Personality, perseverance, and product positioning might be just the prescription for successfully marketing children’s books during these tough economic times. That was the message offered at a November 1 brown bag lunch session sponsored by the American Book Producers Association, held at the community work space “In Good Company” in New York City. The speakers were: Margaret Anastas, editorial director of HarperCollins Children’s Books; Nancy Inteli, global editorial director of Disney Publishing Worldwide; and Frances Soo Ping Chow, creative director of Running Press Kids.

Moderator Nancy Hall, ABPA vice-president, opened the conversation by asking the panel about their recent experiences working with book packagers. “We’re working less and less with packagers,” said Anastas, though she noted that HarperCollins does make exceptions when a project specifically calls for outside resources. Inteli at Disney also expressed a willingness to work with packagers, though all three speakers referenced the challenge of addressing product safety concerns that are unique to packaged books.

The panel also emphasized how the economic downturn has affected unit cost affordability for packages as well as in-house publishing acquisitions, necessitating a more targeted approach to introducing new publishing programs. Anastas underscored the importance of having “clear vision from A through Z” when selecting a title for publication, as well as “knowing that the opportunity to extend is there.” She also reported that HarperCollins is publishing “fewer midlist books,” and is focusing on providing strong “promotional hooks” for all of its acquisitions and marketing campaigns, as a result of retail uncertainty.

Soo Ping Chow mentioned that Running Press has shifted its focus in recent years from picture books to including more YA and middle-grade novels, while aiming for “quality over quantity,” and with an eye toward the demands of the market.

Despite noting the negative implications of having to focus heavily on a product’s selling potential before signing an author, the panelists maintained an upbeat tone during the session. While fewer properties may be picked up because of economic factors, a challenging marketplace also dictates the need for marketing innovation and commitment to those titles that are successful.

Inteli mentioned how Disney’s holiday book promotions are incorporating books with more general themes in order to expand their appeal—for example, by marketing products with “spooky” content for Halloween rather than those that center specifically on the holiday itself.

“You learn quickly if something is going to work,” said Anastas, citing “big branded extension programs” as a dynamic marketing force for children’s books.

The speakers identified other factors that contribute to a book’s success, including character appeal, author self-promotion, and having a strong platform in place. Soo Ping Chow remarked that social media is essential for driving a successful marketing campaign and that an author “must be an authority” on his or her topic. Anastas emphasized the importance of authors going on tour, particularly for picture books. Referencing the team behind the Pete the Cat series–Eric Litwin and James Dean–Anastas mentioned how theatricality or having a “shtick” can make a particular book or series more attractive to readers.

Additionally, Anastas pointed out the growing trend of “digital-to-print,” using Angry Birds as an example and pointing out the reciprocity that can exist between print and digital media. Books featuring augmented reality or other technological components can also bridge the gap between print and screen. All three speakers said they are actively observing the e-book market, and are forging relationships with Apple, Nook, and other digital book-world pioneers.

Observing that stores like Anthropologie have expanded their product-lines to include books, Hall brought up the topic of seeking alternative markets. The panelists cited Amazon as a strong source of sales for children’s books, while department stores like Target also offer opportunities. With a changing retail climate, thinking outside the box in terms of unconventional merchandising is becoming increasingly important. “You have to,” said Anastas.

Responding to an audience member’s question about self-published books, Soo Ping Chow mentioned that Running Press does not sign a lot of books that were previously self-published, but did say that blogs, and even Etsy, can be sources for finding new talent. Anastas again referenced Pete the Cat, which was originally self-published, saying that signing self-published authors “can be a great opportunity when it works out.”