A Question of Worth

Posted September 26th, 2010

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.

36 Responses to “A Question of Worth”

  1. Anne Bäckgården says:

    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. Nina Laden says:

    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. Joy Acey says:

    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. Well said Nikki! And it happens all too often.

  6. Stasia Kehoe says:

    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.

  7. Barbara Dee says:

    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.

  8. Laura says:

    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?

  9. 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.

    • 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.

  10. Lisa Yee says:

    Thanks for voicing this, Nikki!!!

  11. Excellent post that I will surely pass around.

  12. 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!

    • Sharon Voshell says:

      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.

  13. So true! We really DON’T want to be ‘starving artists!’

  14. Well said and well taken. ANd Joy’s response– if you’re quick enough to think of it–is great!

  15. Christine TB says:

    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.

  16. 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….

  17. 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.

  18. I don’t know a children’s author out there who doesn’t struggle with this sticky wicket, Nikki. Thanks for venting for all of us!

  19. danielle says:

    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 ;).

  20. 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!

  21. Susan Savion says:

    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.

  22. janeyolen says:

    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.


  23. 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

  24. Brian Karas says:

    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.

  25. 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! 😉

  26. 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

  27. Greg Trine says:

    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.

  28. Katie Davis says:

    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).

  29. 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.

  30. 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!

  31. Hee hee–the grocery story!

  32. in a girl name mister did she give the baby up or did she keep it.

  33. Zayonna Venable says:

    So Nikki Grimes what inspered you to start writing at the age of six years old

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