Members of the Children’s Book Council gathered for a forum on “Making a Bestseller: From Blockbusters to Sleeper Hits” at Random House headquarters in New York City on October 18. The speakers were Louise Lareau, managing librarian at the Children’s Center at 42nd Street; Emily Romero, senior v-p of marketing, Penguin Young Readers; and Maria Russo, children’s books editor of the New York Times. Carol Fitzgerald, president of TheBookReportNetwork.com, moderated the discussion.
Fitzgerald kicked off the program by asking the presenters to describe the “must do’s” when it comes to positioning a children’s book to become a bestseller. For Romero, the keys to garnering attention for a title require that publicists and marketing forces “start early and be loud.” She added that building support for a book with gatekeepers via “word of mouth,” is crucial, and ensuring that teams in publishing, sales, and marketing are aligned in support of the book can be instrumental.
However, “each book has its own trajectory,” Romero said, adding that a promotional campaign for one book might not exactly work for another and that “it’s about the nuance of that particular book.” Having the flexibility to react to and accommodate the unexpected – for example, a new audience taking an acute interest in a book – is important when trying to maximize a book’s growing potential. At Penguin Young Readers, she explained that bestseller YA marketing campaigns often have two tracks that take into account audience – “adult crossover and core teen audiences.”
Speaking from the reviewer’s perspective, Russo sees first-hand the types of promotional efforts put forth by publishers and marketing departments for books, such as unique packaging or swag. These special packages do call Russo’s attention to titles, but in her position she feels she must “be skeptical,” and that “in the end, we just have to read the books.” Connecting with a particular book and providing review or editorial coverage for that book frequently comes down to learning about it directly from enthusiastic publicists. “This business is based on relationships,” she said.
Because Russo has to be highly selective in terms of the books she chooses to feature, she relies on meetings with publicists giving her advance notice about forthcoming books, during which they highlight titles that are of particular note. The need to be selective in her coverage means that Russo has to be strategic. She’ll often see books that she feels will organically find their audience and turn instead to focus on titles that might need a bit of an extra push to find the exposure they deserve: “That book will find its audience,” she’ll sometimes think. “But how can I help this book?”
On the topic of sleeper books, Fitzgerald asked Lareau to weigh in on any books that weren’t necessarily expected to become bestsellers, but which slowly gained following and support within the library community and elsewhere. R.J. Palacio’s Wonder was one such book. While there was insider buzz about the novel, “It took a long time for people to come in and ask for it,” she said. Two other titles that spring to mind were Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes and So B. It by Sarah Weeks. Lareau noted that she is passionate about helping those sleeper books find their way to enthusiastic readers.
Romero weighed in on the topic of sleepers, noting how authors and their previous books play significant roles in building enthusiasm for their current titles, using David Arnold’s Mosquitoland as an example of a sleeper hit that was not necessarily poised to hit top 10 lists, but slowly bubbled up to bestseller status. Another title was Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why, which was initially released “before social media.” The book wasn’t widely reviewed, but readers’ responses on a comment tool on a website began to circulate buzz about the book from inside circles. The “powerful, emotional blurbs” that began to circulate about the book led Razorbill to “essentially republish“ the book, which has since sold over one million copies. “A big win is making those books into hits,” she said.
The making of a bestseller involves not only planning and promoting for titles that are expected to make it big, but to pay attention to those titles that are slowly gaining in popularity and finding audiences through word of mouth, social media, libraries, bookstores, and other venues. Russo believes it is critical to stop and wonder “What are kids loving?” when she is considering books to review and cover through other avenues. Talking with kids and visiting bookstores is a key part of understanding how books are generating buzz within smaller reading communities. Lareau frequently heads to bookstores to learn about new titles and see what kids are grabbing so she can ensure they become available at the library. Romero’s own children are very accustomed to making “store checks” with her, whether in New York or whenever they are traveling. She checks the selection of titles, the placement of books in the store and on the shelves, and the overall “browsing experience,” which she feels could be vastly improved in many stores to enable “more in the way of discovery.”
Speaking of channels of discovery, the panelists addressed the ways that consumers find their way to books and how those readers can then influence a book’s success. “There are different levels of influencers,” said Romero, noting how “average readers” who promote books they love on blogs or even by word of mouth and “pull their reach together” can end up giving rise to a book’s success.
At the Times, Russo shared that the coverage she offers is becoming more diversified, which may offer more opportunities for readers and books. “We’re moving away from just having reviews,” Russo said, to include different types of editorial and other children’s book coverage. Social media platforms like Facebook Live are also part of the new push to expand the reach and “break open books coverage” in a way that can potentially pull more books into the discussion. She has observed that there is a “new generation of parents who really want to talk about children’s books,” seeing them not only as a passing interest as they raise their children, but as an “integrated and respected” part of literature as a whole. Russo added that she is “a big fan” of newsletters devoted to children’s books, and said that thoughtfully crafted lists and data bases can serve as ways to get the word out about titles in a way that can especially benefit consumers.
Audience questions yielded a discussion on current trends, independent publishers, and final thoughts on supporting authors and books, whether blockbusters, sleepers, or anything in between. Russo shared that she frequently offers coverage for “beautiful, high quality picture books” from small, indie publishers like Enchanted Lion and Flying Eye. Romero commented that genre titles and books that deal with contemporary issues are especially popular right now, while series and trilogies continue to be big sellers. Yet regardless of a book’s likely trajectory, she values the importance of investing in an author’s entire career: “We think long-tail all the time,” she said. “We build authors.”