SCBWI

Society of
Children's Book Writers
and Illustrators

Balancing Act – Innovative Programming and the Bottom Line

Suzanne Morgan Williams (Nevada)

So it’s January and not only are you sending in your year end reports, my guess is you’re thinking about plans for 2015 and beyond. Some of you are evaluating drops in attendance over 2014 and others are wondering about launching new programming. When I was an active RA, I thought a lot about money and maximizing benefits to our members while being a good steward of the money they paid for programming. It really is a balancing act.

Equations – Cost, Value, and Attendance

Sometimes new RT members get advice like –“If your expenses are $3,000 and you expect 20 people then you’ll need to charge $150 for your event.” This is perfectly fine math but I liked to plan from the other direction. First I imagined the type of program we were offering and then I either knew from experience or asked members, “What would you be willing to pay for that type of program?” If it was an introductory, nuts and bolts type event, in Nevada the answer was about $40 to $65. We also knew from past attendance that we might draw 35 to 40 people if we advertised well and there were no “big names” on the program. So we’d have about $50 x 35 to spend – $1750. We looked to these type of events to gain new members and make some money for the treasury, so our budget would likely be about $1200. The $550 would be slush in case we didn’t get the attendance hoped for and/or profit to support more expensive programs later in the year. If we planned this kind of event with a $3000 budget and charged $90 (covers the $3,000 at 35 attendees plus a bit of slush), I’d bet, around here, we wouldn’t get the 35 people. If attendance dropped to 25, then we’d be in trouble. We wouldn’t reach ten people and we’d lose $750.  When the goal is to reach new, less invested, and potential members, I think you’re better off planning a less expensive event and bringing in more people.

How? We used new PAL members and experienced, talented pre-published members for faculty at introductory events. We paid them, but not as much as more well-known speakers. There was no travel and only lunch to provide. They got speaking and planning experience, and could use the RAs as references when applying for other speaking gigs. We partnered with churches or libraries for low cost space. We advertised through teachers’ and librarians’ groups, senior citizens’ centers, day care centers, college writing classes and clubs, fliers in bookstores and coffee shops. If the event was in a library, they’d usually advertise on their website and with posters in the buildings.

The fact is, potential members often don’t see the value in paying for a full conference with publishing professionals on staff. Newbies almost never understand the value of working with experienced writers and illustrators – hoping mainly to get their work in front of agents and editors. While large conferences are attractive to people who’ve already decided to pursue children’s publishing, they can be terrifying and financially out of reach to people who just want basic information. They can be disappointing to new members who dream of publishing miracles. In Nevada, a small region, we couldn’t count on members to find us. We needed nuts and bolts days and free meet and greets to bring in new members and to educate them a bit before their first conference experiences.

Value May Not Come Cheap

We’re also known in Nevada for our Mentor Program. That program started with a bargain basement price of $450 – which at the time was possibly one of the most costly SCBWI regional programs. But it included entrance to our conference ($125), a six month mentorship with a published author or illustrator, and a fully paid retreat weekend. We pulled in every possible favor to make that number work and barely broke even. To make it more affordable, we helped our Nevada members apply for state grants. We offered small scholarships to out of state applicants who said they needed financial help. Even with a “high” price, we had many more applicants than we could take – members saw the value. But several mentees didn’t follow through. They either dropped out of the program or they didn’t finish their work. In talking with faculty afterwards, we decided we hadn’t charged enough! This was an advanced program for committed writers and illustrators. Obviously people were willing to pay the $450 and for some, the price was so low that when they had problems, they blew off the program.

The next year we charged $750 and got more applicants, had less attrition. Over the years the program’s reputation has grown and the offering has changed to include two fully paid weekends and more mentors. The cost is now above $1200. We still advise Nevadans to apply to the state for grants. We still have more applicants than we can accept, and I believe attrition is down. For the Nevada Mentor Program, members see the value and are willing to find the money.

The Point?

Different events focus on different member needs. Depending on what you’re trying to do, you may end up offering free mixers or expensive retreats or mentorships. Careful budgeting starts with “What do my members need that our region is able to provide?” Once you decide the focus, the next question is, “What are people willing to pay?” The last question, which limits cost is, “How many people will we exclude if the price is high? How do we help talented, committed members who can’t afford this?” Too high a price will lower attendance, but so will too low a price. People perceive value in terms of dollars, whether we like it or not.

Planning Programs That Support Attendance

SCBWI provides many opportunities for education and connection to members around the world. For members who have both time and money, the menu is broad and their selections are not be limited by physical proximity. For members in densely populated areas with multiple regions, choices of programming may also be rich, and regions may find themselves in competition for participants. But we have lots of members who live in far flung communities or for whom the choice of one event may represent their “conference money” for a year or two. We owe it to all our members to plan very carefully. In Nevada our members can drive to four larger, wealthier regions in the space of four hours. The reverse is also true. Members from those regions can support Nevada events, if they choose to drive across a 7,000 foot pass. What would make them come to an event in Reno?

We asked ourselves the same questions you might when starting a new writing project. “What do we have to offer? What can we do that’s uniquely ours? Who will our audience be? How will we satisfy them? What needs are not being met – by any region?” We imagined programs we wished we’d had. We tried not to duplicate what near by regions were already successfully offering. Once we had a program in mind, we asked near-by regions to advertise events that didn’t compete with theirs, and when possible, coordinated our dates to limit that competition. In return we advertised their events and encouraged our members to attend. We looked for the niche Nevada could fill with new programs and we concentrated on creating a literary community that, in itself, was valuable to our members. That’s what regions can do best and, for me, that’s the real value of SCBWI.

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Suzanne Morgan Williams is the author of the middle grade novel Bull Rider and eleven nonfiction books for children. Bull Rider is a Junior Library Guild Selection, is on state award lists in Texas, Nevada, Missouri, Wyoming, and Indiana, and won a Western Heritage Award from the National Cowboy Museum in Oklahoma City. Suzanne’s nonfiction titles include Pinatas and Smiling Skeleton. The Inuit , Made in China, and her latest book, China’s Daughters. Suzanne has presented and taught writing workshops at dozens of schools, professional conferences, and literary events across the US and Canada. Suzanne is RAE from Nevada Region SCBWI and was SCBWI Member of the Year in 2012.  Visit her here.