Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Cynsations Summer Hiatus & VCFA Summer Residency

Cynsations will be on hiatus from now until sometime shortly after July 22 while I teach at the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults summer 2009 residency in Montpelier.

I look forward to working with fellow faculty members Kathi Appelt, Marion Dane Bauer, Margaret Bechard, Alan Cumyn, Sharon Darrow, Sarah Ellis, Louise Hawes, Ellen Howard, Uma Krishnaswami, Jane Kurtz, Julie Larios, Martine Leavitt, Leda Schubert, Shelley Tanaka, Rita Williams-Garcia, and Tim Wynne-Jones.

Kathi is leading the picture book program.

The VCFA Symposium on Good & Evil will be July 18. Guests will be Deborah Noyes, Nancy Werlin, and editor Stephen Roxburgh. Nancy will lecture and read from Impossible (Dial, 2008), and Deborah will lecture and read from The Ghosts of Kerfol (Candlewick, 2008). "Other events will include a writing challenge, breakout groups, book signings, and a reception.

"All are welcome to join faculty, students, and alumni for this day-long conference." Interested in attending? See more information.

The Alumni Mini-Residency will be July 17 to July 19. Organizers are Sarah Aronson and Mary Atkinson. About 60 alumni will return to campus for those three days for lectures, workshops, a master class with Patricia McCormick, and meetings with editors and agents.

Our graduate assistants will be Katie Mather, Cheryl Coupe, Debbie Gonzales, Stephanie Greene, Sharry Wright, Ann Jacobus Kordahl, and Nancy Bo Flood.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Publicists Interview: Barbara Fisch and Sarah Shealy on Blue Slip Media

From the website: "At Blue Slip Media, we specialize in publicity and marketing services for the trade children’s book industry.

"In a business climate where publicity and marketing resources at major publishing houses are stretched thin, we offer expertise in crafting effective press releases, targeted mailing lists, niche and local market outreach, and event planning to create comprehensive campaigns for print and online media.

"With over 20 years experience (each!) in the industry, we know the market well and enjoy working in tandem with authors, artists, and publishers to maximize a book’s reach."

Could you give us a brief history of Blue Slip Media? Who are the players?

Barbara Fisch: Blue Slip Media is still fairly new. Sarah Shealy and I decided to jump into the fray in March 2009, a few months after we left Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

We explain the name on our website, a bit tongue-in-cheek, really, but silliness aside, we have always prided ourselves on our integrity and the belief that good business practices generate good publicity. So the name fit our philosophy (and it doesn't hurt that our initials match as well).

What was the inspiration for founding the firm?

Sarah Shealy: I've worked my entire career in children's book marketing and publicity. I absolutely adore and value children's and young adult literature. Barb and I job-shared the Associate Director of Publicity position at Harcourt Children's Books for 15 years--it's practically impossible for me to imagine doing any other type of work and doing it solo!

When Houghton Mifflin bought Harcourt and decided to close down the San Diego office, we thought about the next stage for us, and it seemed natural and logical to hang up a shingle and continue doing what we love to do--and to continue doing it together.

BF: Sarah and I had been through a number of mergers in our time with Harcourt, so we always had the idea of an independent firm in the back of our minds.

Our experience mirrors what so many others in publishing are going through today--you must adapt and change and be willing to think creatively. In our case, it meant re-thinking the structure of the workplace and creating a virtual office so we could continue to collaborate as seamlessly as possible.

What prior experience did you bring to the job?

BF: Like Sarah, the majority of my career has been in children's publishing. I spent several years in subsidiary rights at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (as it was then known), which was enormously valuable for learning about contracts, basic marketing, and building relationships.

The rest of my time with Harcourt was in marketing--first as marketing director, which gave me a good sense of the various communities involved in children's books, and for the next 15 plus years, as part of the job-share publicity team with Sarah.

SS: I've always worked in children's marketing. I started at Houghton Mifflin in Boston and then moved to San Diego and HBJ, which changed to Harcourt Brace & Company, and then Harcourt, Inc, and then, for me kind of ironically, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Over that 20+ year span I've done just about every job in marketing, from planning to execution--author school visits, conferences, catalogs, promo pieces, displays, curriculum guides, bookstore tours, and, my favorite, publicity campaigns. It's been an amazing experience!

Why children's-YA books specifically? What fueled your passion to support books for young readers?

SS: I have absolutely adored reading for as long as I can remember. I love the way books feel and smell and can remember checking out Are You My Mother? and Go Dog, Go!, both by P.D. Eastman (Random House, 1960 and 1961), from my school library over and over again when I was in first grade. That love of reading as a child carried me all the way through high school, college, and graduate school.

My first "real" job was working as the marketing assistant at Houghton Mifflin Books for Children when I was getting my Masters in English Lit, and I couldn't believe my good fortune. Here was an opportunity to tell the world about fantastic books for children and young adults. What could be more important than putting exceptional books into children's and teens' hands? I think that developing a love for reading early on makes for smarter, more well-rounded, and articulate decision-making adults.

BF: People in children's books are much nicer, besides.

Do you work with publishers, authors, illustrators, etc.? What kinds of services do you provide to them?

BF: Yes, all of them! We've been working on everything, from full campaigns to niche or regional publicity outreach, to writing press releases and tour scheduling.

SS: We're also enjoying targeting the educational media market with books that really lend themselves to classroom use.

Why is there a need for such services? Has the need grown over time?

SS: When we were at Harcourt there was always so much more that we wanted to do for a book than we had time for. We'd be responsible for 30-40 books per season, and as much as we tried to do it all, we always felt like there were more avenues to pursue.

We're hopeful that Blue Slip Media can help fill those gaps that publicists at publishing houses just can't get to--like niche outreach to groups uniquely interested in a book's subject matter, be it baseball, fantasy, pirate aficionados, or whatever.

Authors today are very savvy and really want full outreach for their books--often more than the publisher can provide with limited personnel and resources. Because we've been house publicists, we're very comfortable collaborating with them and sympathetic to their heavy work loads. We can also help interpret publishing house marketing speak for authors who might be newer to the business and help them to determine if they really need to hire us or if their publisher is pulling out all the stops for their book.

BF: As traditional review outlets continue to change and contract--newspapers and magazines have less space than ever devoted to books--niche-interest areas have steadily grown. Finding these niche areas is hugely time-consuming, and it's rather daunting for many authors to tackle alone.

Also, and this goes with Sarah's earlier point, an independent publicist can give focused attention to a book. We're not under the same pressure as in-house publicists to consolidate mailings or spend the bulk of our time on a small group of lead titles.

Could you give us some idea of rates and/or fee structure?

SS: We like to quote on a project basis, so it's hard to give an idea of rates without knowing what the author or publisher is looking for. But I do think it's safe to say that we can work with just about any budget. The best advice is to contact us to discuss your particular goals.

Could you highlight a couple of the children's/YA authors and titles that you've worked with?

BF: We worked with Jacqueline Kelly on her debut novel The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate (Holt, 2009); Jillian Cantor, author of The September Sisters (HarperTeen, 2009); and Jenny Meyerhoff and her picture book, Third Grade Baby, illustrated by Jill Weber (FSG, 2008).

SS: We're also looking forward to upcoming projects with Anne Rockwell and Bobbi Katz.

Could you give us a case study to illustrate your approach? What were the unique challenges, opportunities, how did you respond to them, and what were your results?

BF: Jenny Meyerhoff's book is a good example. Third Grade Baby had strong reviews when it was published in fall 2008. Jenny had also done quite a bit on her own--she created a curriculum guide and a website, and even put together a contest where teachers could win some freebies for their classroom.

But she wanted to get the word out to more teachers. We put together a campaign to teacher and educational journals where they'd list the free curriculum guide and giveaways in their magazines. Those listings will run in August and September issues and we're expecting a lot of exposure for Jenny's book and a huge jump in traffic to her website.

What should a writer or illustrator consider in hiring a publicist to promote his or her work?

SS: I think they need to have a clear idea of what it is they're looking for. Do they want more exposure to teachers? Do they want to see coverage of their book in their local media? Are they looking for "buzz" in the online world? Coverage in the national media? All of the above?

Once they've determined their goals, they need to look at what they can do to achieve them, what their publisher can do, and think about if they need to go to an outside publicist for help.

BF: For many authors and illustrators, the first question that comes to mind is, "How much will it cost?" And that is hugely important, for obvious reasons, but it shouldn't prevent them from asking about smaller or more targeted projects if the fee for a full-blown campaign is too high.

What are the questions to ask?

SS: If I were an author hiring a publicist, I'd want to know about her/his experience in the industry, what type of feedback/reporting structure I could expect, her/his general "take" on my book and what its publicity potential might be, if they would be talking with my publisher about my book, and how long they believe the campaign would last.

BF: As an author, I'd also want to know what questions the publicist has for me. If they don't seem curious about my work or what I can bring to the overall campaign, then I might doubt how effective they might as collaborators.

How else can the client make the best possible choice?

BF: Like any workplace relationship, authors and their publicists need to have similar communication styles. Authors should feel like they can ask questions and contribute ideas freely, but at the same time be ready to hear a contrary opinion from their publicist. That's an intangible--some people make a connection instantly.

How can he/she best help their publicist do a great job?

SS: Be sure to talk about any interesting back stories that might help the publicist pitch a unique angle on your book. Publicity campaigns can take on a life of their own, so it's impossible to cover all the bases before a campaign begins. Be prepared to field questions from your publicist well into a campaign and beyond! Keep the lines of communication open throughout the process.

BF: It's better to run the risk of over-informing your publicist than the reverse. You may think a small booktalk at your local school or library is inconsequential, but it just may help you and your publicist generate ideas for future events. You may have a talent or skill that can translate to larger groups or a bookstore setting.

What advice do you have for writers trying to handle their own publicity?

BF: First, be realistic with your goals. Start small, using your network of friends, family, colleagues, and associates to help you spread the word about your book. Make sure to send copies to your local paper and your alumni magazine. You need to build a campaign in the same way you put together any structure, beginning with a strong foundation.

Second, be cognizant of any news hooks or anniversaries that might make your book timely. Is the book based on a true story? Is there a major movie being released with similar types of events or characters, indicating a possible trend? Does the book lend itself to seasonal themes or holidays? This might be the edge you need to get the attention of the media.

Third, use technology if it's comfortable for you. Aside from websites, which are extremely important, I recommend you only use blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media if you can keep it current.

Fourth, be patient. Children's books, in general, tend to have a slower build than adult titles; it's not uncommon to see reviews a few months after publication.

Finally, be willing to roll up your sleeves. Make time to go out and meet your local bookseller and librarian, attend conferences, and make connections. Think of yourself as a valuable resource for your publisher; let them know you're ready to help and show initiative in providing ideas. If your publisher is willing to send books on your behalf, develop mailing lists for them, with complete names and addresses.

What noteworthy changes in children's book promotion have you seen over the years? What are your predictions for the future?

SS: Marketing dollars are shrinking, so there's been a huge movement away from printed pieces (posters, bookmarks, etc) to downloadables and other web-based pieces that can live forever online.

Technology is opening up ever more promotional opportunities so I think we'll see more and more innovative campaigns with an online component, like Scholastic's The 39 Clues.

BF: Even though there's been a move to online publicity and promotion, I do think that connecting with one's audience will still be an important way to promote children's books.

Bookstores are still open to author events, though sometimes they're group events (such as a gathering of local authors) or themed events (teen novelists), rather than a single author. Judging by their success, I don't foresee these kinds of things going away soon.

As long as we're talking about books, are there any new titles you'd like to highlight?

BF: We're working with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on a series of books about ghost-hunting teens--The Ghost Huntress series--with a nonfiction companion book due out in September titled The Other Side: A Teen's Guide to Ghost Hunting and the Paranormal.

Marley Gibson, the author, has teamed up with two experts in the field of paranormal research, Patrick Burns, the star of TruTV's "Haunting Evidence," and Dave Schrader, host of KTLK FM's "Darkness Radio." It's a fascinating project.

SS: We're also working on a series for tweens called Gifted by Marilyn Kaye (Kingfisher, 2009). It's lots of fun. And a new book by Carolyn Crimi called Henry & the Crazed Chicken Pirates (Candlewick, 2009) that allows me to tap into my pet media hook for publicity: Talk Like a Pirate Day (Sept 19!).

As for my personal reading, I love YA fiction and am halfway through Suzanne Collins' new book Catching Fire (Scholastic, 2009). I am so completely consumed by the story that I have to force myself to put it down and go to work! I adore Kristin Cashore's Graceling (Harcourt, 2007) and think her new book, Fire (Dial, 2009), is even more amazing.

How can prospective clients get in touch?

BF & SS: E-mail us both simultaneously at and or give us a call at 619.938.3193.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Craft, Career & Cheer: Zetta Elliott

Learn more about Zetta Elliott, and visit her blog. Her books include Bird (Lee & Low, 2008) and A Wish After Midnight (CreateSpace, 2008).

Could you tell us about your writing community—your critique group or critique partner or other sources of creative support?

I don't belong to a critique group, but I still rely quite heavily on my artistic community.

Most of my closest friends are writers who have branched out into other fields: performance art, fine art, film, theater. That means a lot to me, because I’m surrounded by women who are truly daring, and because we work in different fields, there tends to be very little competition.

I'm a solitary person and not very social, so my friends also draw me out--they get me "out of my head" (and out of my house!), yet they never stop me from sharing ideas. I never feel silenced or censored around them. I come from a family where open communication isn't really valued, so having that with my artist friends is extremely valuable.

Also, because many of my friends are scholars, they understand the struggle to balance those professional demands with our personal ambition as artists. They're sympathetic yet savvy about how to create opportunities for our art to flourish--often against all odds!

I see my friends as coaches, in a way—they're more outgoing, more courageous, and they push me in ways I’d never push myself.

I've recently started to build an online community as well--women I've never actually met, but with whom I share a love of literature and an investment in youth literacy.

These women (who can be found online at Color Online, Crazy Quilts, A Wrung Sponge, and The Happy Nappy Bookseller) have worked tirelessly to promote my self-published young adult novel, A Wish After Midnight.

It's not easy finding people who are open-minded enough to try something new, and most people instantly dismiss self-published books. But these women agreed to review the novel, and then used all their connections to spread the word.

Through one blogger I met Colleen Mondor who reviews YA novels for Bookslut; the day that review was published online, a senior editor at a major press contacted me about acquiring the rights to my self-published novel.

Whatever happens, I owe a huge debt to these amazing women. Together we've proven that ordinary people do have the power to stand up against a publishing industry that doesn't always meet our needs.

What do you love most about being an author? Why?

First and foremost, I love to write. That's the one constant since I've become a published children's book author. I once heard Toni Morrison say that you don't need anyone's permission to be a writer, but you do need someone's permission to be an author. That really resonated with me, because I was writing furiously and had had only a few poems accepted for publication at the time. I wasn't sure I even had the right to call myself a writer!

Now, with an award-winning book, I feel somewhat vindicated, even though I still cringe at the idea of legitimacy coming from outside myself and outside my community.

What I love most about being an author is the opportunity to embody possibility. I love working with children again, which is very different than teaching college students, and I really enjoy hearing the children talk about my book--what the story means to them and how it relates to their own life.

It bothers me that so many children believe authors are these quasi-magical beings who exist somewhere else and only occasionally drop in to visit them at their school. It matters to me that the kids I work with know that a writer is a member of their community. Every community produces writers because everyone has a story to tell. Everyone!

I don't think I ever met an author when I was a child, and I certainly didn't know there were so many authors of color in the world! I didn't have a diverse selection of books to choose from as a child, and that has changed somewhat for today's youth. But they still need to know that their own stories matter and their own stories have value, even if they're not published in a book.

It's hard to explain the politics of publishing to children, but I can still spend an hour helping them to craft poems about whatever they've witnessed in their world. I can tell them about my life, and at times I know they look at me and there's recognition--I'm no longer the distant author, I'm like a neighbor or a family member.

I'm often struck by the number of children who tell me I look like their relative or I sound like their cousin or guess what? I have asthma, too!

We connect on so many different levels, and I hope that that demystifies art and those of us who are determined to create it.

Principals often stress that I'm "Dr. Elliott," and I understand why they want the children to know that I have a PhD.

But with or without an advanced degree, you can write. With or without anyone else's permission, you can put your life in words. That's the message I try to share as an author.

What can your fans look forward to next?

This summer I plan to finish the sequel to my YA novel, A Wish After Midnight. It's called Judah's Tale, and it's set in Weeksville, a 19th-century African American community in (what was then) the city of Brooklyn.

I'm currently working on a story called "Munecas," and I'm hoping to collaborate once more with Shadra Strickland (award-winning illustrator of Bird).

I also write plays, and after speaking with a class of ELA student-teachers, I've been thinking about self-publishing a collection of ten-minute plays for teens.

The beauty of self-publishing is that I can write something and make it available almost immediately. I think there are many issues our youth need to address now, but the publishing industry doesn't seem to share that sense of urgency.

I'm hoping that the current economic crisis will lead to reform within the industry, and will reveal opportunities for more people to have their voices heard--we need more stories from more communities!

Cynsational Notes

The Craft, Career & Cheer series features conversations with children's-YA book creators about positive aspects of their creative and professional lives.

Austin Public Library Foundation Seeks Book Donations for Fundraiser

from Diane Hernandez

The mission of the Austin Public Library Foundation is to support and strengthen Austin's public libraries.

To accomplish this goal, the Foundation works to increase awareness about the Library and its importance to the community and to raise funds through individual gifts, corporate sponsorships, and foundation grants. These funds are used to provide programs, equipment, and holdings in the Austin Public Library.

One way funds are raised is through the APLF annual fundraising event and silent auction that will be held on Sept. 12. Authors interested in donating an autographed book(s) or item for the silent auction should contact Diane Hernandez--no later than the second week in August--to arrange for shipping and/or for her to pick up your donated item and form.
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