So you tweet, but do you pin news to the bulletin boards on Yik Yak? Promote books on Bustle? Are you being social in the spaces where teen readers are spending their time online?
“The only way to know if it’s working is to be using it yourself,” said Jeff Yamaguchi, director of digital marketing for Abrams Books, who participated in a panel discussion called “A Conversation on Digital Strategies for Tapping the YA Market” at BEA on Friday, May 30. Though “at the end of this, we’re still talking about a book and a kid,” as author Carolyn Mackler put it, finding those readers as new apps and sites continually spring up is challenging publishers to keep reinventing the way they connect with key audiences.
“The two things we’re always talking about are community and word of mouth,” said publisher Arthur A. Levine. “These are just new tools we’re using to speak to the same people.”
Yamaguchi said the YA segment is important to watch because it’s the laboratory for innovation, pointing to independently created sites like polandbananasbooks, a YouTube channel hosted by a 20-something storyteller named Christine Riccio, who posts highly energetic video book reviews. “The YA space is the most exciting because of the creativity you see there,” said Yamaguchi. “The creativity drives the sharing and that’s what you want to happen.”
Countering Yamaguchi’s enthusiasm, both authors on the panel, Mackler (The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things) and Alaya Dawn Johnson (The Summer Prince), expressed considerable reluctance about the social networking they feel compelled to participate in. Mackler said she updated her blog for the first time in ages the night before her BEA appearance in case anybody who saw her on the panel decided to look at it. “Basically, I suck at social media,” she said, recounting her favorite experience as the time she and author Megan McCafferty wrote handwritten letters to each other. “We took pictures of them and posted those online. It was like an anti-blog.”
Johnson referenced the Blaise Pascal quote – “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time” – in expressing frustration over how long it takes her to come up with something clever to say in 140 characters. “I can’t make my daily life seem fun in tweets and I don’t think it would be relevant to [my readers] anyway.”
The composition of the audience for social media created by authors was also questioned: are teens really reading author’s blogs and following them on Twitter, or is the audience mostly industry professionals? Jennifer Hubert Swan, a middle-school librarian and the founder of readingrants.com, said her experience is that the people reading her site are not tweens or teens. “Most of the comments on readingrants are from adults,” she said. “And because I’m dealing mostly with seventh and eighth graders, they’re not on Twitter. To reach them, you need to be on YouTube or Instagram.” One method of using digital media that has been successful for Swan is integrating book trailers into her standard book talks. “The kids love them,” she said.
Editor Cheryl Klein of Scholastic stressed that authors needed to remember one size does not fit all. Each writer has to find the right platform. Not everybody should play the bagpipes on YouTube, as author Maggie Stiefvater does, Klein said, but Tumblr turned out to be a perfect fit for Trent Reedy (Divided We Fall), an Iowa National Guardsman whose tour of duty in Afghanistan informs his fiction. “The marketing department wrote him a cheat sheet and he has taken to Tumblr like a duck to water,” often posting about his military experiences and connecting with other veterans Klein said. “It works because it comes out of an authentic place.”
Yamaguchi said Abrams hosted a “Digital Day” event for its authors. “We walked them through Goodreads, Tumblr, Twitter, everything, and encouraged them to find the platform they were most comfortable with,” he said. “I wouldn’t be so worried about the platform. I want them to be comfortable so they can find the same level of creativity they showed in writing their books in what they post to a social network.” Author Mackler remained unconvinced: “I think e-mail might be my platform.”
Yamaguchi did advise publishers to stay away from campaigns that ask too much of teen readers. “User-supplied content is really hard to pull off,” he said, citing campaigns that required readers to post a photo on a site along with a specific hashtag. “It’s easy to come up with this in a meeting but when nobody posts any photos, it can look like a disaster.”
And there’s still something to be said for traditional methods, insisted Mackler, who limits screen time for her own children. She told a story about her nine-year-old son who announced one day, “I feel like I’m the tastemaker for my fourth-grade class.”
“His backpack is really heavy because they trade books with each other at school,” Mackler said. Klein did not miss a beat. “Can I have his address?” she asked. “I’d like to add him to our galley list.”