The middle grade category keeps on trucking, enjoying its latest golden era of strong sales, buoyed by an expanding array of author voices and subject matter and an overall enthusiastic buzz. With an increasing number of books for the middle grade audience—traditionally kids eight to 12 years old—in the pipeline, publishers spoke with us about how they help readers (and the people who buy books for those readers) discover new titles.
Gatekeepers Are Key
One of the biggest challenges of marketing middle grade titles directly to their readers is that the majority of eight-to-12-year-olds don’t purchase their own books. However, those kids definitely wield influence over the adults in their lives who hold the purse strings. As a result, it’s vital for publishers to appeal to the gatekeepers—teachers, librarians, parents, and booksellers—and at the same time to design elements of their marketing campaigns that will grab the attention of kids.
Not surprisingly, publishers largely focus on reaching kids and gatekeepers where they spend lots of time together: at school. “Teachers and librarians continue to be key influencers and an integral piece of getting books into the hands of middle grade readers,” says Emily Romero, senior v-p of marketing at Penguin Young Readers. “They can introduce these books through the classroom or book clubs and reader’s advisory groups in the library and have a trickle-down effect to readers seeking these books out at retail.”
John Adamo, senior v-p of marketing at Random House Children’s Books, agrees, stating that “having a direct, regular relationship with educators and librarians is an essential part of our strategy for marketing these books, and remains one of the most effective ways to get to readers.”
Fostering these important relationships has long been the work of a publishing company’s school and library marketing department, or, at smaller publishers, perhaps a staff member who wears both trade and school-and-library marketing hats. These teams develop campaigns and a broad range of digital and analog resources that bring their books and authors to the attention of educators and students, frequently teaming up with their publicity departments. Newsletters, reading guides, and mailings of advance reader copies remain some of the basic methods for reaching educators, though marketing teams have kept pace with technological advances and also connect with educators through such digital tools as social media platforms, videos, and podcasts.
“We offer a variety of ways for educators and librarians to use our materials with their readers,” Adamo says. “For example, this could include providing multiple copies of ARCs and encouraging ‘one for the teacher, one for the student’ sharing and offering Skype visits for book clubs with debut or new authors.”
As another example, Romero points to a new campaign aimed at educators and kids and designed to take Grosset & Dunlap’s popular Who Was? biography series “to the next level in an engaging way that is organic to the content and spirit of the books.” The Who Was? History Bee invites kids in third-to-fifth grades to compete in a trivia contest based on the book series. According to Romero, schools across the country can participate in local bees through December 20, with winners taking proctored exams for the chance to win a trip to the Who Was? History Bee finals in New York City in May 2020. The ultimate Who Was? challenge will be hosted by Diary of a Wimpy Kid author Jeff Kinney and his brother Patrick, and a grand prize winner will receive a $10,000 college scholarship.
Educators were also the target of Penguin’s first-ever preorder receipt upload campaign, for Aisha Saeed’s 2018 novel Amal Unbound, after Newlin says it generated significant pre-publication excitement among educators and several starred reviews. She notes that the campaign included social media advertising and a video promoting the early educator buzz and educators who uploaded their book-purchase receipt received a classroom pack of swag, which included a tote bag, a signed bookplate, a poster, and buttons.
Bringing Authors to Readers
The school or library author visit, a tried-and-true tack, provides an opportunity to reach educators and readers at the same time and remains king of the middle grade marketing hill. Hallie Patterson, associate director of publicity for children’s books at Abrams, notes that school visits have a unique quality that make them a top priority for her company. “Nothing beats that in-person interaction between an author and a reader!” she says. “We strive to capture that magic by supporting our authors doing school visits, regardless of whether they’re on a tour.”
And when it comes to middle grade tours, Faye Bi, director of children’s publicity at Bloomsbury, says that “the best method is still school visits in partnership with a bookstore, and best done solo, unless the author can benefit from a high-profile, already commercially successful name.” She says that Rick Riordan, with his Rick Riordan Presents imprint and event series at Disney, is a perfect example of an author who carries the type of weight that can significantly boost fellow authors at a joint event.
“School tours are an essential piece of our strategy for marketing and promoting middle-grade books directly to middle grade readers,” notes Domnique Cimina, v-p and executive director of publicity and corporate communications at Random House Children’s Books. She agrees with many of her colleagues that school visits are the marketing gold standard for this age group. “We are able to get authors directly in front of their readers, and meeting teachers and educators nationwide. For middle grade tours, we focus almost exclusively on school events.”
Singling out a certain style of school visit, Cimina says that the teams at Random House create prepublication buzz tours with middle grade authors, which take place approximately two to three months in advance of an on-sale date. “We send authors to schools to meet with classrooms and do book club groups—by providing ARCs in advance—and then host evening dinners for authors to get to know teachers and educators in that community.”
Book Buzz in the Halls
Even without the spark from an author visit, school has always been a natural place to generate enthusiasm for books. Educators work hard to keep students engaged and excited about reading and can help create book buzz by introducing titles they want to champion into the middle school space. Pair that effort with middle school students’ tendency to discuss their tastes in media consumption with their friends, and, well, word gets around. “Word of mouth is still the most effective and important way that books get passed between kids, and that often happens in schools and is started through librarians,” says Melanie Chang, senior v-p of marketing and publicity at Abrams.
Teacher and librarian recommendations don’t just hold sway with students and their families, either. Booksellers want to know what educators think and often use their advice as a factor in purchasing decisions. Many bookstores make a habit of reaching out to local educators for expert feedback, and hold special “educator night” events to strengthen that community network.
A Leading Role for Libraries
Bi is part of the loud chorus praising the librarian’s role in marketing middle grade books, and she believes that library events at publication or as part of a promotional tour are an underused opportunity. “There are so many passionate librarians at schools or public libraries, and they are in direct touch with kids who love reading,” she says. “Depending on the library’s budget, there’s a chance that a quantity of books will be purchased for patrons at the event, and the impact will be felt long after the event. The library’s communications office may also have community or city partnerships, like the local newspaper.”
Last fall’s campaign for Yuyi Morales’s Dreamers (set in a public library), which Bi worked on while publicity manager at Holiday House, “really opened up my eyes to the possibility and richness of library events at publication,” Bi says. She describes San Francisco Public Library, where Morales has an established personal connection, as an “incredible event partner.” The library created a commemorative postcard containing Morales’s advice for new immigrants and placed a newsletter insert in the San Francisco Chronicle publicizing her program.
Bi has carried her enthusiasm for working with libraries to her current position at Bloomsbury, where she and her team have planned events for Renée Watson’s new middle grade novel Some Places More Than Others at public libraries in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Irving, Tex. Some of those visits were booked directly with the library and some are “hosted” by a bookstore, she says, noting that such community partnerships are “a natural extension of some bookstores hosting their off-site events at libraries, if a larger or alternate space is needed.”
In general, Bi routinely tries to get a bookstore to handle the sales for a library event if it’s part of an author’s tour. “It’s always great when it works out for everyone: bookstore, library, publisher, author, and the public,” she says. “We all have the same goal: to have a well-attended event with robust sales, and a big impact for the author and the book long afterward. An author event is a community event.”
New and Familiar Venues
Outside of school, publishers say the best place to reach gatekeepers and kids directly is at school and library conferences or book festivals. The overall growth in the middle grade book category in recent years has meant that publishers have increased their presence at traditional show venues, and that they are trying out new ones that have sprung up as well.
Nellie Kurtzman, v-p of marketing and publicity at HarperCollins Children’s Books, says her company continues to “establish our presence at dedicated middle grade conferences, festivals, and cons where our readers attend. We’re seeking out new venues, too.”
The marketing folks at Scholastic are on the same page. “We are always looking for opportunities to directly engage with kids at events, and there are more middle-grade focused festivals now than ever,” says Erin Berger, Scholastic’s senior v-p of marketing. She is among those who cite the North Texas Teen Book Festival as a great middle grade event that has a broader reach than its name implies. More than 13,000 people attended the 2018 Festival, and roughly 80% of them were teens or middle grade readers. The talent lineup at the Irving Convention Center in Irving, Tex., included more than 75 authors who discussed their books in more than 55 breakout panels. Launched as a one-day event in 2015, the festival added a half-day educator day prior to the main event in 2016. Educator Day has since evolved into a full day of programming, and more than 700 educators registered last year.
“As the North Texas Teen Book Festival has rapidly increased in attendance year over year, many of those attendees are in that 10-14 age range, so we’ve tailored our author participation accordingly,” Berger says, noting that author-illustrator Dav Pilkey was the MG keynote speaker in 2018 and graphic novelist Raina Telgemeier had the same honor this past March.
“While festivals with middle grade audiences are fewer than those that focus on YA, they have dedicated audiences,” Romero says. “North Texas Teen Book Festival, for example, is growing and has a solid middle grade audience. This year, we drew attention to our Klawde series by Johnny Marciano and Emily Chenoweth by asking kids to ‘audition’ to star as the eponymous evil alien warlord cat by reciting a line from the book. The kids loved it, and it was a fun and engaging way to introduce the series, in addition to the more standard festival practices like book and promo giveaways.”
When it launched in Columbus, Ohio, in 2017, the OMG (Oh Middle Grade!) BookFest was characterized as a “traveling circus of books.” Founding authors Michael Buckley, Julia Devillers, Adele Griffin, and Sarah Mlynowski—all very well-versed in school visits and festivals—hatched the idea to start a retooled, interactive event for kids ages seven to 12 in underserved communities/schools where readers could meet authors, discover books (and take a signed one home) while participating in fun activities. Subsequent BookFests were held in Denver (where it partnered with bookstore Tattered Cover’s Colorado Children’s Book Festival) and, most recently, in St. Louis. The event has doubled in attendance year to year, with more then 1,000 kids and adults taking part in May’s celebration in St. Louis. “The OMG festival series has been an incredible new addition to the landscape,” Berger says.
On the more traditional front, Abrams has expanded its presence at established school and library shows over the past few years. “Knowing how important teachers and librarians are for book discovery and how our publishing list has significantly grown, we’ve made a concerted effort to not only increase our booth space at institutional conferences, including Texas Library Association and the National Council of Teachers of English, but also the quality and quantity of our author participation, which has resulted in meaningful and impactful interaction with educators,” says Jenny Choy, associate director of school and library marketing. “We pretty consistently average about 10 authors at ALA Annual year over year, and we’ve always dovetailed with existing popular conference programming there wherever possible, like the PopTop Stage and Booklist panels for author participation.”
One element of conferences that Choy says she and her team have changed over the last two years is their entertaining strategy. “We now group our events by category—picture book, middle grade, and YA—and this has helped to focus our messaging,” she notes.
NCTE is also a key conference for Bloomsbury, says Bi, and several of the publisher’s authors take part in programs and sign books for attendees. In addition, Bi notes, “we’ll send our authors to some teacher-led and -attended educational conferences like nErDcamp.”
Another area of school and library expansion for Abrams is reflected in its relationships with educational wholesale partners. “Since Follett launched its book fair business in fall 2017, we’re fielding more requests for author appearances that work in tandem with book fairs,” Choy says. “We’ve been working closely with them to match local authors for regional school visits as well as to get bigger names like Jonathan Auxier or Nathan Hale to large school districts.”
Romero has seen a growing number of families attending BookCon, the annual literary fan festival that has immediately followed BookExpo since 2014. Penguin has made an effort to reach readers at that show with an interactive booth showcasing Max Brallier’s Last Kids on Earth series about zombie-battling middle schoolers, which debuts as an animated Netflix program on September 17. Romero says the booth featured signings with Brallier, a wind machine with prize opportunities, coloring walls, books for sale, and a beanbag chair area where “kids and parents could chill out for a bit.”
Digital Marketing Playground
The biggest game changer in marketing middle grade books—and all books—is the advent of digital technologies that support various types of multimedia creation and can provide a powerful signal boost to any campaign. From e-newsletters and book trailers to video games and online communities, to name just a few, marketing teams have become skilled at using a broad range of digital tools to directly reach young readers and gatekeepers.
However, publishers face new considerations with digital marketing, too. Bi at Bloomsbury points out that “there is already a backlash to the attention economy and the amount of time kids spend online.” She cites the unplugged parenting movement, the consequences of cyberbullying, and increased feelings of isolation and loneliness in tweens and teens, as important topics regarding the prevalence of kids’ exposure to digital messaging. In spite of these compelling concerns, these tech-savvy strategies appear to be here to stay.
As most social media platforms require users to be at least 13 years old to create accounts, communicating directly with middle grade readers that way is not really a viable option for publishers. However, the platforms still play a big role in the middle grade milieu. “While social media is not the place to engage readers under 13, there are moments when a social presence makes sense for a middle grade brand,” Romero says. “Dedicated social accounts allow us to develop a cohesive brand voice, harness fan energy, and build a meaningful presence for a middle grade property in the social space.” Candlewick promotes titles on social media by focusing efforts towards reaching teachers, librarians, booksellers, and parents. “We make use of hashtags and any relevant holidays that might pop up where there may be potential for more attention,” adds senior publicist Jamie Tan.
At Shadow Mountain, director of sales and marketing Ilise Levine says her company uses paid social on Facebook, promotion site Bookbub, and blog tours for reviews to parents and middle graders. For Shadow Mountain’s lead titles, “book trailers are an important component for digital marketing,” she adds. For Master of the Phantom Isle, the third book in Brandon Mull’s Dragonwatch series, due out in October, the company is experimenting with trailers that feature the books’ characters criticizing Mull and his responses to that criticism. “On book 1 of the series, you establish the premise to get the word out, but by book 3, it’s important to do something unexpected to catch the attention of readers,” Levine says.
With trailers and other clips, Adamo at Random House says his company’s teams are “constantly looking at new opportunities in the video space, particularly YouTube and YouTube Kids, where we know middle grade readers spend a lot of their time.”
And at Penguin, video plays a role, as the publisher uses “offline activity to feed online activity for our biggest properties,” according to Romero. As part of yet another prong of the extensive Last Kids on Earth campaign, author Brallier will be hitting the road this month for national tour stops in a custom-designed, souped-up “Big Mama” truck. Penguin will post videos of Brallier from each of his stops and post them to an interactive tour map on lastkidsonearth.com “for younger readers to safely view and enjoy.” Families are also encouraged to share photos of Big Mama using the hashtag #SpotBigMama for a chance to win a full set of books.
Age-appropriate digital communities have become an increasingly popular place to market books to middle graders as well. “We work closely with sites like DogoBooks, MissOandFriends, Biblionasium, Bookopolis, Funbrain, and others, to directly advertise to middle grade readers, and also offer samplers, excerpts, and giveaways to get readers excited,” Adamo says. “In some cases, we also include reader review postcards or other calls to action to solicit feedback directly from kids.”
For Choy, digital communities are also a place to reach adult gatekeepers who work with middle grade readers. “This is especially true of Biblionasium, which partnered with Follett’s Destiny Library Manager, and DogoBooks, which is integrated with Google Classroom,” she says. She believes that these particular sites work best for titles for which Abrams has created additional digital resources. “The audience at Bookopolis and Biblionasium skews younger, so we work with them to get the word out about our chapter books, such as Tom Angleberger’s Didi Dodo series, to promote titles via their curated book lists and dedicated e-newsletters,” Choy explains. “Dogo’s readers are a little older—what we typically think of as middle grade in that age 10–12 sweet spot.”
Dogo offers an early reviewer program that Choy notes is similar to Amazon Vine, where a select group of users receive and review ARCs. “We’ve found this program successful in generating kid reviews prepublication so we can leverage early buzz in anticipation of release for series launches like Ronan Boyle and the Bridge of Riddles by Thomas Lennon,” which came out in March, she says.
For some larger publishers, the idea of a digital community for young readers is so compelling, they have created their own. Last fall, HarperCollins Children’s Books launched its Shelf Stuff program for the middle grade audience. This new venture, which consists of a website, Instagram account, and YouTube presence, follows in the footsteps of the company’s successful Epic Reads platform aimed at YA readers. For Shelf Stuff, the trade and school and library marketing teams, as well as the digital and publicity departments, create interactive book-themed content, games, videos, quizzes, and middle grade book recommendations that gatekeepers and kids can discover and share. In early 2020, the inaugural Shelf Stuff group tour will send several authors to visit schools and booksellers together, according to Kurtzman.
This fall, Scholastic will launch a digital destination for kids ages seven to12 called Home Base. The community had a soft launch earlier this year and will officially kick off on September 16. Home Base features such powerhouse Scholastic brands as Dog Man, Wings of Fire, Whatever After, I Survived, and the Bad Guys. Berger describes it as “a safe environment for kids to create avatars, play games, interact with other kids and book characters, meet authors, make their own comics, discover new books, and more.” Home Base is also designed with educators in mind, and will hopefully supplement classroom learning with fun activities, she says.
But like most publishers, Scholastic doesn’t have all its eggs in one online basket. “While Home Base allows us the opportunity to bring kids to our books, we also know it’s equally important to bring our books to the kids—so that means being everywhere they are,” Berger says. To achieve that goal, her company works with sites such as Dogo Books, which, she notes, provide “a safe community website that is parent- and teacher-approved.” Berger adds, “We describe it as Goodreads for kids: book reviews by kids for kids.”
Kids visiting the Dogo community can discover new books and leave reviews of their favorite titles. Scholastic has also partnered with Dogo for prepublication campaigns in which kids are given galleys and are encouraged to give their opinion for use in the larger campaign, akin to providing a book blurb. “It’s great to have kid quotes when promoting a book to other kids and parents,” Berger says.
HarperCollins is also debuting another digital initiative this fall: Middle Grade Matters, a dedicated website on which parents and educators can find easily accessible resources including downloadable discussion guides, recommended reading lists, and author videos to help them connect with kids while navigating tough situations. Bullying, transitions, identity, family dynamics, mental health, and grief are among the themes addressed in the content.
A New Hybrid
Kids’ digital reading platform Epic can offer a different perspective on marketing to middle grade readers. The subscription service boasts more than 10 million readers, and in addition to curating a library of books from partner publishers, earlier this year it began developing original digital content in its Epic Originals line of books. Also earlier this year, Epic announced that it is partnering with Andrews McMeel to release the Epic Originals line in print. The first five Epic Originals titles will be available in fall.
“Epic is in the unique, and very fortunate, position of having a direct relationship with kids—and a lot of them,” says cofounder Kevin Donahue. He notes that while Epic markets its platform to parents and teachers, as traditional print publishers also do, his company can “speak directly to the kids, through the user experience. We are able to help kids discover, and keep devouring, books they really enjoy. Instead of working to move the needle for specific titles, authors, or publishers, the goal is to foster a genuine interest in high-quality books that span all genres and encourage an appetite for more—a very different approach.” In this scenario, he says, “digital is clearly supporting print, and many of the major publishers with content on the Epic platform believe that Epic’s enormous audience is increasing awareness of and affinity for their titles.”
Kirsty Melville, president and publisher of Andrews McMeel, elaborated on her enthusiasm for the new arrangement. “There’s an incredibly exciting cross-pollination of awareness on Epic that we’ve seen firsthand in our own community,” she says. “As part of an ongoing literacy initiative, AMP associates volunteer for reading hours at local schools, and we consistently hear from the kids that they’ve discovered the Phoebe and Her Unicorn series by Dana Simpson by reading Big Nate books by Lincoln Peirce on Epic, or vice-versa. We’re excited to build on the natural discoverability between brands.”
On both the digital and nondigital fronts, publishers continue to explore new options for getting middle grade books in front of their intended readers. While our overview offers a glimpse at some of the latest strategies in this arena, we also asked a few publishers to reflect on the evolution of middle grade marketing (see “Middle Grade Marketing Then and Now”). And we wanted to hear how authors have become proactive about marketing; a number of them have provided tips we’ve compiled (see “Author-Tested Middle Grade Marketing Tips”).