Publicist Interview: Deborah Sloan of Deborah Sloan and Company

From her official website: “For more than twenty years, Deborah Sloan has led authors and illustrators through the world of publishing and book selling, establishing a reputation for inspired and compelling marketing and promotion for books in every category, with a special focus on children’s books. She is considered a trusted source of insight and information on bookselling by national media.

“As the director of marketing, promotion, advertising and publicity for Candlewick Press, Abbeville Press and Trafalgar Square, and a founding member of Candlewick’s executive management team, Deborah successfully evaluated marketplace opportunities and delivered solutions for book trade, library, school and consumer markets.

“She places special emphasis on fostering strong relationships between publishing houses and their authors and illustrators.

“She has been a featured speaker at national conventions, including BookExpo America, the American Library Association, and the Society of Children’s Book Authors and Illustrators, and has served on the Board of Directors of the Children’s Book Council.”

You have a distinguished history working in marketing for trade publishers. Do you have a favorite memory or two to share?

Just one or two? How do I choose?

It’s hard to beat working with the authors and illustrators of Candlewick’s first list as Fall 1992 was one for the memory books: touring the country with Iona Opie and Maurice Sendak for their collection of “rhymes you never heard at grandma’s knee” (NYT), I Saw Esau: The Schoolchild’s Pocket Book showed me how loyal children’s booksellers, librarians, reviewers and fans are and how they will pack an auditorium to hear a good story.

Traveling to bookstores and libraries with Helen Oxenbury to share Martin Waddell’s story of an overworked duck “who had the bad luck to live with a lazy old farmer,” Farmer Duck, gave me my first real understanding of how good picture books – those with just the perfect marriage of words and art – work with kids in ways that I had never imagined. Martin talks about how each of his picture books “is about a very big emotion in a very small person” and no doubt he gets it right: “How goes the work? Quack! ” is permanently embedded in my brain thanks to the thousands of children we met. These kids got it.

One of the most fascinating books I ever worked on was It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex and Sexual Health by Robie H. Harris, illustrated by Michael Emberley. I will never forget meeting that dynamic duo and hearing how they went about talking and meeting with parents, health educators, scientists, pediatricians, social works, child development specialists, clergy, teachers, and librarians to be sure to present the information in the most accurate, up-to-date, clear, kid-friendly way possible. I was in!

Long before we had F&Gs, I schlepped copies of the designed pages to as many librarians and booksellers and reviewers and teachers as I could (until my family begged me to stay home for a bit), and the conversations that resulted–honest, complicated, charged and passionate–helped build a buzz for this book that’s still going strong today.

The people I showed those early pages to felt a part of the process…I think they felt It’s Perfectly Normal was their book too. Because of those meetings, they were personally invested in seeing that It’s Perfectly Normal reached its readers. FYI, the book has sold more than one million copies.

Okay, one more (but really, I could do one a day for the next year and not cover all the stories I’ve heard and shared): It was sometime in the late ’90s when I was asked to read a manuscript by a first-time author the editors were pretty jazzed about. It began “My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some white rice, and two tomatoes and I came back with a dog.”

What?! I wanted to know more about this Buloni kid and her family–and her dog!–and I knew that kids would too. But how to promote this book by a newbie author and get the booksellers and librarians and teachers and reviewers to be its ambassador and share it with kids?

An author tour didn’t seem the way to go – the author had no track record, so who would book an event with her? Advertising? I wasn’t sure that we could capture the heart of the book in an ad. Remember, too, the Internet wasn’t really big then (most publishers didn’t even have websites at that time!), so how to spread the word?

Pure and simple: reading is believing. So we created a down-and-dirty first chapter excerpt and inserted it into Candlewick’s Spring catalog. As I said, simple marketing plan. Let readers read the book. If they like it, they’ll champion it. They did.

I wonder how many of you read that first chapter and told a friend about that novel for kids ages 9 and up called Because of Winn-Dixie by a writer from Minnesota named Kate DiCamillo.

What inspired you to found your own company?

I think I didn’t know it, but I was working up to going it on my own for a while. One late afternoon, just as the rush hour commute was to begin, I got a call at Candlewick: “Everything’s okay, but…” said my son’s friend’s mother. Dread.

My son was okay (nothing a few stitches couldn’t fix), but that call – and that way-too-long drive home to my family–got me thinking that as much as I adored my job (and really, I felt I had the best job in the world), I just didn’t want to commute anymore; it was time, after 11 years, to be closer to my family.

So I took the first step to seeing what it would be like to work for a publisher but to do so outside of the buzz center, and went to work for Trafalgar Square, the largest distributor of British books in the US. Trafalgar’s offices were on a gorgeous farm in North Pomfret, Vermont, but I wasn’t going to commute there(!), so they set up me to work in my home town, Andover. A perfect way to be part of a company and yet be on my own.

When Trafalgar was sold to Independent Publishers Group, I was faced with that decision of what to do next. Do I go back to an office environment? Could I go back?

I relished the flexibility that a home office provided. And this too: I was starting to feel that promoting an entire publisher’s list was just too much for me. I didn’t know that I could really do a good service for every one of the books.

It was my husband who got me thinking about running my own company. It was a terrifying (no regular paycheck!) move but absolutely the right one.

Could you give us an overview of your mission?

As I say on my website, I love words, stories, and wonderful art. I care about the people who create them and work to help clients and their books to reach their readers. And that’s the truth! It’s all about sharing those stories.

What sort of folks make up your client list, and in brief, what services do you provide to each?

Oh, anyone and everyone involved with children’s books: publishers, authors and illustrators, associations, booksellers… I help them to connect with readers via marketing consultations and general publishing thinking, social media consultations and brainstorming, networking with industry colleagues, branding, tour booking and coordination, media campaigns, development and design of promotional materials.

Could you tell us more about KidsBuzz?

When I work on a book, I think about every tool possible to build buzz. PR outreach and getting coverage in the media is certainly an important part of a campaign, but I was growing concerned with the shrinking space given to book coverage, with magazines and newspapers folding, and whether the reviews/features were really selling books.

I’ve always been so taken with the behind-the-scenes of a book and hearing it straight from the author. And wouldn’t it be great if not just me, but lots of people could hear directly from the author, not catalog copy, not marketing speak, but the author speaking straight about why they wrote a particular book, who it’s for, etc.?

I thought that if I could just share that, share an author’s story and do so with hundreds of thousands of people, then I’d be providing a great service to all involved. Thus, KidsBuzz.

For authors and illustrators, KidsBuzz puts you directly in touch with readers, reading groups, booksellers, librarians and teachers, allowing them to offer trailers and videos, excerpts, phone chats or visits, curriculum tie-ins, material for newsletters, info about contests and freebies, mentions of new reviews and awards—anything and everything you want to buzz directly to the people who buy, read and sell your books.


KidsBuzz partners with successful online publications that target these markets by distributing notes from the authors via Shelf Awareness, (both running twice in a week so double exposure here), and Teacher magazine’s e-newsletter, Teacher Update.

It’s your chance to tell your readers why your book is special–in your own words. Your readers want to hear from you. Personal relationships last longer than any marketing speak.

Plus, we also run either individual title or group title blog ad campaigns. Our campaigns are in the top 10% of effectiveness because we don’t just put the book up in the ad but actually craft a headline and visuals that will make people stop.

The beauty of blog ad campaigns is that you’re guaranteed placement with millions of impressions–and they create one-click-thru to a variety of online retailers. That’s what we’re after–sales. And, if I don’t already sound like a salesman, here’s one more point: We don’t buy ads just on blogs about books: we find the subject matter in each book that someone cares about and find blogs on those subjects.

For booksellers, reading groups, librarians, teachers, general readers, KidsBuzz lets you hear from the source–the books’ creators–and gives you the stories behind the stories. You can use the authors’ notes in your newsletters, on your websites, in your stores/sections.

Why do you recommend it to teachers and librarians and booksellers?

If you’re looking for a book for your book group or for your collection, find out what your favorite (and some new) kids and teen authors and illustrators have to say, learn about contests, tours, trailers, virtual visits, autographed books–and more!

I’ve heard from teachers and librarians and booksellers who say that this gives them a chance to “meet” authors and hear about books that they might read reviews on or might have been presented with by their sales reps. But it’s a crowded publishing world, and the more first-hand info we can share from the authors, the better.

“I really do love KidsBuzz,” says Allison Santos, Youth Services Librarian and Princeton Children’s Book Festival Coordinator from Princeton, NJ. “It’s great to be able to get all the latest scoop on brand new titles and read interesting interviews with authors and illustrators. Did I mention the great raffles and book giveaways? Where else can you go to get all this fabulous information in one place. KidsBuzz really lets me feel connected to everything that is exciting in the children and teen’s literary world.”

Jacque Peterson, School Library Coordinator from the Alaska State Library adds: “I’ll be watching for KidsBuzz each week and will highlight your author information and contests in my weekly electronic newsletter that’s sent to school and youth librarians across the state of Alaska.”

“The books that were spotlighted [from] are all books that I can’t wait to get my hands on to read myself. Please include me in any newsletters, emails, and other announcements so I can keep the families in my community up-to-date on the latest reads for kids. Thank you!” — Lisa Moore, Allen/Soddy Daisy Family Resource Center, TN.

To keep up with what’s happening, either subscribe to the individual e-newsletters or visit the KidsBuzz Facebook page and/or follow @KidsAuthorBuzz Twitter stream.

In what ways is KidsBuzz helping gatekeepers connect books to readers?

A bookseller reader described KidsBuzz as having a one-minute conversation with an author and walking away with a handle on the book that helps them to present it to the right customer. I think that says it all.

What are the benefits to authors?

“Within a week of my first KidsBuzz mailing, I received invitations to do events at three bookstores. My Life With the Lincolns (Henry Holt, 2010) is my first book for young readers, and KidsBuzz helped me break into this new audience with ease. I’m very grateful.”

— author Gayle Brandeis

“KidsBuzz is an easy way to have direct contact with the folks you are trying to reach out to…. the response to a simple book giveaway is off the hook! My email in box is flooded! So if you are looking to expand your book awareness, check this out.”

— Award-winning author G. Neri

“Wow! This looks fabulous! Somebody finally got it right. Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

— NYT bestselling author Amy Hest

Why should authors seek out publicity opportunities outside their publishers’ efforts?

I don’t know that “should” is the word. Personally, I feel that authors should do what they do best: write; give us stories. Illustrators should do what they do best: tell those stories through art. And publishers should do the publishing, which includes the marketing and selling.

That said, no one loves a book more than its author and no one knows a book better than its author. I don’t say this to scare anyone, but with over 5,000 children’s books published each year, I don’t think there’s ever enough one can do to buzz a book.

What makes KidsBuzz stand above other options available to them?

I’m not sure what those other options are (ha!), but the point of KidsBuzz is it’s personal–written from the author, it’s guaranteed (unlike PR campaigns where we hope to get coverage, this is certain: your notes will absolutely appear in the issues you request), it covers all the major markets (booksellers, librarians, teachers, readers, bloggers, reviewers, book groups) and it’s an affordable way to reach over 650,000 readers of all types.

Could you share with us a success story or two?

I’ve heard from publishers and authors that:

– Authors and illustrators have booked gigs at children’s literature conferences and book festivals.

– Buzz = sales: one author was corresponding with a reader who had written in about her Kidsbookclubbing note; the reader turned out to be the head of a high school English department and ordered 120 copies of her book.

– A book that was published in 2008 went back to press a month after it was KidsBuzzed in 2009. Coincidence? Maybe, but maybe not.

– Four of our recent blog ad campaign titles hit the New York Times Bestseller List!

– After day two of a three-week blog campaign, one title brought in over 2,000 click-throughs to online retailers.

You’re also a blogger! Tell us about The Picnic Basket! Who is your readership? What is your focus?

I started The Picnic Basket after talking with librarians and teachers who weren’t going to the American Library Association convention and were quite jealous of those who got to meet authors and hear their stories–and get those coveted freebie books!

So I got to thinking that there are lots of school and library professionals who aren’t on publishers’ review copy mailing lists but who are the ones who introduce books to kids and make a difference.

The idea behind the Picnic Basket is “we send you free books. You (librarians and teachers) tell us what you think!” It’s a chance for school and library professionals to taste new and forthcoming children’s books with first-come, first-serve sample copies of books for kids of all ages. They read the books, then post reviews on the blog for colleagues to read.

I didn’t even think that many of those who received books would also post the reviews on their blogs and websites and wikis and include them in their newsletters and tweet about them.

All of a sudden, one post about a title has long legs and staying power. I was looking at my blog analytics recently and was surprised to see that the eight of the 10 most popular pages visited so far this year were for books featured and published in 2008 and 2009. Here, teachers and librarians aren’t concerned about publication dates–long live backlist!

What do you enjoy about blogging?

I love getting the feedback from readers. It’s so amazing to think that I can sit in my office in Andover, Massachusetts, and hear from people from all over the country. Really amazing and so helpful.

I learn from my readers every day. Because I’m not in the classrooms, I don’t know what makes a teacher consider adding a book to her library or to his curriculum. I’m not the librarian who’s got to manage a budget and determine which books to add to the collection. But a few weeks after the books are sent to the teachers and librarians, the reviews start getting posted, and then we all get to read what teachers and librarians think about when making their decisions.

Plus, because of the nature of this blog, I’ve learned about publishers I’d never heard of (Cinco Puntos Press–new to Twitter at @5puntosbooks–and Tara Books–definitely worth checking out), I get to keep up with new books, and I really enjoy getting the stories-behind-the-story from the authors and illustrators.

What is it like to be a publicist? Can you describe a typical work day?

I’m an answer-the-email-now-and-don’t-leave-it-hanging-in-your-inbox kind of gal, so I start work around 6 a.m. to spend the first few hours of the day brainstorming (writing proposals for new projects takes a big think, and a big uninterrupted think) or writing about-the-author pieces and media pitches. Then it’s on to the business of the day, which recently included:

– Reviewing an author’s website and making suggestions to brand him as a writer of a certain kind of books.

– Talking with a publisher about a fall author tour: are we hitting enough cities in the country? Are we missing a region? If we only have a day in city X, should we focus on bookstores, libraries (should we do events with the public, bring in a class, meet with regional librarians?), a tweet-up, meeting with reviewers, a children’s literature class, school visits–or the whole shebang?

– Talking with the author about that fall author tour: how much is too much to do in one day? any special requests? Should we add a few states where the author’s been on state reading/award lists (thus, we know that there’s already an awareness for the author)? What about the author’s backlist… could we tie-in discussion/sales of books that are for a slightly younger audience?

– Revising a media pitch: what is it about this author that makes her media-worthy? Would I want to her a story about/with this author if I were listening (and if so, what would I want to hear?)?

– Answering a few queries about KidsBuzz and sharing basic info and costs.

– Out for a run to clear my head.

– Checking in on Twitter and Facebook (throughout the day) and finding some “outside of the comfort zone” people/groups to follow

– Arranging for an IndieNext Children’s White Box mailing (and then sharing details with the publisher of what we might want to include with that mailing).

– Inviting librarians to visit a client’s booth at ALA (and pitching who the client is and why they should take the time to drop by).

– Suggesting programs for a publishing client to sit in on while at ALA (worthwhile dropping in on the Notables committee, and others, to get a sense of how it works).

– Suggesting area bookstores for that publisher to visit while in DC.

– Reviewing three author’s KidsBuzz and TeacherBuzz notes.

– Sharing click-through and impressions results with last week’s KidsBuzz clients.

– Selecting media and library contacts for an upcoming review copy mailing.

– Select blogs, both niche and big readership, for teen fiction blog ad campaign.

– Making appointments for a trip to NYC as well as a few area bookstores.

– Thinking about a new book to feature on The Picnic Basket – and shelving the writing until tomorrow.

Business-wise, what do you look forward to in the future?

This August, I’m launching TeacherBuzz which shares authors’ notes with over 250,000 educators who read Teacher magazine’s Teacher Update e-newsletter. The first two issues are already sold out, which speaks to publishers’ and authors’ interest in reaching educators.

Plus, believe it or not, I’m already starting to think about our HolidayBuzz blog ad campaign where we promote 25 titles on top blogs for a whole month before the winter holidays–each title receives over 24 million impressions!

What do you do outside of the world of books?

Run, read, chauffeur my children, do crossword puzzles, take my black Lab for hikes, cook, go to the beach (and I’m trying a new sport: SUP, stand-up paddleboarding), hang out with my family.