Once upon a time, Random House publicist Shanta Small might not have even considered pitching a thick YA novel by an unknown Australian to the high-powered book segment producers on the national morning news shows.
But she decided to take a shot with Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, sending a galley of the World War II story to Patty Neger, book editor at ABC's Good Morning America. Neger passed it on to host Charles Gibson, who liked it so much that Zusak is now scheduled to appear on GMA on March 17.
In the book promotion game, securing a slot on GMA or a competing national morning show is the equivalent of winning the lottery—and the chances are equally small. But even those long odds are an improvement over a time not so long ago. "These days, everybody takes the call and listens to the pitches, whereas a few years ago, you couldn't even have the conversation," says Tracey Daniels, a freelance publicist who specializes in children's books.
Morning television—a Hydra of headlines, happy talk, prime-time programming hype and news-you-can-use—is not the most bookish of venues, but it's a huge stage from which to launch a title. Collectively, Today, GMA and CBS's Early Show draw 14 million viewers a day, according to Nielsen Media Research. And it's no surprise how access to these millions opened up for children's authors.
"Harry Potter changed everything," says Kristin Matthews, book editor at TheEarly Show. "It's this juggernaut that is bigger than anything else out there, and it forced all of us to take notice of children's books."
Also fueling the change was the proliferation of bestselling writers like Carl Hiaasen, Dave Barry, Ridley Pearson, Walter Mosley and James Patterson now writing for younger audiences, and, of course, celebrity authors. Big names like Jay Leno, Billy Joel, Gloria Estefan, Carson Kressley, Tiki and Ronde Barber, Jerry Seinfeld and Jamie Lee Curtis take up a lot of the spots on those shows, but they've also opened the door to lesser-known talents.
"Having these celebrities in my bag has given me access to shows so that I can then pitch the Ian Falconers and the Hilary Knights," says Tracy van Straaten, executive director of publicity at Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing. "It gives you leverage to pitch the quieter things."
The greatest challenge with celebrity appearances, van Straaten says, is making sure the segment stays focused on the book. "If it's up to the hosts they'll steer the conversation to other things. But if I have Lynne Cheney on Today, I want her to talk about her children's books."
"The reality is, just like with adult books, a big name makes for an easier booking," Matthews says. "Any time you're booking an author for a four-and-a-half to five-minute segment, if you're dealing with someone who's done television or comes with a track record, they are a known quantity. They know they have to have a funny or a touching story."
The competition doesn't seem to deter publicists. Three years on the job, Matthews says the number of pitches by children's publicists has grown with every season. "And they are savvier than ever. They pay attention to the morning shows and they see it is a very good avenue for them," says Matthews, who has booked writers such as Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi, Kate and Jim McMullan, Mary Pope Osborne, Alan Katz and Marc Brown on the show, in addition to celebrity authors like Rhea Perlman and Henry Winkler. "Let's face it, you're preaching to the choir when you put a children's book on a morning show. You're talking to women, and most of them have kids, and most of them like to know what's good to read."
The Art of the Pitch
In hopes of landing an appearance for their author, publicists have to negotiate a complicated system, paying careful attention to morning show rivalries, the narrative needs of television and the subjective tastes of those with the power to bestow the prize. With TheEarly Show a distant third in the ratings, Matthews acknowledges she can schedule an author who has already been on NBC or ABC, something Neger says, very plainly, is verboten at GMA. "We do not follow them," Neger says of Today.
Indeed, pitching the morning shows resembles a multi-board chess match, publicists say. "If you've got a big name, you pitch the Today show first," says one publicist at a major house. "If they say no, you can go to GMA, but you've also got The View and Regis in the mix. And if it's a really big name, you might have Letterman, too. But Letterman won't follow Regis and Regis can't compete with the third hour of Today and Regis won't follow The View."
The "third hour" of Today (the official title is Today II) factors into publicists' maneuvering when they've got a book that's newsy or hot enough to possibly capture the attention of Neger at GMA. Because Today's audience drops from six million to four million after 9 a.m., publicists would prefer to see their authors on GMA, with its audience of 5.2 million, than on Today II. But unless your author is, say, Madonna, a publicist is not going to be able to dictate when the segment will run.
"Here's the reality," says one publicist. "The third hour of Today is an amazing opportunity, but if both shows want [your author] and there is no guarantee from Today that they'll be on before 9:00, we have elected to put them on GMA."
At all three shows, the book editor's choices must pass muster with the executive producer, whose menu on any given day may include a novelist, a musical number from Beyonce Knowles or a cooking demonstration with the Naked Chef. "We don't have any quotas," Neger says. "When it's 'publishing high season' in September and October, we do four a week. I pitch and occasionally I get turned down, but I'm pretty good at knowing what's going to work."
Same situation at Today, says Jaclyn Levin, who succeeded veteran producer Andrea Smith as book editor last month, but who continues to book authors for Dateline. "If I can make a great case for it— and I think I'm pretty good at that—I can get it on."
Publicists consider Today, the granddaddy of morning TV, the toughest nut to crack. It is the ratings leader, but there is enormous pressure to stay ahead of GMA. Each January it hosts the Newbery and Caldecott winners the day after the awards are announced, and the show features periodic segments about children's books recommended by the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio. Levin hopes to pump some energy into Today's book segments by adding more visual elements, such as taped reports from the field. "With 15 hours a week of programming, there are a lot more opportunities, including looking at children's books and cookbooks—things we didn't do at Dateline," she says. "But coming from a 'tape' background, I think we can make those book segments richer all around. If you've got fiction based on fact, you can go out with [authors] in the field and highlight what they're writing about."
That mix of live interview and taped report was recently used to tell the story behind Owen and Mzee, a picture book about a baby hippo that lost its mother in the 2004 tsunami, written by the father-daughter team of Craig and Isabella Hatkoff. Scholastic publicist Kris Moran saw immediate results. "After Craig and Isabella were on Today [February 1], the book shot up to 23 on Amazon and way up on bn.com," she says.
An appearance on the weekend edition of Today proved valuable for last December's Fancy Nancy, says Sandee Roston, executive publicity director at HarperCollins Children's Books. Author Jane O'Connor and illustrator Robin Preiss Glasser decked out a bunch of young volunteers in glitzy duds, and anchor Campbell Brown donned a pink feather boa to spotlight a picture book heroine who loves to accessorize. "There has to be something special for any book to work on TV, and this had the right fun ingredients," Roston says. "Sales skyrocketed. You could almost hear people out there saying to themselves, 'Oh, we have to get this book.' "
Indeed, even though morning TV is often done during a launch or in concert with a lot of other publicity, publicists say the sales spike after an appearance is very visible. "We had Carl Hiaasen on Today for Hoot and it made a huge impact in terms of sales," says Judith Haut, executive publicity director at Random House Children's Books. "And that was before [he won a] Newbery Honor."
"It even helps with sell-in," says Jennifer Levine, publicity director at Hyperion. "It carries a lot of cachet for our sales reps to be able to say, 'We have this author booked on the Today show.' "
Given the importance of these appearances, publicists are extremely careful about which titles they pitch to morning TV. The book must have a news hook, or the author must have a compelling biography. "We try to be very selective," Haut says. "You can go to them with an unknown—we had Christopher Paolini on with Carl Hiaasen—but that was because his backstory was so unique."
It helps to know what the hosts like. "Diane [Sawyer] loves pop-up books," Neger says, and she's featured Robert Sabuda and David Carter on GMA as a result. Van Straaten at S&S placed E.L. Konigsburg on the Today show to talk about The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place. "Katie Couric's favorite book growing up was [Konigsburg's] From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler," van Straaten says.
And it helps to remember that the people making the decisions are, after all, former kids themselves, many of whom—as Harper editor Ursula Nordstrom once famously said, "have not forgotten a thing." Matthews, a self-professed "voracious reader," admits she is a soft touch for a children's book. "I was one of those kids who had to be told, 'Put the flashlight away and get some sleep.' " And Levin expects her own children will soon be pitching her across the breakfast table. Son Theo, nine, is a "huge reader," she says. "I'm already bouncing ideas off him."