To this day, I remember those childhood days when the grey-haired parish priest would visit our home sometime after Easter to shower us with the Lord’s blessings.

More often than not, we used to offer him a shot (or two) of whisky. If the priest had a sober disposition, or it might just be that he was cautious enough to prevent getting drunk halfway through his holy work, he would refuse. Then, we would offer his kind soul and the altar boys accompanying him a humble though much-needed glass of water. There was a time when offering at least a drink was the norm, not the exception.

I still remember Mum preparing big bottles of frozen ruġġjata for the vendors parked in front of our house during the village festa. It is also not uncommon to give a glass of water to a labourer who visits the house to fix hinges or add a lick of paint. The following is the understanding that I caught on to through these tiny deeds: offering someone a cold glass makes people feel welcomed, especially in a situation where one is the host.

Fast forward 30 years. Since those early childhood days, I moved away from my parents’ house, and yet I hope I still carry with me that sense of altruism they instilled in me. What I carried with me were also stories that by time I started to craft into books and was lucky enough to have published. Now, having books published promotes oneself to a published author, and with that title comes great responsibility.

Here, the difficulty lies in the many events and happenings that come with being an author. Most of the time, an author has to juggle multiple events, countless interviews, and numerous encounters that go beyond the capacity of what a single person can do.

For the record, I love all that comes with publishing. I love the romantic part of envisioning a design and seeing it come to life together with the smell of fresh books at the end of a lengthy process that sees fruition. I also love the more laborious tasks, like working with an editor.

Author Leanne EllulAuthor Leanne Ellul

At the end of the day, I love talking to readers, promoting my work on television and radio, and best of all visiting schools to meet young readers who sometimes are even studying my writing at school. I cannot help but notice the glimmer in their eyes when meeting for the first time one of the authors they’ve read. I, for one, feel I owe something to these children who have devoted time to read my works.

I remind myself over and over how privileged I am. Not all of us have the opportunity and luxury to write and publish. Not all of us can visit schools in the hope of sharing stories and making some impact on children.

However, school visits are not always a bed of roses. It takes time to set up a date, prepare for the reading, more often than not with a PowerPoint to cater to the ages and needs of the students, choose a passage and drive there. It then takes an hour or so to meet the children. Afterwards, one needs to drive back home (or to another school) and sometimes follow up with feedback. Moreover, some schools ask for made-to-measure writing workshops.

It is a well-known fact that in Malta we have close to no full-time writers. For the most part, authors are teachers or lecturers, or have a full-time day job. To find the time to go and read at a school means negotiating time very finely. Just imagine a doctor or a lawyer carving time out of his day job and not being paid. Imagine a manual labourer giving service and not being paid. None would accept such a situation, but authors (professionals in their own field) visit schools regularly without any payment, and that, we seem to be fine with.

The truth is, all of us are trying to make ends meet and value some sort of appreciation

The truth is, all of us are trying to make ends meet and value some sort of appreciation. Some schools do present a voucher, a book, or some kind of token which is highly appreciated. My publisher offers his authors a percentage (out of his own will) of money from the book sales in schools (notwithstanding the fact that some schools do not push book sales).

I love it when students present me with their paintings or a collective memento. There are also funny moments I like to cling on to. I remember that one time when I read Gramma, a young adult novel centred around the theme of anorexia, to an all-girls secondary school. At the end, the assistant head presented me with a box of pies. I simply smiled; on that day, the irony spoke for itself.

Somehow, some seem to justify that authors read their books in schools without being paid because it serves as free promotion. My publisher makes a concerted effort to sell his writers’ books. Oftentimes, I am accompanied by a member of my publisher’s team.

The biggest problem lies in the etiquette of the school: some let the author wait in the foyer, cut the reading short in preference for another event happening in the school, have no room prepared for the author to read in, have not prepared the children for the visit, do not make an effort to sell any books, let the children wreak havoc, and last but not least do not even present the author with a glass of water.

Unfortunately, this is not just my experience. I have spoken to fellow authors, and, like myself, while expressing gratitude to those schools that invite them over, would wish to be treated better.

A Zumba instructor I know was shocked to hear authors are not paid when visiting schools. He most rightly gets paid if he visits a school for a Zumba session. Why are authors expected to work for free? Why are they taken for granted? Why are schools willing to pay for everything else, except for authors who pay a visit to their students?

Sadly, a great part of the answer is framed against a wider context: Maltese people do not give books and their authors much importance. It is also true that teachers (who most of the time organise these events) are up to the brim with their workload while they also have to cater for visitors’ needs; but where does the author stand?

Given the circumstances, the writing community has been discussing lately when it comes to full-time authors, no bookshops, literary prizes, funding of events and so on, one has to understand that there is a web of intricate problems whereby one leads to another. Therefore, it is not easy at all to come to the crux of the matter.

In the meantime, it remains a great disappointment that authors are expected to do this work for free. It saddens me greatly to find myself needing to write all of this.

I call upon national entities to work towards guidelines and policies that safeguard the author and give guidance to the hosts when authors visit their schools and other institutions.

A lot of work has been done by the National Book Council when it comes to Public Lending Rights, copyrights and licensing. Yet we are way behind the practices employed in Australia, Iceland and the United Kingdom, to mention but a few. And while a cold glass goes a long way, man does not live on water alone.

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