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Sarah Gerdes

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15,000 Students in 4 months
by Sarah Gerdes   
Not "rated" by the Author.
Last edited: Thursday, January 10, 2008
Posted: Friday, December 07, 2007

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Getting into school systems is possible. It involves free books, an event or two, cold-calling and ten critical steps.

Is your book for grades 1-12? So many self-published authors I know have tried and failed to get their books into the public school market, and even some authors with books published by the majors have had difficulties. When I started out, I couldn’t find resources on how to get my first installment of Catacombs looked at, so I did what I advocate—I cold-called the front desk.


Inside five minutes, I learned two things. One, front desk receptionists are trained at the district level to flat-out ignore, turn away and turn down cold calls. Two, that most (all?) decisions made for public school libraries are done at the district level, and that in the best case, one should expect a referral to the district office.


The rejection wasn’t so bad, since I actually learned a few things.

Learning point one: “authors charge so much” for coming into speak at schools

Learning point two: “we don’t have a budget” for buying books

Learning point three: “district leaders make the decisions” for what books to buy

Learning point four: “we buy our books at the book fair” in the (spring/fall etc)


Wow. I could write a complete article on each one of these learning points. But let’s face it. I’m a fiction writer and at best, and adequate blogger. Articles aren’t my strength, so I’ll try and keep this short and sweet.


Learning point one: “authors charge so much” for coming into speak at schools

Did you know authors charge for school events? At the time, I had no idea. As a writer “starting out”, not only did I have no idea, but as John Grisham retold his story of pushing his first book, he not only put ads in the paper to draw people to the public library, but he brought donuts and coffee. “Five people showed up,” he said, and he considered myself lucky. By the same token, I would have been happy to show up for free to an interested audience, and that was the way I approached the schools.

Only later was I told the average author charges between $500-700 per event. In my area of Seattle, $600 is the average library budget for the entire year is $600. If a librarian really, really wants to bring in an author, the librarian either applies for a grant, or a special fund expenditure, or calls upon the PTA.


Learning point two: “we don’t have a budget” for buying books

The book budget of every library I visited in one year (38) in four months faced a reduction in the book-buying budget. This left the librarians literally starving for interesting books for their students.


Learning point three: “district leaders make the decisions” for what books to buy

I had no idea of the librarian hierarchy, so the existence of a district leader was a revelation. When I started this adventure, I limited my cold calling to the cities that I could reach in one hour, or roughly fifty miles.  Thanks to the Internet, I tallied over 750 schools within this radius, going city-by-city, district-by-district. However, the district leaders were not listed on a single site, though the librarian for each school was. Once I started asked for the district leader, I discovered the power of the district leader. One made decisions for 24 schools, and another for nearly 50.


Learning point four: “we buy our books at the book fair” in the (spring/fall etc)

Scholastic seems to have a lock on book selling to librarians, at least in this area. The reason is not necessarily the love of the book selection, and saying that might preclude me from every getting a deal from the firm. But that was straight from the librarians’. It comes down to simple economics. For every book purchased, 15% or more goes directly to the school. So parents are “getting a good deal” by purchasing from the Scholastic fair (and bus when it shows up) while the school also profits. Even the well-funded schools appreciate the Scholastic program; who doesn’t need more cash for books?


The second call


Needless to say, for my second call, I decided to take a different approach. First, I started by saying I was a local author and immediately followed this up by saying I had a program to provide 2 free books to each library in my district and a free author event. Of course, by this time, I had two reviews from teachers and librarians, so I was able to reference these individuals and schools by names.


Addressing the author event fee and providing 2 free books got me past the receptionist and directly to the librarian. And in a few cases, the receptionist was kind enough to tell me district leaders name.


When leaving a voice mail, I kept it short and sweet, repeating my pitch—I’m a local author, am offering two books to local school libraries and have great peer reviews. I closed by leaving my phone and email, along with my web site. I received 100% callbacks or emails, and in 100% of the situations, the librarian had checked out my site and in many cases, had read the first five chapters before they contacted me.


Now, I didn’t call all 750. I called about one hundred and fifty schools, and very quickly had to stop. Typically, within two-to-five days, I’d receive a response and a request to receive the books. The librarian took another one to two weeks to read the book and ensure it matched the direction of the school curriculum, and frankly, the tastes of the librarian. This cycle averaged two-three weeks. Once the librarian approved the book, she/he would make a recommendation if it were appropriate for the entire school, or specific grades. Then the librarian validated this with the teacher(s). At this point, an event would be scheduled.




Scheduling proved to be the major challenge. The librarian has control over the library and gym, not the student schedule. Some librarians included the entire elementary grades 1-6 or middle school 7-8 or 9, while other schools limited the event to specific grades. In my case, I was very very very (did I say ‘very’ enough?) lucky to learn that my book matched the curriculum for subjects taught in grades four, five and six, depending on the school district. This was completely by accident, I assure you, and was a major blessing. According to librarian feedback, this wasn’t a deciding factor for bringing me in, yet it was an added benefit.


Side note here: if your book includes historical fiction, geology, social studies or another school subject, you might have an advantage. Check into this for your pitch. In my case, Native American history is taught in fourth and fifth, while geology ranges from third to fifth.




My book was published the first week of December, and I started contacting librarians the middle of January. It took me until the middle of February before the first events were confirmed. But then, the events were being confirmed so quickly and often, I had to limit my events to one a day for four days a week. I was three months pregnant at the time, and had no idea what I was signing up to do. Further, I had no idea that I had such a limited time frame; while the school year until mid-June, the last month was reserved for testing, field trips and other activities planned months in advance. That meant I had a three month window. Between March and May, I visited thirty-eight schools, speaking to a total of .16,000 students. I started out with the districts closest to my home, and worked my way out.


Be Prepared


As I mentioned, I’d received two reviews from librarian-teachers and had said aside 200 books from my first allotment to distribute. I recognize this isn’t feasible for everyone. One option is to start out with a smaller run. Word of mouth might spread enough to cover the costs of a larger run. Or, if you are working with a publish-on-demand group like createspace, then it’s a non-issue.


Advance Sales of Books


Now this final part will strike the experienced authors as oh-so-naďve, but I was what I was, as I like to say. And I was naďve when it came to pre-selling books. I had no idea this opportunity even existed, until a kind librarian asked me to give her a one-paragraph write-up on the book so she could send a note home with the students for pre-orders. The librarian would then ask me if I “worked with” a particular bookstore so they could purchase it directly. At that point, I had enough common sense to ask “what bookstore” they used and I’d get back to them.


Where do bookstores fit in the mix?


This was the biggest godsend in the world. What a godsend!!! I couldn’t get a return phone call from a bookstore to save my life when the message was “Hi, I’m a local author with a book…” before getting the shut down. Yet, when I called with the message going something like “Hi, I’m a local author and I have a school wanting to purchase 83 books on Friday from you, would you mind if I brought the books by so you could sell them…” the response was quite a bit different! During this process, learned that many of the librarian’s had/have preferences about what bookstores they use. The secondary blessing was that this enabled me to develop relationships with bookstore owners, an impossibility without the endorsement and pull-through from the librarians. Two years later, when I wrote my second Catacombs book, it was these very bookstore owners who took the time to read the manuscript and provide me reviews. This was an incredible boost that most definitely contributed to accelerated adoption of Catacombs and the Forbidden City.


Quick Recap


  1. Identify the reading level of your book
  2. Create a list of the schools in your area
  3. Contact a couple of school librarians and/or teachers and request a read and review
  4. If you don’t have children, talk to your neighbor’s childen, get the name of the teacher or have the neighbor provide your book to the teacher or librarian. (Of course, it would help if the neighbor’s child(s) read and loved your book!)
  5. Get the reviews in writing along with the approval to use them on your site and in your marketing efforts
  6. Create your pitch for the receptionists and start-cold calling
  7. Be prepared to send your book(s) to the librarians (make sure to gain their email)
  8. Wait one to two weeks before placing follow-up phone calls
  9. Schedule the event, be prepared to provide pre-order information
  10. Ask the librarian for their preferred bookstore, contact the bookstore with the estimated order from the school

For the record, I went the home-school route for book #2 and signed up over 100 homeschools representing over 30,000 students in less than three months. But that's a different article.


I write lots of tips and thoughts on my bog at, another resource for writers


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