Episode 79! The Parable of the Couch, or What Are You Worth?, conversation Heidi Schulz
Welcome to episode 79 of our kidlitwomen* podcast! Usually, this podcast features an essay about an issue in the children's literature community (Monday) and a discussion about the essay (Wednesday).
In this episode, Heidi Schulz and Grace Lin discuss Heidi’s essay, “The Parable of the Couch, or What Are You Worth?,” (which can be heard in episode 78).
On today's podcast you will hear:
Heidi Schulz lies to children for fun and profit. She is the author of the New York Times Bestselling Hook’s Revenge, and a sequel,Hook’s Revenge: The Pirate Code, published by Disney-Hyperion. Bloomsbury Kids published her picture book debut, Giraffes Ruin Everything, in August 2016. Her short story for children, The Day the Puddles Stomped Back, can be found in Oregon Reads Aloud, an anthology to benefit S.M.A.R.T. (Start Making A Reader Today).
Grace Lin, a NY Times bestselling author/ illustrator, won the Newbery Honor for Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and the Theodor Geisel Honor for Ling and Ting: Not Exactly the Same. Her most recent novel When the Sea Turned to Silver was a National Book Award Finalist and her most recent picture book, A Big Mooncake for Little Star, was awarded the Caldecott Honor. Grace is an occasional commentator for New England Public Radio and video essayist for PBS NewsHour (here & here), as well as the speaker of the popular TEDx talk, The Windows and Mirrors of Your Child’s Bookshelf. She can also be heard on the Book Friends Forever Podcast, with her longtime friend and editor Alvina Ling.
grace: Hello. This is Grace Lin. I am the author and illustrator of When the Sea Turned to Silver. Today, I'm talking to Heidi Schultz about her essay, The Parable of the Couch, or What Are You Worth? Hi, Heidi.
heidi: Hi. Thanks for having me.
grace: Oh, I'm so glad to talk to you. I thought your essay was really interesting. I love the parable. You said it was this parable that your father told you about how there was an old couch on the curb, and he left it out there, or somebody left it out. A neighbor left the couch on the curb.
grace: And he left it-
heidi: It's a true story.
grace: It's a true story. This is so great. He said, "Free," and nobody took it. Then later, he put, "$10," and it was stolen that very night. I just thought that was such a great story.
heidi: Oh, thank you. It has stuck with me since the time that my dad told me about it. I've thought about how a lot of times, we're like that couch. If we aren't valuing what we're doing, then no one else is going to value it, either. We have to assign value to the things that are important to us. Then when we do, other people recognize that.
grace: Yeah, I agree. What I love about your essay is that you give really great tips to other people on how they can value themselves more when they're talking about money. You have things for women and non-binary people to say, "My speaking fee is negotiable, but I must be paid as much as the man you had speak last year," and things like that. Have you used these things in your own life?
heidi: I have, actually. It's scary to put that out there and to say, "I'm worth this much," because there's a fear of rejection. Someone might come back or feel offended, or all of those things, but I have found that when I do put that out there, people usually respond really positively and they say, "Oh, okay." Sometimes, it's putting a thought on their radar that they hadn't even considered because I don't believe that ... Most of the time, I don't think that people are saying, "Oh, let's make sure we put all of our money towards men and not towards women or non-binary people. Let's make sure of all of the white people get all the money and people of color get fewer dollars or opportunities." I think most of the time, it's just that people have their blinders on, and so just mentioning that helps to remove those blinders and make people go, "Oh, I hadn't even thought about that. Yeah," 'cause it-
grace: Yeah, it makes them consider. I think that's great.
grace: I'd love for you to tell me if you've got any negative feedback or negative pushback from trying to ask for more money or asking to be paid as much as the man you had last year.
heidi: I have not. I have not ...
grace: Oh, great.
heidi: Received any negative. I've only started asking to be paid as much as the man you had last year just recently, but I still have not had any negative feedback from it. People say, "Okay, and here you go." It works really well.
grace: It works very well. We talked a little bit about how valuing yourself has helped your school visits. Is that right?
heidi: Yes. I have raised my rates fairly regularly over the last few years, and I found that when I started charging more for my work, the visits went better, and not just for me, but for the kids, as well. I feel like that when schools are paying a premium for someone, then, again, they feel like they're getting something that is of a high value, and they're more invested in it.
heidi: Now when I do school visits, most of the time, the kids, at minimum, have read my books, but quite often, the art classes have been involved in creating artwork from my books and decorating the halls with that. They have done writing assignments to help support what they're reading and all of these things that get the kids really excited about having me come, and then that makes for a better visit for them. That's another thing that I tell people when I'm saying, "Raise your rates." If you're feeling guilty about that or if you're feeling selfish in some way, first of all, don't, but secondly, consider the fact that when you are raising your rates, it's a better experience for the kids, and that's what we really want, right?
heidi: We both win.
grace: I think it's really interesting when you say that because I do quite a few school visits, too. It's very interesting because once in a while, I'll do a free one. Usually, and it's so sad to say, but the free ones, they go terribly ...
grace: Because the kids are not prepared. They don't know who I am. Then the ones that pay full rate, it's like what you're saying. The kids are so prepared, and it goes so beautifully. It is what you are saying, at least in my experience, as well, that if you value what you are, then your client does, too.
heidi: Right. That's not to say that you should never do anything for charity's sake. I mean, certainly, evaluate the request that you get. If there's something that's important to you and something that you really want to support, then go ahead and do that, but make that the exception, rather than the rule. Let that be something that you are giving back and not just feeling like that's all you deserve.
grace: Yeah, that is a big difference, I think. I think it's because, that way, you're looking at it as a gift that you're giving, versus this is what I'm worth.
grace: I think that's really, really great. How many times do you think it took you before you started to value yourself? How long did it take for you to stop undervaluing yourself, do you think? Was there something that kind of gave you that push that like, oh, wait a minute, I really need to start asking for more money?
heidi: Well, I think that when my first book came out, I did quite a few free school visits. I felt okay about that because I was getting experience and sort of learning how they go. I hadn't really built up my presentations and really worked that out yet. So in a way, it was practice for me, while still, obviously, I took it very seriously and tried to give a really good experience to the kids, but there came a point where I started to feel like that the time that I was spending on preparation and then just being away from home, even if it was in my own city or nearby, was taking me away from writing and other work that actually earns me an income.
heidi: At that point, I started thinking, I need to start charging for this. So, I started charging, but I wasn't charging a whole lot. Then in talking to other peers at my level and finding out what they were charging, I started raising my rates, and I started raising them pretty consistently. As I got busier at home and with my writing and other work, I felt like I really had to make school visits worth the time. I felt like I needed to charge whatever I needed to charge in order to not resent being there, if you know what I mean. When I started doing that, I started noticing that the quality of the school visit was going up, as well.
grace: Oh, that's so interesting. Like I said, I love how you have these kind of tips of what to say, but what kind of tips do you have for people in general to kind of psych themselves up to talk about money, to actually say your worth. Do you have any pep talks?
heidi: Well, I would encourage anyone that is wanting to ask for more to consider maybe the most confident man that they know in their industry, or maybe someone who is a peer, or someone at their level, and consider whether he would be asking himself, is it okay to ask for this? I think, sometimes, particularly as women, we are waiting for someone else to affirm our worth, instead of reaching out and just saying, "I'm worth this." There's that joke, that meme, approach it with the confidence of a mediocre white man. Well, there's something to that, or not even mediocre, someone who is great because we're great, too. Beyond that, if you need to just pump yourself up and turn on some music that really is motivating, do some jumping jacks, whatever it takes to get your heart pumping, and then just tell yourself the power of positive thinking, I'm worth this. You go into it believing that you're worth it, or at least fake it 'til you make it. When you go into it with that attitude, other people recognize that and say, "Yeah, you are worth this."
grace: On the flip side, what would you tell somebody whom this fails, or blows up in their face, or-
heidi: Oh, they dodged a bullet because they do not want to do that event. If someone comes back and pushes back in an ugly way or it's just dismissive, then do you really want to spend your time and effort with that organization, with that school, with that conference, whatever it is? Because everything is going to be like that. They don't value you.
heidi: If they don't value you in the negotiating stage, then you're really lucky to be getting out of it ...
grace: That's a-
heidi: 'Cause it's not gonna be a good experience.
grace: I think that's so true. Also, do you want to use your talents and your gifts for such a group, or organization, or such a person that's so negative? I think that's a great answer.
heidi: I feel like there's this feeling, sometimes this fear of scarcity, that if I don't accept this offer at whatever they're giving me, then nothing else is gonna come along. I understand that, especially if you're looking at your budget and saying, "I need to make some more money this quarter," or, "My child needs braces," whatever it is. I understand that, and it is scary, but I would just really encourage people to try it. Try asking what you're worth. Not only will, I believe, you'll be surprised at the results. You may have fewer engagements, but they will be higher quality and you'll make more from each one, but also, it lifts the entire industry. It helps to value all of us. We're not undercutting someone else because we're coming in at a bargain basement price.
grace: That's a really good point. It's because there are a lot of super talented authors who undercut themselves. By charging so little, they really are actually undercutting so many other talented authors because schools or librarians will be like, "Oh, but so and so, who is so great, only charged $20."
heidi: Right, right.
grace: And so in some ways, it's not fair to themselves, and it's not fair to everybody else in the industry, either.
heidi: Well, and I think also, I believe that women are asked more to donate their time than men are. I believe that people will often say, "Think about the kids. Do it for the kids," and all of these things that are not asked equally across all genders, and this is our careers. This is my job. This is my career. Yes, I do this because I love the kids, but it's still my job. So, I am thinking of the kids when I ask for a decent rate for what I do when I value myself highly because, as I said before, they're going to have a better experience, but I'm also wanting to set an example of professional women being compensated fairly for what they do.
grace: I agree. Well, thank you so much for having this conversation with me, Heidi.
heidi: Oh, it's my pleasure.
grace: I have two more questions for you.
grace: The first question is, is there a book or a project that you'd like to tell any of the listeners about that you're working on?
heidi: I am working on something right now, but it's not anything anywhere near announcing. I am most well-known for my middle-grade Hook's Revenge about Captain Hook's daughter, and then I also had a picture book come out. My most recent publication was my picture book, Giraffes Ruin Everything.
grace: What a great title.
heidi: Thank you.
grace: I take it, the giraffes ruin everything.
heidi: Oh, they do. They are ruinous creatures, highly ruinous.
grace: And who was that illustrated by?
heidi: Chris Robertson.
grace: Oh, great. The other question I have for you, and this is the question that I ask everybody and I'm having everybody ask it that is being interviewed, and that is, what is your deepest publishing desire? I ask this question because I want the people that we interview, I want the guests to dare to say what they want. I want them to say not, "I want to make a living for my books." I want them to say the desire they're almost embarrassed that they have. What is your deepest desire?
heidi: Well, I'd say the most audacious is I gotta have a theme park.
grace: Oh, wow. That's cool.
heidi: Wouldn't that be amazing to see your characters alive in that way, rides, and people in costume, and all of it? That's my-
grace: With giraffes ruining everything.
heidi: Yes, yes.
grace: That would be great. What would your theme park be called? Schultz World? Heidi World?
heidi: Gosh, I don't know. I mean, Heidi World sounds great. It would be a really wonderful world if it was Heidi World. Yeah, let's go with that.
grace: That's awesome. Thanks so much, Heidi. It was so much fun talking to you.
heidi: Thank you. Buh-bye, Grace.
grace: All right, great. Okay.