Publicist Interview: Aimée Bissonette of Winding Oak

Winding Oak provides literary services, including web design, marketing/promotional materials, booking services, and literary event planning to children’s authors, illustrators, and publishers. Vicki and Steve Palmquist, both of whom have a wealth of experience in the children’s publishing world, created it.

Aimée Bissonette is a lawyer, teacher, and writer. She graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1987. She created Little Buffalo Law & Consulting with the specific goal of serving authors, illustrators, artists, and small businesses in the areas of contract negotiations, intellectual property, and business “best practices.”

Could you give us a brief history of Winding Oak? Who are the players?

Winding Oak is the brainchild of Vicki and Steve Palmquist. It began in 1988 as a print design firm, but it evolved over time—first into a web design business, and now, a full-fledged provider of literary services. Vicki and Steve have tremendous experience with the children’s publishing world. (Among other things, they run the Children’s Literature Network.) They are terrific “big picture” thinkers and continually are on the lookout for ways to better serve their author and illustrator clients. In addition, they have assembled a knowledgeable group of consultants (among them are published children’s authors, sales and marketing gurus, print shop whizzes, and a chef!), who work incredibly hard booking appearances, updating websites, designing marketing materials, etc.

What was the inspiration for founding the firm?

Vicki and Steve created Winding Oak in direct response to changes they saw in the children’s publishing industry. Historically, publishing houses took the lead in promoting their authors, illustrators, and books. In more recent years, however, much of that responsibility has shifted to the authors and illustrators. Winding Oak helps authors and illustrators with publicity, promotion, and a host of other things, all of which are vital to its clients.

What is the scope of activities?

Do you need help designing a website? Winding Oak can do it. How about help booking school visits or conference appearances? Winding Oak does that, too. In addition, Winding Oak helps clients develop promotional materials, hone presentation skills, create classroom guides, edit manuscripts, and produce video clips for use on websites or interviews. Winding Oak consultants will even answer fan mail in accordance with client instructions!

Clients may choose to use any or all of the Winding Oak services. Given Steve’s and Vicki’s resourcefulness and knowledge of the industry, I suspect this list of services will continue to grow.

Could you describe the client base? Does include authors, illustrators, publishers? Could you list some of the folks you’re working with now?

Winding Oak’s client list includes established authors and illustrators. The best known among them is Kate DiCamillo. Others include authors Marsha Qualey (author interview) and Jane Resh Thomas, and illustrators Kelly Dupre and Karen Ritz. A full client list is available on the Winding Oak website.

Winding Oak also provides services to publishing houses. It works in tandem with publishing houses on behalf of authors and illustrators and performs project work for publishing houses as well.

How do you approach clients when working on web design? Do you also offer maintenance?

Winding Oak offers terrific personalized service when it comes to web design. Clients are consulted throughout the process with regard to layout, copy, fonts, color scheme, etc. The goal is to create a website that reflects the client’s personality and delivers the client’s message, so no two websites are alike. And yes, Winding Oak provides maintenance.

What are the particular challenges in creating author/illustrator websites?

The primary task is to communicate the author’s or illustrator’s personality, giving a feel for the books, through color, design, and ease of navigation, while honoring the author’s or illustrator’s perceptions and tastes.

Winding Oak educates clients about the need for updating, how that can fit into workflow, and what is important to communicate to the site’s audience. That audience can be different for every author or illustrator. It is part of Winding Oak’s job to help authors and illustrators decide how best to appeal to their audiences.

What are common mistakes?

Trying to make a website encyclopedic, all-inclusive, and overly ambitious. A friendly tone works best. People no longer like to scroll on a website, so information should be short and—Vicki’s favorite word—pithy.

Authors and illustrators also should set an update schedule that is realistic. We encourage them to determine what they reasonably can keep current on their sites and how often they need to update sites.

What should every author/illustrator site include?

Make the site your assistant–let it work for you. What are you asked most frequently? FAQs are passé, but you can conversationally include those answers on your site in obvious (easily found) places. If you are a frequent speaker and you’re asked for your photo or a bio, have them posted on the site for easy downloading. Include a 300 dpi photo in CMYK and grayscale, as well as a photo in 72 dpi, so they can be used for print and web purposes.

Don’t try to be a webmaster unless you really enjoy it and find it a creative pleasure. Let your website make more time for your creative process and public appearances.

Winding Oak offers an author-booking service. How does it work? Do you field requests, make arrangements, negotiate contracts, follow-up, etc.? Do you actively seek out speaking opportunities?

“Yes” to all of the above! In addition, Winding Oak creates secure online calendars for clients (that are accessible to the clients, their editors, publishers, and agents); ensures its clients’ books are available for sale at all client appearances; and provides literary escort services for its clients (as well as visiting authors and illustrators) in the Twin Cities metropolitan area.

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

With regard to booking appearances, Winding Oak clients set their own fees, in consultation with Winding Oak. Fees vary depending on whether the client is scheduled to appear at a school or a conference and whether the appearance is for one day or multiple days. Clients pay Winding Oak a commission for each booking.

Clients pay for other services (e.g. website maintenance, manuscript critique or editing, design of promotional materials) on a flat-fee or per-hour basis.

Why is there a need for such services?

We frequently hear that publishers are applying fewer marketing dollars to their mid-list authors and illustrators. At the same time, books are taken out of print more rapidly. Becoming savvy about your promotional efforts, whether in print, on the web, or in person–these are all areas in which Winding Oak can assist authors and illustrators. There’s no formula for this–the efforts must be individualized for the author/illustrator and the book.

Has the need grown over time? If so, why?

There are more children’s and YA books being published now than at any previous time in history (with a few blips along the way), and there are more diverse markets for those books. Niche markets (marketing a picture book about birds to bird watching groups or a book about trains to railroading groups) are an area that publishers haven’t tapped in any discernible way. The internet provides a new means for reaching buyers. Winding Oak not only has the methods to reach out but it has the research tools to find them.

How has Winding Oak changed over the years? Any exciting new directions?

Winding Oak started out as a print design firm and children’s literature was its avocation. Today, Winding Oak focuses primarily on web design for children’s and YA literature because of its deep background in the field. Winding Oak’s print design, marketing, and writing experience add a depth to the services it provides. Staying on top of technology, using finesse to address markets, and making transitions to new methods of reaching readers are all exciting to Winding Oak.

What should an author consider in hiring someone to promote his or her work?

Does this person or entity understand the children’s publishing industry? Do they have a thorough understanding of schools and libraries, their peculiar needs and budget constraints? Do they operate ethically? And, of course, do they listen to you and work to accommodate your needs?

What noteworthy changes in children’s book promotion have you seen over the years? What are the trends? Your predictions for the future?

Certainly the way in which books are being promoted has changed. Children’s and YA authors and illustrators have been caught up in the tide of America’s celebrity culture and personal appearances are de rigeur. It’s difficult for people who like to stay in their studios and be creative to adapt to the demands for attention.

We’re already seeing a blending of personal appearances, the internet, and access to books through alternate methods of distribution. We suspect that this will morph into something quite different in a few years’ time–Winding Oak intends to be riding the crest of those changes.

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

Wow! There are so many. I am amazed and awed by the great books that are out there for kids and teens. I’ve read two new books recently, both by Minnesota authors, that I recommend highly: Terry Hokenson‘s The Winter Road (Front Street, 2006)(a YA survival story set in Canada featuring a gutsy 17-year old female protagonist) and Jane St. Anthony‘s The Summer Sherman Loved Me (FSG, 2006)(a beautiful middle grade novel about family, friends, summer, and…first love!).

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Just that I invite your readers to visit the Winding Oak website if they are interested in learning more. It’s been a pleasure talking with you. Thanks for your interest in Winding Oak!

Cynsational Notes

See the Cynsations companion interview, Attorney Aimée Bissonette on Law and Publishing.