This is an updated version of a speech first prepared for an international children’s literature conference hosted by Providence University in Taiwan in May 1998.—Aaron
These opportunities have proven irresistible to a compulsive promoter and publisher like myself. Before I began writing for children, I wrote for adults, and much of my work was self-published. This gave me a strong appreciation of the need to reach out to my audience, and I carried this orientation into my career as a children’s author. I remember long hours spent printing out flyers, stuffing them into envelopes, applying stamps, and sticking on labels addressed to periodicals, associations, booksellers, libraries, and schools.
Email was to change all that. Suddenly I could reach many more people, with far less work and almost no cost. And I could send out a different sort of material too. I could email not only notices of my work, but my work itself.
My first major online program was called Reader’s Theater Editions. For those who don’t know, reader’s theater is a dramatic form that was first developed in American universities as a way of presenting literature on stage. Stories are scripted by breaking them into narrator and character parts, with other editing as needed. The readers hold their scripts during performance, and there is little or no scenery or costume.
Over the years, reader’s theater has been adopted primarily by educators, as a way to involve students in reading. It’s fun, easy for the teacher, and very effective in providing reading practice and generating excitement about literature. Depending on the content of the script, it can also support the social studies curriculum.
My own involvement with reader’s theater stems from five years with a professional reader’s theater troupe, during which time I acted, scripted, and directed. Later, I compiled a major collection of reader’s theater scripts, published in 1993 under the title Stories on Stage.
That collection included scripts for my own first two children’s books, Savitri: A Tale of Ancient India and The Legend of Lightning Larry. I had scripted them as a way to promote the books, and as a way to spread the stories to more kids. I wanted to do the same for my later books as well. But how would I distribute the scripts? My picture book publishers showed no interest in helping, and it looked like Stories on Stage would have no second volume.
The answer was waiting for me online. As I first learned to use email, I quickly began to see its potential. In 1994, after a few missteps from overeagerness, I launched a project called “Reader’s Theater Editions.” I started by sending a notice to a number of online email discussion lists and newsgroups, offering a series of free reader’s theater scripts to teachers and librarians. These scripts would be sent by email on an occasional basis, as I produced them. The scripts could be copied and performed freely for any noncommercial purpose. Within days, I had several hundred subscribers.
Between then and 1996, I issued a total of ten scripts. Though most were based on my own picture books, I included other stories by myself and others. One notable coup was issuing a script for my friend Nancy Farmer’s The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm just weeks before it was awarded a Newbery Honor.
Of course, I reposted my invitation regularly during that period, with substantial response each time. By the time of my tenth script, I had a total of about 2000 subscribers.
As the success of this program became apparent, I decided to supplement it with another. Around the time I had performed in reader’s theater, I had also performed as a storyteller. I had noticed that certain authors were particularly popular with storytellers, who performed their stories and helped to make audiences familiar with them. I wanted to be one of those authors.
So I started a second program in 1995, aimed directly at storytellers. This one I called Gifts of Story, and the eight mailings were mostly texts of my picture books. In 1996, the subscriber list totaled nearly a thousand.
It was also in 1995 that I attempted something even more ambitious: an interactive educational project called “Works in Progress.” Students from around the world would actually help a professional author—me—by commenting on stories not yet in final form.
As before, I started by gathering subscribers, sending invitations now both to email discussion lists and to my own subscriber lists. To these participants I sent drafts of two stories I was currently working on, along with suggested questions for the critiquing process, and information on me and my books. The stories were then shared with young people in grades 3 to 6. Then their comments were compiled and emailed back to me.
Though not all participants followed through, I still received comments from 200 email addresses around the world. Many of these addresses represented multiple classrooms, or even multiple schools. By my best estimate, about 5,000 students took part!
I used their comments to revise the stories, then sent back the new versions with a personal report on what I had changed and why. I also promised to send news on my attempts to publish the stories. (One story later sold as a book, the other to several magazines.)
The project, if I may say so, was wildly successful. For my own part, I gained valuable insights into how kids dealt with those two stories in particular and with multicultural literature in general—and of course, it was great exposure for me and my books.
As for the effects on the students, the teachers were little short of ecstatic. I received notes telling me how students for the first time understood the importance of revision; how the opportunity to help a real author had made them feel so important; and how many of them were for the first time excited about reading. You can imagine how proud I felt to have made such a difference.
But despite the success of my email projects—or rather, because of it—by 1996 I was bumping up against the limits of the technology. Using only a standard account on America Online, I was sending Reader’s Theater Editions and Gifts of Story to a combination of nearly 3000 subscribers. What’s more, each new subscriber had to be sent all previous items in the requested series! Luckily, just as these programs were reaching overload, salvation came in the form of the World Wide Web.
I well remember the first time I sat down and surfed the Web. I had heard much about it, but it was not yet offered through America Online. So my first time was in a study carrel at the Auxiliary Library of Stanford University, where I had gone to research some stories. For twenty minutes, I clicked from one Web page to another, my amazement growing as the minutes passed. As I left the building starry-eyed, I told myself, “This is what I was born for.”
Now, that statement may seem funny, but I mentioned I was a compulsive publisher. Having printed and sold my own books, I knew that the biggest problem for self-publishers is distribution—making their work available to the people who might want it. The book trade includes numerous gateways between publisher and reader, many of them closed to the smallest operators. But I saw that on the Web I could reach anyone anywhere, with no one standing between. Not only that, but I could do it without investing in mountains of printed books and turning my apartment into a warehouse.
Also, as a children’s author, I saw the Web as a way to sometimes circumvent the editorial establishment. I had been routinely testing my stories with kids, first in my storytelling performances and later in my author visits to schools. I knew which stories the kids liked best. And I knew that these were often the ones I couldn’t sell to publishers! But on the Web, I didn’t need an editor’s acceptance. I could put up what I liked.
Now, you may say, “Yes, but how would you make money by giving away stories on the Web?” Well, first of all, I have always seen my online activities as a way to promote myself as an author and to increase sales of my published books. But they have always had another purpose, equally or more important to me. And that is simply to spread my stories. That, in fact, is the reason I’m an author at all. Sometimes it pays and sometimes it doesn’t, but I have to do it regardless. Like I said, I’m compulsive.
In any case, after that first experience on the Web, it could only be a matter of time before I launched my own pages. When America Online offered free Web space to its subscribers, I started out by putting up most of my earlier writings for adults. With that behind me, I was ready to get serious and start my children’s author pages. I signed up with an Internet service provider and obtained my own domain name: www.aaronshep.com. (I’ve always used “aaronshep” for online purposes because no one knows how to spell “Shepard”!)
Knowing what a complex project I was undertaking, I decided to start with independent segments that could later be tied together. First online, in October 1996, was Aaron Shepard’s RT Page. (I use “RT” because there are so many possible spellings of “reader’s theater.”) At last I had a permanent repository for past and future Reader’s Theater Editions, where they could be easily accessed by new and old users. The scripts themselves, released from the limitations of plain-text email, became more attractive and more practical in format. And along with the scripts, I was able to offer a great deal more technical advice on the nuts and bolts of reader’s theater, plus pointers to other resources.
Following in December was Aaron Shepard’s Storytelling Page, which included my Gifts of Story. In late February I launched the umbrella structure, my home page, Author Online! This was the largest and most diverse area, with information about me and my books, numerous published and unpublished stories, many other resources and treats, and links to the independent areas. Last up, in April, was Aaron Shepard’s Kidwriter Page, with resources for children’s writers.
My transition from email to the Web was not entirely smooth. With my materials now posted publicly instead of conveyed in private email, there were now additional copyright considerations. For instance, my attempt to adapt my Works in Progress program to the Web was aborted when my editor at Atheneum refused to consider any manuscript previously posted online!
My other problem in this transition, ironically, was with email. I soon realized that email bulletins were the only means of getting most people to return to my Web page for new materials. At the same time, my subscriber list had grown too large to handle comfortably via regular email. Luckily, I was offered the mailing list capabilities of St. John’s University, which I’ve been using ever since.
Today, my subscriber list is 5,000 and growing. I send these subscribers an update several times a year, giving them notice of new materials on my Web site, plus any news about my publications, honors, tours, and so on. Of course, I also still send notices to the usual email discussion lists for educators, librarians, and storytellers.
If you visit Author Online! today—and I hope you will—you’ll find a site with hundreds of pages of text, plus photos, illustrations, recorded readings—even music. Reader’s Theater Editions, by far the most popular part of my site, now includes 27 scripts, with many more to come.
All in all, the effort has been massive—much greater than I initially expected—and there always seems more to do, both to add to the site and to just maintain what’s there. Frankly, I think I’ve overdone it. The time I’ve been spending might well have been better spent on writing. That’s why, when fellow authors ask for advice on setting up Web pages, I advise them to think twice!
But being compulsive, I personally had little choice—and anyway, the rewards have been substantial. For one thing, my presence on the Web has greatly increased awareness of me as a children’s author. I’ve seen this partly in the invitations for author appearances that arrive in greater number and from farther away—even as far away as Taiwan, which I visited in 1998.
Ironically, my Web presence does not seem to have done much for sales of my picture books—at least not directly and not yet. On the other hand, it has substantially helped my resource books for adults, including my reader’s theater book, Stories on Stage.
But most gratifying of all has been the use and appreciation of the stories, scripts, and other materials I’ve made available for free. In November 2000, just four years after the launch of my site, my visitor counter passed half a million—and this doesn’t include the many visitors the counter misses! I now receive about 8,000 visitors a week. And every week, my service provider sends a report listing up to about 50 countries where those visitors originated.
Of course, I also get wonderful email from grateful teachers, librarians, storytellers, and kids. I’ll share just a few messages.
In recent weeks, I have taken rare [free] moments to search online for new and interesting ideas for my sixth grade folklore unit. Tonight I hit paydirt. I am thrilled with the reader’s theater and the writing exercises you’ve provided and am considering allowing some groups of students to visit the page itself to see the color posters and advice about storytelling. If I had any pull, your page would be “Site of the Week” on some list somewhere. . . .
I thoroughly enjoy your work on the Web. Serving as an arts coordinator in the New York City Public Schools, I will make every effort to get your Web site and resources known to central, district, and school leadership, as well as other arts organizations, and most importantly, teachers!!!
And one more:
I have just visited your Web site and am absolutely overwhelmed with the treasures you have made available to children—through your amazing talent first of all, but also through your generosity in sharing. . . . THANKS for all you do and all you are!
So, are my experiments complete? Have I yet explored all possible major fields of online literature? Not by a long shot. Since mid-1999, a new star has beckoned me: ebooks. The introduction at that time of the Open eBook standard was a wake-up call to me. I suddenly realized that ebooks were coming, and coming big—and that I needed to be in the vanguard.
Since then, I’ve been learning, designing, tinkering, and building my production capabilities, all to the purpose of producing high-quality ebooks. But not just any ebooks—picture ebooks. This is the difficult area that few publishers are yet tackling, and fewer still are doing well. But I already am developing prototypes that should surpass anything else on the market. Beginning with my own out-of-print picture books, I should have ebooks available by the end of 2001 under my new publishing name, Skyhook Press.
And after that? Well, who knows? As long as the Internet is developing in leaps and bounds, I hope to be there advancing alongside it—as an author online.