always leaves me feeling a little hungry for more,” says Balliett. “There’s a greater possibility of magic when the author is there. It’s like the difference between looking at a photograph and actually being there.”
An in-person visit was the best way for David Carter to show kids at Encino Charter Elementary School in California how to make a pop-up, says PTO co-president Lisa Becker, a professional author escort. And author Jon Scieszka “wows a crowd,” she says. “For me, to replace him with a Skype [visit], I think it’s a stretch.” Scieszka, a former teacher, prefers in-person talks, too, but Skypes into classrooms as far away as Ireland, often donning a top hat for appearances. “I like to dress up a bit for the virtual visits,” he says. Still, in-person talks remain his favorite. “Writing is a terribly antisocial profession,” he says. “You’ve got to get out.”
Virtual visits work best with older kids, Becker says, because little ones can get “too restless” when they’re just looking at an author on a screen. That’s less of a worry with in-person talks, especially with charismatic writers like Scieszka. She remembers first graders who “rushed” Scieszka at the end of his in-person talk. “It was like a mosh pit,” she says. “There’s no replacing a face-to-face encounter.” But like a Skype chat with a beloved grandmother, a virtual visit is far better than no visit at all.