|As the profile of children's authors increases, book tours figure more frequently in the promotional mix|
Over the past five years, a number of factors have caused publishers to change the way children's books are marketed and sold. The growth of chain superstores with strong children's book sections, the increasing celebrity status accorded to children's book authors and the greater awareness of children's books among the public have all contributed to the new retail climate. Although author tours continue to comprise a relatively small percentage of the overall budget for juvenile publishing, they have become an essential part of the promotion mix for big-name writers and illustrators, as well as midlist authors seeking to increase their fan base.
Tours are often so costly for publishers and booksellers that neither breaks even on a strictly dollars-and-cents basis. It's a lot cheaper, for example, for publishers to tour the characters from their most popular books -- such as Clifford, Arthur and Madeline. Even so, children's booksellers don't want only Lilly -- they want to give their customers something special, a chance to meet her creator, Kevin Henkes, "in the flesh," in order to increase their store's visibility. In addition, due to the extensive number of in-store events mounted by the chains -- roughly 1500 every week, including story times, for Barnes &Noble alone -- many parents and librarians have come to expect children's bookstores to hold author signings.
If profit isn't the sole basis, then what makes a children's event "successful"? Why do authors submit to the strain of 25 cities in 25 days? And how do children's book author tours work, from the initial conception to the event itself?
Planning a Tour
Because of the breadth of its publishing program -- everything from classics to Blue's Clues and Rugrats -- the children's publishing division of Simon &Schuster had an exceptionally large number of children's author tours last year: more than 17, not counting media-driven mini-tours to New York City and Los Angeles. S&S is planning fewer tours in 1999, according to marketing director Suzanne Murphy. The tours it d s book will cover approximately the same number of cites -- four to eight -- and will aim to maximize media opportunities, not only national shows but also local newspapers and radio.
For Murphy, choosing a city or a store to be part of an author or illustrator's tour is a group process. "We work in conjunction with our sales force," she says, "and we take into account any regional possibilities. Sometimes we'll add cities just for that reason. Often it's where authors have connections." In addition, Murphy has recently modified her tour strategy to involve more libraries on routes. When an author comes to New York, for instance, a lunch with librarians is often included, in addition to a school appearance. "When we go to a city, we also try to make sure we do an event at the largest library branch. They often have a strong media office, and they'll bring in a local bookstore to sell books."
In contrast, William Morrow's children's department has a much smaller tour budget and concentrates most of its tours in the fall, which is typically the strongest season for attracting school groups. To stretch her dollars further, Lori Benton, associate director of marketing, tries to hook up with the author's local stores and schools. Morrow was one of the first publishers to send out a tip sheet to schools and libraries on how to plan an author event. A few years ago, the Children's Book Council followed suit and created its own information sheet on "Inviting Children's Book Authors and Illustrators to Your Community."
For Benton, schools and libraries are essential to the success of an author tour. "A lot of our author coordinator's time is spent working with local schools and libraries," she remarks. "We always ask them if they would mind if the author makes a bookstore appearance. But the smart store is already working with the schools and libraries."
One of the booksellers Benton singled out was Ellen Mager of Booktenders Children's Books (Doylestown, Pa.), who works with area schools to bring in top-name authors by pooling their honoraria. This spring, for instance, she has arranged for Robert San Souci to visit the schools for the third year in a row. Last year she presold 1600 of his books.
To make sure things run smoothly, Benton frequently accompanies her authors on tour. When she d s, she is always at the ready with a bag filled with Post-its, pens, Sharpies (to sign posters), snacks and water. "I stay out of the way," she says, "although I never totally take my eyes off the event."
At Penguin Putnam, too, a publicist always travels with major authors. Tim Moses, director of publicity for hardcover children's books, says he likes to make sure that someone from the company is on hand just in case problems arise. "You want a company representative to deflect the heat from the store and the author," he says. "I'd rather have a publicist there who can be the bad guy, if need be." The publicist also helps the author in other ways. "There are times," notes Moses, "when you have an author who is having a bad day and is not particularly pleasant. And there are occasions when you need to remind the authors what they are doing."
Having a publicist tour with an author is just part of Moses's strategy to "look after an author's every need" on the road. "The top children's authors are accorded the same comforts and pleasures that an adult author would be -- a Patricia Cornwell or a Stephen King -- and they sell in the same numbers. It's very hard to tour; it's very strenuous," he says. "You go the extra mile for those authors. If we know that an author likes a particular wine, we have that wine at their hotel. They have my office number and my home number. They can call me 24 hours a day."
For Moses, like Murphy, the strength of the print, TV and radio potential within a community is playing an increasingly important role in where he sends his authors. But so do sales reps' recommendations, cost and, more than ever, overexposure. In fact, he notes, "overexposure of children's authors is becoming a very real danger. Secondary markets is one area we're starting to explore." But ultimately the decision of where to send an author d sn't rest solely with Moses; it can involve anywhere from five to 20 people in-house.
Virginia Anagnos, director of publicity at HarperCollins, concurs that selecting where to send an author is never an easy thing. "It's not an exact science," she explains. "You can do everything right and it can be a perfect spring day and no one will show up." Then, too, she has found that some authors and illustrators just don't want to go on tour because it can be so grueling or because they've had bad experiences. So for her, author tour planning begins with the most basic question posed to an author: "Do you want to go out on tour?"
Anagnos also questions booksellers on whether an author is right for them. "If a store d sn't think it's going to work," she says, "just tell me that. It's all right to do a stock signing. It's a wonderful way to fill time and keep the momentum going. If a bookseller d sn't think it will work, it probably won't."
For Anagnos, all three-booksellers, authors and fans-are important in evaluating an event. "It really comes down to whether or not a person clicks with the audience and the bookseller and feels like the event was well supported by the bookseller," she comments. "It's really important for an author to get a feeling that it was worth their while."
The author-bookseller relationship is a primary consideration for Chris Boral, children's marketing manager for Chronicle Books, as is that of bookseller and publisher. Since Chronicle has a lot of first-time authors and illustrators on its list and d sn't typically schedule author tours, Boral sometimes has trouble getting bookings. "We find a lot of booksellers are really good at making their schedules full," she says, "and we can't even get in." She says she often courts booksellers to take her authors. "In all honesty," she adds, "we've been known to send flowers after an event. That kind of relationship building is important."
Boral's tour strategy is "to promote locally and expand out from there." Last fall, Chronicle did just that for San Francisco-based illustrator J.otto Siebold, who toured the Pacific Northwest in response to the many requests Chronicle received from Walden accounts. During the holidays, Siebold's Olive, the Other Reindeer was featured on signage at all Walden stores, and Chronicle created a special Olive doll in a boxed set just for Walden.
For Rosemarie Rauch, author promotion coordinator at Harcourt Brace, cost is also an important factor in planning a tour. Between air fare, hotels, food and escorts, expenses can easily range from $1000 to $1500 a day, making tours for children's book authors just as expensive as those for adult book authors. To save money and work proactively, Rauch likes to schedule smaller-scale mini-tours. "Most of my tours run four days maximum, two stores a day," she says. "Usually I go back to stores and tour trails that we've already done. We try to connect with regional shows and events like BEA or IRA." To encourage feedback from booksellers, she sends out a form that they can fax back on book sales and audience count. Rauch enjoys getting author responses, too, but has found that they're not always a reliable gauge. "It's good to get that emotional response, but we also like figures and facts," she comments.
| LILLY and her creator (Kevin Henkes, bottom middle) charmed fans at his Toad Hall appearance, including Toad Hall owner Barbara Bonds Thomas (bottom left). |
It's inevitable that publishers go back to the stores that previously have done the best job, but new booksellers can also get added to publishers' tour stops with a little persistence. This fall, for example, Little, Brown added Pooh's Corner (Middleton, Wis.) to Holly Hobbie's tour because of a meeting publicist Kerri Goddard had with the store representatives at BEA. "They put together a pamphlet about their store, and other authors they've had," Goddard says. What makes a difference, she adds, is "seeing what other authors have visited, and seeing some of the support materials-flyers, signs and calendars."
Once Little, Brown has decided to send an author to a store, it encourages in-store signage through its generous co-op program, which offers several hundred dollars for author appearances above and beyond the regular terms. Goddard works closely with accounts, as do the reps. According to the publicist, "We have a lot of communication with the sales rep, and they're involved in every step."
The Booksellers' Perspective
For some booksellers, especially multistore retailers such as Warren Chang, v-p of marketing at Zany Brainy, author events are just one aspect of their overall events strategy. "It's part of our mission that we educate parents," he notes, adding that all events have to "provide a positive, emotional and physical attribute." While Chang acknowledges the importance of bringing together authors and kids, Zany Brainy reaches far more families through such projects as its Summer Reading Club, in which last year 20,000 kids attended all 10 weeks' worth of programs, and 60,000 attended at least one of the programs.
Similarly, Borders hosted 2000 costume character activities in 1998 versus 250 author events booked nationally (individual stores book local authors, which are not included in this count). Individual stores follow through on author appearances booked by their own community relations coordinators and by the national events coordinator, working with local libraries and nonprofits to make their events more meaningful. Stores are also encouraged to connect with area schools by hosting a Teachers' Appreciation event in either the fall or spring.
For Ron Stefanski, director of marketing at Borders, author appearances provide "a fairly inexpensive way of cultivating lifelong readers." While the turnout is generally high for authors such as Stephen Kellogg, costume characters draw even larger crowds. For instance, more than 700 families attended a Winnie-the-Pooh party at a Borders in Ph nix last year, and the company has 45 costumes that it sends out regularly to its stores. In addition, Borders has its own character costume manual, what Stefanski calls its "Bible." "It's critical that our stores support the proper care and feeding of the characters," he explains. "There are license restrictions, and it's important that children see the characters in character. You wouldn't want kids to see the Wild Thing without a head."
Additionally, Borders sponsors a number of other nonauthor events throughout the year, such as its Reading '99 program at the end of this month, which it is mounting for the third year in a row with Parenting magazine and Toyota to promote family literacy. Each of the 244 Borders stores nationwide is required to hold a children's reading over a weekend in February and a discussion on the importance of reading. The three companies will also make a $25,000 combined donation to Reading Is Fundamental.
At Barnes &Noble, according to Debra Williams, director of corporate communications, nonauthor events are so popular that the company has its own costume character company and is in the midst of creating its own activity kits, instead of continuing to rely on those from publishers.
Signs of Success
Despite the success of these events, author signings are equally important to the company; they can bring in audiences ranging from 20 to 200 fans. Williams judges an author event successful "if we connected with the community, if we bring something to the kids. Just to see the look on the kids' faces when they get to meet an author is worth it."
To ensure maximum smiles and attendance, Barnes &Noble uses a set of internal checklists. "We schedule an event and then work backward," Williams says. "Six weeks prior you should have your signs and flyers, one month prior you should have your books." Individual stores also maintain mailing lists, ranging anywhere from 200 names to 1500. It all comes down to planning.
Planning is also key for independent booksellers, including Tiffany Durham, events coordinator at Toad Hall (Austin, Tex.), whose events have won kudos from publishers and authors. Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse creator Kevin Henkes cites his stop at Toad Hall last March as one of the high points of his Lilly tours. The planning for Henkes's visit, which started with a lunch with the staff (coincidentally catered by a local firm called Lilly &Co.), followed by lots of activities to keep waiting customers happy -- including photo ops with Lilly, a storyteller and a graffiti room -- actually started almost a year earlier. "To show Morrow how much we wanted Kevin Henkes, we did a really huge Lilly event at our Saturday Books Come Alive program," Durham says. At that event, she had kids write to Henkes, and she took lots of pictures, which she sent to her rep and to Morrow's publicity department.
Durham approaches each of the roughly 12 author events that she coordinates each year the same way. "After I decide who's coming, I decide what I'm going to do, and what I want it to be. For Henkes, it was celebrating his books. I sit down before every event to see what my goals are. I write down who my target audience is, and who I think will come. Afterward I evaluate how the event went."
Another secret of Durham's success is keeping her staff happy. "With big, big events, we have to have every single staff member working. To give the staff a perk, we give them a chance to catch their breath and meet the author. I usually have staff members help me pick up the author and illustrator and get them to the store. It's a perk, but it also means a cab driver's not going to get them lost."
For Judy Nelson, owner of Mrs. Nelson's Toys &Books (Laverne, Calif.), the main perk that she gets from hosting author events is increasing her store's visibility. "We have a lot of competition," she explains, "and we need to be visible." Nelson schedules roughly two dozen author events every spring and every fall, and has a far busier author tour schedule for a store her size than any competing chain retailer. In part, she says, her community expects it. "If you don't do them, people ask what's going on. Since a lot are connected with school visits, it's important to do them." Nelson has also found that a lot of sales are generated simply by featuring the book. Sometimes, though, she is frustrated by last-minute out-of-stock announcements.
Promoting events can be a costly proposition. Nelson estimates that it takes between approximately $300 and $400 to advertise an appearance in her newsletter. "We print between 15,000 and 30,000 newsletters, and if we aren't mailing it, we hand deliver it to eight surrounding school districts and libraries. Another 6000 are stuffed in a community newspaper."
The inventory needed for events, typically 30-50 copies of each of the author's books, can also be pricey. Nelson remarks that it can "break the bank" to stock all the titles written by very well-known authors or illustrators.Income from sales to schools can help to offset these expenses. "We have a form letter for the teacher to go home with the kids," Nelson says, stating that purchasing the author's books and getting them autographed is part of the program. "We loan the books to the teachers. They'll send money with the kids. Sometimes in the districts that are low income, the district will pool money to buy books."
At the author event, Nelson keeps the children entertained during the signing. "We have a program outside for them while one class d s their purchasing. We have a gentleman who's a yo-yo expert who can keep them entertained for an hour."
Dennis Ronberg, co-owner of Linden Tree Children's Recordings &Books (Los Altos, Calif.), has also worked hard to make school visits at his store as smooth as possible. "For more popular authors or illustrators," Ronberg says, "we'll have three classes for two sessions in the morning. Before the author comes, we will send out a listing of the author's books, and we'll have them prepay. At the event, we'll have the bags ready with the Post-its and then the kids get in line. They're under no obligation to buy a book." A typical author event, such as the recent Wednesday morning event with Lynne Reid Banks, takes place at 9:30 in the morning with 20-25 minutes for the talk and five-10 minutes of questions and answers, followed by a half-hour signing.
Of course, not all authors can draw two classes, much less one. To support new authors in her community who are just starting out, Jody Shapiro, owner of Adventures for Kids (Ventura, Calif.), sponsors a Local Author Day. "It's something we developed for our store," she explains, "for authors who have one book. We're very committed to local authors." Shapiro lists all her events in her newsletter, includes them in her calendar for schools and libraries, and displays the authors' books in her store. In fact, Shapiro regards her displays as "one of the unknown aspects of events that publishers may not measure. We have a display up in our store for at least a couple weeks."
On the Touring Frontline
For authors, going on tour can involve almost as much preparation as for the booksellers hosting them. Few authors have gone through such rigors as Sarah Weeks, who committed to a 40-city tour five years ago to launch her first book-and-cassette package, Crocodile Smile. Weeks, who travels with a karaoke player ("Unlike a band, it fits in the overhead," she quips), was virtually unknown before that tour. "It was a fabulous experience," she recalls. "It was like planting a seed. This fall, I went back to many of the same places, and they remembered me. My attitude when I'm out on the road is I really feel grateful to be there. Most of us are not famous. We're getting exactly what we want -- exposure. It's not about how many books you sell; it's about whether you're on local TV and whether you sign stock and you know the bookseller is going to push you." She considers it a compliment when people want their books signed, despite one little boy who reminded her, "You know, you're not supposed to write in books."
More established authors and illustrators, such as Jan Brett, Scieszka and Janell Cannon, also look forward to their time on the road. It gives them a chance to connect with their young fans, as well as to learn more about the book business as a whole. It's also an opportunity to observe human nature firsthand, as Scieszka found out this summer when he was asked to autograph a baby, definitely his strangest request. "It's wonderful to see in the flesh those little guys who send you their stories. If you go out there and some kid says, `I loved when the giant stomped on them,' then you wrote it right," he says.
Cannon, who likes to hang children's art and letters around her studio, also views touring as a chance to "recharge. It keeps me tuned in to meet the people who are buying the books." For her, the keys to a successful tour are "flexibility and keeping a sense of humor. I've had car services not know where we're going. I've had places where my car breaks down, and I'm stranded in the desert."
Brett also enjoys being on tour, although she finds that it can involve a lot of pressure. "You really gather your forces," she comments, "because you want to be the person they expect, and you don't want to say the wrong thing. You want people to go home clutching the book." When she began her career, Brett used to send a letter to each child on her mailing list when she was going to be in their area. Now she d sn't, because her tours are often too rushed to allow the kind of chats that children would expect.
Brett considers giving a presentation at each stop to be as important as signing books. "My ideal is to have eight minutes to draw a little picture and talk about the book, so the children will have something to take home other than the book." She also travels with presents for those who come to her signings. On her tour for The Night Before Christmas, Brett brought 75 tree-toppers for each store.
So what makes the difference between a successful visit for Brett or Weeks or Henkes or for their publishing and bookselling counterparts? Perhaps it all comes down to Borders' Stefanski's tip for planning events: "Making the event an experience for our customers." In doing just that, both independents and chains can ensure an equally positive experience for the authors and illustrators who sign at their stores. In the end, when the customers are happy, odds are so is everyone else.
| Tips for Author Events: A Wish List for Success |