SCBWI Bologna 2012 Marketing Consultant Interview: Susan Raab of Raab Associates

Susan & Teddy

By Laurie Cutter for SCBWI Bologna 2012
at Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Susan Raab is president of Raab Associates Inc., the first agency to specialize in marketing and promoting children’s books and products – now in its twenty-sixth year.

Clients have included Bantam Doubleday Dell, Barron’s, Clarion, the International Board on Books for Young People, The Julie Andrews Collection, Kane Miller, Kids Can Press, Listening Library, National Geographic, Oxmoor House, Penguin, Pleasant Company, Scholastic, Wizards of the Coast and many of the bestselling and award-winning authors and illustrators.

Susan is author of An Author’s Guide to Children’s Book Promotion. She is Marketing Advisor to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and is a feature columnist for the SCBWI Bulletin.

She reports on the publishing field as a broadcast correspondent, covering children’s books, authors and illustrators for the Teachers for a New Era program and Dodd Center at the University of Connecticut. Her interviews are also heard on and Los Angeles Public Library’s children’s podcasts. She was also a national correspondent for Recess! Radio, a program syndicated nationally to 500 public radio stations.

Your agency is in touch with the latest trends and changes in the children’s book market. What are some of the most important developments in that field which we should know about?

There have been so many changes in the past few years that it’s tough to know where to start! Every aspect of this business is being re-examined and redefined.

We’re asking ourselves the most basic questions: What is a book? Who’s my target audience? What should I expect from my publishers? How will I reach my potential customers? Where can I get the tools, expertise (and stamina!) I need to make my career a success?

I think one of the most important developments for authors and illustrators is that social media has made direct-to-consumer relationships the norm, which is consistent with what we’re seeing happen in many areas of business. This means you have to think about how you want to present yourself and your work in the marketplace and need to be aware that everything is much more public than ever before.

E-books and apps seem to be in a special marketing niche. Do you promote them differently? How?

Lindsey Lane & Snuggle Mountain App

Yes, promoting an ebook or app is quite different than promoting books.

On a personal front, it’s related to work I did before starting Raab Associates, which was working as an Account Executive for tech products at an ad agency. It’s been funny to tap into that background after 25 years, but it was excellent training learning how to work with tech media and how to set up a news-oriented product campaign designed to generate excitement both tied to evolving product content and to current and creative technology.

In a lot of ways, the difference is between doing a slow-build nurturing campaign, which is what we do for books and authors, and generating news by leading up to the unveiling of a new technology or product platform.

Over the years, you’ve interviewed many authors and illustrators at the Bologna Book Fair. What interviews especially stand out to you? Tell us about them.

The Bologna Book Fair interviews are always intriguing. They can be with authors and illustrators, and also oftentimes with publishers and other experts from throughout the international community.

They give me the chance to explore trends and issues with people from all over and to hear about their concerns about children and reading, education and social issues like censorship and the preservation of cultural storytelling and art.

On the illustrators’ side, each year I interview the spokesperson for the country being featured at the Book Fair – last year was Lithuania, and, in previous years, I spoke with representatives from Bratislava, Hungary, Korea, Slovakia, and Argentina.

I’ve interviewed author Roy Freeman, who discussed his own work as well as his father’s classic, Corduroy.

I spoke with author/illustrator and Hans Christian Andersen Award winner Roberto Innocenti about his body of work.

I’ve also recorded conversations with representatives from the African Publishers’ Network, the International Board on Books for Young People, the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, the International Youth Library, and many others in the publishing and technology fields. I think there are close to a hundred interviews I’ve done in Bologna and elsewhere.

How might someone prepare for a job such as yours in the publicity and marketing of children’s books? Do you have any tips for those just starting out?

As I mentioned earlier, talking about apps, you can be surprised at how different aspects of your experience can be useful as you evolve your career. With publicity and marketing, I’ve found some of the most important skills to be strategic, organizational, technological and journalistic.

It would be very difficult to work in this area these days, if you were not prepared to aggressively learn about and use new technologies. On a practical level, methodologies and tools are changing all the time, and it takes a great deal of patience and perseverance to sort out which are important in the long term for efficiency and execution, and which are not worth spending more than a cursory amount of time exploring.

This ties in with the fact that marketing and publicity are extremely labor intensive and detail oriented, so tools and resources need to be constantly reevaluated and upgraded to ensure that you stay on track with concurrent campaigns and with client needs.

You also have to be very strategic as you prioritize and balance the work. If you, as in our case, are in regular contact with many thousands of individuals and outlets, you need to develop systems that can help you.

On the PR side, results turn on your relationships with journalists who have many people approaching them (now more than ever), and they have many stories to choose from. They have as many or more reasons to turn you down as they do to consider covering your story.

New authors and illustrators should keep this in mind and recognize that it will take time to build a meaningful marketing presence. Think of it as building a foundation that you will use to support your career over a long period of time. 

You’ve listed hundreds of various marketing ideas on your agency website. Would you briefly share some of the best ways for authors and illustrators to get the word out about their new books? 

It varies a great deal, depending on the individual’s strengths and the topic and positioning of the books they’ve done. That said, it’s important to promote across platforms.

You should have a strong online presence (website, blog, and social media), so your audience – teachers, parents and kids/teens can find you and connect.

You should also have an overarching strategy and message that helps define and brand you in the marketplace.

This doesn’t mean that you have to be narrow-focused, or pigeon-holed, but what you do want is to have people understand what’s special about you – whether it’s your illustrating technique, your origins as an author, your relationship with your fans, or the voice or style of your work.

How have you helped to promote international and multicultural stories here in the U.S.? Do you see a greater need for those types of books for children?

This is a particular passion of mine. I’ve always looked for opportunities to work with publishers and authors from around the world. Some of the most fascinating campaigns have been working with people trying to educate others about their culture.

For example, we worked with an Asian-American publisher who was simultaneously publishing the same books in five or six language editions, including English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Hmong and Vietnamese. We did national and targeted local market campaigns to serve the list as a whole and to give individual books opportunities with micro communities that were hungry for the specialized material.

We’ve promoted books from Australia, Canada and Europe, as well as a series of East African books written in English and Kishwahili, so children in Kenya could be introduced to written work in their own language.

We’ve also promoted Kane Miller Books for more than a dozen years, which is a company that brings books from throughout the world to the U.S. as a way to help children here learn more about other parts of the world.

What are few of your favorite books from your childhood?

Blog tours almost seem obligatory now when a new book is released. What are some of the more creative ideas you’ve seen done for those tours?

There are a lot of creative options with a blog tour. You can blog as a character from your book. You can give away topical prizes, or provide clues to solve a mystery at the end of the tour. You can incorporate games and activities, and you can tour as part of a group.

The main things are to provide a reason for readers to follow you from day to day and to help drive traffic to the sites, so it’s important for you, the bloggers, and others involved to do advance publicity to ensure that you’ll have a good audience throughout.

Have you implemented any unusual publicity or marketing techniques during your time at Raab Associates? Which were most effective and why?

New by Jane Yolen, J. Patrick Lews & Sophie Blackwell

We’ve done all kinds of things throughout the years. We set up literary and arts ambassadorships. We ran a focus group to explore Spanish language publishing. We coordinated the children’s book segment on “Celebrity Apprentice.”

We’ve set up city proclamations, a Victorian tea party, and have gotten product into swag bags at conferences and at the Tony Awards.

We’ve put together original art raffles, set up advisory boards, and initiated many business alliances and partnerships.

The Ambassadorships, which were for Jane Yolen and for Julie Andrews were particularly rewarding because they were ongoing and provided platforms for discussion of important issues and advocating for children.

Your agency works “with authors, illustrators, brands, publishers, series, games, apps, audio and events for the family and arts markets.” Do you focus on some of these areas more than others, and how do you decide that?

We like variety, so enjoy working with many different authors, illustrators, publishers, companies and organizations that create innovative products or have an interesting story to tell. We think a lot about market positioning and strategy, so time is spent educating and consulting with clients.

Decisions about what to take on are based primarily on quality, and on whether we feel we can bring good value to the project at hand. We also work closely with clients, so it’s important to get a read on how they’ll be to work with, and we to try to make sure it feels like a good fit to both parties.

You co-sponsor a children’s illustration award, the Raab Prize, for students at the University of Connecticut. Any stories about the award winners and their art that you’d like to share with us?

The relationship with UConn has been an extraordinary experience for me in so many ways. First because, when I attended UConn, I had good friends and courses I liked, but since it was such a large university, I didn’t feel connected to the school as a whole.

I did, however, take several courses that made a big impression on me. The first was a publishing course taught by Feenie Ziner, who was also a children’s book author.

The other two were a children’s book and an adolescent literature course taught in the most hilarious and memorable way by Professor Sam Pickering. He was the inspiration for the gifted teacher portrayed by Robin Williams in the film, “Dead Poet’s Society,” and he showed us what a really great teacher can do to make books come alive.

Some of the most gratifying moments giving the Prize at UConn have been meeting with the winning art students ahead of time to hear what they hope to do in the art field – some have been pursuing careers I wouldn’t have expected, such as tattoo art, which has been the case with two of the winners!

We’ve also had some very funny moments, most particularly this past year, when the Raab Prize winners, who are invited to the VIP dinner with authors and illustrators from the Bookfair, got to see a table full of illustrators, including Mo Willems, turn dinner into an art show when they started illustrating plates, cups, saucers, silverware and even floral decorations. Mo signed this piggy saucer for me.

By the end, there were salt-and-pepper shaker tin soldiers, illustrated wine glasses, collectable art napkins, and cup handles that were turned into noses on cup faces.

Terri Goldich, who is the curator for the Northeast Children’s Literature Collection at UConn’s Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, scooped up a batch of them for the archive.

Looking forward to next year’s dinner – if the kitchen staff will let us back in!

What types of self-promotion should children’s book authors and illustrators avoid?

Avoid self-promotion that’s at the expense of others. Over the years, I’ve met a number of people who believe the way to get where they want is by bulldozing everyone in their path.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot in our society that encourages that behavior. However, when I think about some of the most beloved authors and illustrators in the field, they’re people who have been admired for their generosity and their willingness to share what they have and what they’ve learned. They’re also the people who acknowledge the help they’ve received.

For example, I vividly remember being at one of my first conferences and meeting Lloyd Alexander, who was one of the authors I was responsible for. We were in a crowd of more than 500 teachers who were pushing forward to try to meet Lloyd. He turned to me to say how nice it was that people like his books and how surprised he was that they made time to come to hear him talk. He really made everyone there feel wanted and special, and he was a pleasure to work with.

Another person I admired was S.E. Hinton, who had shot to stardom as a teenager with her first, groundbreaking book, The Outsiders.

Whenever I think of working with her early in my career, I remember how different it was that she asked the editor-in-chief of our large publishing company whether it was necessary to go out for a fancy dinner when she’d be perfectly happy just getting a casual bite to eat. That was in contrast to people who had far less fame, but were still difficult and very demanding.

I’ve watched authors and illustrators, including Jane Yolen and Tomie dePaola, generously mentor others both in their own communities and via their work with SCBWI, which is so supportive to members at all levels.

What kinds of feedback have you gotten on your book, An Author’s Guide to Children’s Book Promotion? To which parts do people respond the most enthusiastically?

The Author’s Guide has been consistently popular as both an introduction to the children’s book industry and as a handbook for understanding the complexities of the marketplace. It’s now in the eleventh edition, and people often come up to me and tell me which earlier edition they started with and how it’s been helpful to them over the years.

It’s been called: “a down & dirty guide to book promotion,” (Elizabeth O. Dulemba); “a great compact guide,” (Bella Online, Writing for Children; “especially useful to beginners,” (Cynthia Leitich Smith); and a particularly helpful “reference source a writer turns to with each book published,” (Chicago Reading Roundtable).

Susan, is there anything else I haven’t asked about that you’d like to mention? 

Just that while I think this is a challenging time, it’s also very exciting to be an author or illustrator right now. Don’t be afraid to ask for guidance and help as you tackle new areas, and know you can get good support from peers and colleagues, if you know where to look.

What SCBWI’s put in place around the world – from L.A. to Mongolia, and what’s unique about the children’s book world, is that there are people who will offer a hand to those just starting out and are idealistic enough to try to make their dream a reality.

Cynsational Notes

Laurie Cutter is fascinated by other cultures and much of her writing is infused with a cross-cultural flavor. She grew up as a missionary child in Burundi, Africa, and has lived in Kenya, Germany, and the Pacific Northwest. Laurie’s picture book, The Gift, is published in Dutch, and she’s written many picture books and a YA poetry manuscript. Find her at Twitter.

The SCBWI Bologna 2012 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Showcase in conjunction with Cynsations. To find out more, visit the SCBWI Bologna Showcase Special thanks to Angela Cerrito for coordinating this series with SCBWI Bologna and Cynsations.

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