REMEMBER, NOBODY BUYS A BOOK THEY HAVEN’T HEARD OF.* Read this interview with children’s book marketing expert, Deborah Sloan, to find out how to get readers talking about and buying your books.
Carol Gordon Ekster: Deborah, can you tell us a little about your background and how you got into the business of children’s books?
Deborah Sloan: Like many of us in publishing, I spent most of my college years in two buildings: the ones housing the English and art history departments, because I love words, stories and wonderful art and I care about the people who make them. My mother, an artist, saw the payoff of countless family museum trips and I have a feeling being surrounded by her art-making and collecting seeped its way into my persona. But it was my corporate attorney father who probably most influenced my career choice; one of his clients was a major publishing company and, at the dinner table, he’d regale us with stories about intellectual property that I found fascinating. (Once we discussed his adding a clause in a contract about protecting “rights that have yet to be invented” – hello internet and e-books!.) No surprise that I spent my summers interning with a NYC publisher. There was no turning back! That my first job offer was in the adult books publicity department at Dutton which was housed on the 17th floor at 2 Park Avenue – the very same floor and building where my grandfather used to work – simply confirmed that I was fated to work in this wonderful industry.
Dutton led to Abbeville Press (a fabulous art and illustrated book publisher which caused cheers from my mother!) and then it was all about timing and connections: I was looking to move from NYC to Boston in 1991, just as Candlewick Press was coming to be. [My] Thanks to former Dutton colleague/then-Candlewick editor-in-chief Amy Ehrlich, then-Candlewick President and now packager David Ford, and then- VP Sales/now-agent Rick Richter for their willingness to see that my general marketing experience and passion for connecting books with readers trumped my lack of children’s publishing experience. Once I saw that the brilliant John Burningham’s CANNONBALL SIMP– one of my favorite childhood read-alouds – was being reissued by Candlewick, I wanted in. Being able to launch Maurice Sendak and Iona Opie’s I SAW ESAU sealed the deal.
DS: So many tours, so many highlights – what’s most gratifying is knowing that I’ve helped an author to reach hundreds/thousands/tens of thousands of readers by arranging for events or publicity interviews and more. What I’ve seen traveling with Sendak and DiCamillo, as well as Rosemary Wells and Laurie Halse Anderson and oh so many others, is that the most gratifying moments come from interaction with the kids and teens. Kate DiCamillo tells a story of a child who read BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE and said “If Winn-Dixie weren’t a book, I’d marry it.” My goal is to help find all those readers to make more of those moments.
CGE: What advice do you think is most important to share with authors and illustrators when they have a new book coming out?
DS: You love your book more than anybody else. You know your book better than anybody else. Share YOUR story. Tell your readers – booksellers, librarians, reviewers, bloggers, kids/teens, parents, teachers – what you want them to know. It’s sort of like the line in the movie FIELD OF DREAMS: “If you build it, they will come.” If you tell them, they will read it. WHY would they want to read your book? WHAT is buzz-worthy about them? HOW can one of the ambassadors/influencers (booksellers/librarians/reviewers/teachers) hook a reader to open your book? Tell your readers what you want them to know. *As my business partner (and bestselling author) M.J. Rose says, “No one can buy a book they’ve never heard of.”
CGE: You’ve been a featured speaker at conventions like BookExpo America, The American Library Association, and SCBWI. Is this something you enjoy doing and do you get nervous speaking to such large crowds? What topic is your favorite to speak about and why?
DS: In the PR and marketing business, it’s all about making information public. And I’m so proud of the authors, illustrators, publishers and books that I work with, that I’m happy to share that information. I’m not funny and I’m not a particularly great writer (I leave that to all of you) but I feel confident that there are children and families and teachers and librarians and booksellers and more who are waiting to hear about the books I’m lucky enough to work on – so I’ll hop onto any stage to talk about them.
That said, I’d much rather have the spotlight on all of you as you’re the ones who are best equipped to tell your stories. But I’ve always followed the philosophy of “Do what you do best” and “Do what you’re comfortable with.” We need all of you to do what we marketing people don’t/can’t do: that is, write and create these wonderful books. If that’s your comfort zone and you shy away from public speaking, so be it: keep writing.
CGE: You’ve been in the business of publishing for more than twenty years. What are the most significant changes you’ve seen over time? Have you noticed any trends in children’s books today and how are you feeling about the future of children’s books?
DS: Reading to your child every day is a philosophy now prescribed by pediatricians at annual well child visits just as wearing seatbelts is. Some parents understand, and others are learning, that the more families read together, the stronger their children’s language skills will be, and they’ll be more eager and ready for success at school. Board and picture books provide the tools and connections and I feel confident that we’ll be making and sharing and selling great children’s books for years and years to come. Digital technologies provide us with even greater possibilities for reading books as well as much faster ways of sharing information about books. A huge plus. What’s changed significantly is the explosion of interest in middle-grade and teen books – fueled by so many kids who loved reading aloud with their families and whose passion for stories has continued – and long may that last.
What I find particularly interesting is what HASN’T changed in twenty or so years: we still have thousands of booksellers who read and fall in love with books, who understand their customers and their interests and needs, and who live in their communities and love nothing more than recommending a book that a reader adores and then seeing that reader return for more; we still have thousands of school and public librarians who devote their lives to helping children get information in ways that work with their learning styles; and we still have publishers who strive to work with authors and illustrators to make the books that cause a child to say “Read it again.” Some things will never change.
CGE: What can Deborah Sloan and Company do for authors and illustrators that we can’t do for ourselves?
DS: The authors are the stars of the show – you’re the ones who write the books that we all want to read. I think of myself as a connector making the bridge between your story and those craving stories. We will delve into your books and find the best ways to get to the heart of your book and why a child or teen would want to read it. And we will tell that message via PR outreach, advertising, events, social media; we will work with booksellers and librarians and reviewers and bloggers – those key influencers – to help them understand that message.
There’s the famous advertising “rule of seven” which really speaks to effective frequency: whether seven is the magic number or not, we know that we need to tell people, over and over again, that a book exists and if we reach the right people, those with an interest in the subject or style of a book, they’ll buy it. We understand HOW to tell them and WHERE to share your message.
You might want to take a peek at my KidsBuzz offerings.
KidsBuzz is a marketing service that puts childrens’ and young adult authors directly in touch with readers, book clubs/groups, booksellers and librarians, to make personal connections with their readers and offer extra perks to the people who buy, sell, read and recommend their books. We’ve worked with debut authors and bestselling authors. Jandy Nelson, who was just awarded Printz prize for her second book, I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN, buzzed her first book, THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE, with us. National Book award winner Laurie Halse Anderson; Mitali Perkins; Cynthia Leitisch Smith; Jay Ascher, author of the New York Times bestseller THIRTEEN REASONS WHY; Rosemary Wells; New Yorker cartoonist Carter Goodrich, and Robie Harris, to name just a few, have all used our services.
In fact, I met author Robie Harris twenty years ago when Candlewick was publishing her now New York Times bestselling IT’S PERFECTLY NORMAL. Since I started KidsBuzz, she’s buzzed all her books (including her new picture book TURTLE AND ME about a child’s attachment to his “lovey”) so she can share her behind-the-scenes stories with her readers.
We’d love to work with you, too.
Deborah Sloan lives just north of Boston in Andover, MA and is happy to talk with writers’ groups in person or via Skype. Bring your questions and challenges and she’ll bring her creativity and expertise. Call 978.884.4758 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.