Friday, June 02, 2006

Publicist Interview: Susan Salzman Raab

Susan Salzman Raab is a widely respected expert in children's book promotion. Twenty years ago, she founded Raab Associates, then the only agency dedicated to that goal. Today, Raab Associates Inc. provides "marketing, consulting, and publicity for children's and parenting books and children's specialty products."

Susan is the Marketing Advisor to SCBWI National and the author of the "To Market" column in its bi-monthly newsletter. She is a radio correspondent for "Recess! Radio," which is syndicated nationally, and she is the author of An Author's Guide to Children's Book Promotion (Two Lives Publishing, 2005). Her company also hosts ReviewersChecklist.com, a search database of new and forthcoming books for children, teens and parents from publishers across the industry. Learn more about Susan.

Congratulations on the twentieth anniversary of Raab Associates! Your experience in advertising, as a book-buyer for an independent bookstore, and in publicity and marketing for such companies as Dell, Scholastic, and Bantam certainly prepared you for the transition to founder of your own agency. But what inspired you to make the jump to your own shop?

I decided to start the agency because I was pregnant with my oldest son, and I knew I wanted to work part-time from home so I could be with him. At the time, I was working as an account executive for a large ad agency in Philadelphia, and I missed being part of the New York publishing world. I had a wonderful boss who--when I told her I wanted to work from home and told her how much I missed working with children's books--recommended I try doing both. I've always been grateful to her for that and for being so supportive.

How has Raab Associates grown over the years? What new directions do you anticipate?

Well, my initial plan, which was to work three-to-four hours a day, take long weekends and have beach vacations never did seem to happen. Once I started getting projects, the business grew, and I needed staff and to expand our systems to manage the load. Since returning to the New York area, we've had substantial growth both in the size of the staff and in the range of services we provide. I think that's because companies want a broader range of marketing services and so do individual authors and illustrators.

We've also launched ReviewersChecklist.com, which required coming up with new ways to present and promote publisher data online and has involved working with a broad range of contacts, including 175 publishers, as well as authors, illustrators, educators, librarians and media contacts. We've met many new people and have been evolving new marketing techniques for reaching them.

New directions have involved corporate consulting and working with authors and illustrators on strategic career planning, and I think there's a lot more that can be done in those areas. We also have a lot of plans for Reviewers Checklist.

Why children's books specifically? What fueled your passion to support books for young readers?

It's interesting because working in children's books was not at all trendy when I started in the business. In fact, at Dell, all my predecessors had used the job as a springboard to get to "real jobs" in adult books. I stayed because I loved the field and because I felt children's books should get more attention--plus I was working with the best authors! That list included Judy Blume (author interview), Beverly Cleary, Madeleine L'Engle, Lloyd Alexander, Paula Danziger, Richard Peck, Jane Yolen (author interview)--literally a hundred authors whose work I adored. I also thought they were much nicer than the adult authors my counterparts were working with, and I saw the commitment it took to try to get kids excited about reading.

The other thing that intrigued me was that it was much more challenging to get attention for kid's books--you couldn't depend on the author's name being a household word, or the support of a big marketing budget. You had to find ways of personally connecting with people who cared about kids and create mutually beneficial opportunities. Sounds exhausting probably, but I loved it--and still do.

The attention that children's books have gotten in recent years has made the marketing easier in some areas, but it can still be quite tough in others.

You’ve worked with many publishers and companies--Annick Press, Bloomsbury Books, Golden Books, Kane Miller, Kids Can Press, Henry Holt, National Geographic, Penguin, Pleasant Company, and Simon & Schuster, just to name a few. What kinds of services do you provide to them?

We've done product launches, marketing consulting, market surveys, developed and designed websites, run focus groups, produced teacher's guides, launched product lines and handled author tours and publicity campaigns. Companies have also hired us to consult with authors and work with staff on presentations and media preparation.

Do you handle individual clients as well? If so, what services are provided to these authors? What should an author consider in hiring a publicist to promote his or her work?

We work with a lot of authors at all stages of their career. We've worked on first books to help establish an author in the marketplace, and have been hired by established authors and illustrators who want to market at a new level. The work varies depending on the type of book, the author or illustrator's background and objectives, the involvement of the publisher, the potential we see in the market, the budget and the time frame. We have some clients who we've worked with for many years and others who hire us to handle a particular book. We've provided many of the same services to authors and illustrators that we do to corporations.

I think the most important thing to consider when hiring a publicist, or any marketing professional, is to find someone who is honest with you about what's viable for your book, clear about the work they'll do, and who cares about the authors they take on. It's also helpful to work with someone who can educate you about the role you can play in the process because campaigns work best when they’re done synergistically.

What information and assistance do you provide to individual authors and/or illustrators, including perhaps those who aren't clients per se?

We offer a series of telecourses that have been developed in response to author/illustrator requests for more specific information on the market. Those are listed at our website, www.raabassociates.com. We often adapt these to the specific needs of an author or group.

You're the author of An Author's Guide To Children's Book Promotion, Ninth Edition (Two Lives Publishing, 2005). Could you give us a sense of what this book offers? Why is it a must-buy for the author serious about building a publishing career?

The Author's Guide is meant to serve as a handbook for people who want an overview of the children's book field. This is a quirky business because we need to appeal to parents, teachers, librarians, booksellers as well as kids themselves, so the outreach needs to happen on many levels and still be part of an overall strategy. There are lots of good books on the market now that explain various aspects of the business, including Harold Underdown’s Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books (Alpha, 2004) and lots of information out on the web that can help as well.

Much of your energy is directed to media relations. Could you tell us about Reviewers Checklist? How does it work? What's great about it?

The idea for Reviewers Checklist came from many conversations with reporters who wanted to cover a variety of children's books, but found it tough to keep track of current contacts at the publishing houses. We often tried to help when questions came up about particular topics by referring them to individuals we knew and asking to have books sent, even if the source was not always a publisher we were currently working with. Sometimes it helped complete a story with books we had sent, and other times it was just to try to help the reporter get the story done. It finally occurred to me that it would be great to provide a source that would offer one-stop-shopping for the media to put through their requests and that was the start of Reviewers Checklist.

The site, which is accessible to everyone, is an online search database that houses publisher catalog data. We currently have 175 publishers participating, including all the major houses and there are between 9,000-9,500 titles for children, teens and families.

The site provides details on books nine months in advance of the publication date, which makes it a unique information source. There’s no charge for membership, and while membership is not required to search on the site, there are additional features available to those who do sign up.

We've been delighted to find that many people in the industry have registered – reviewers in all media categories, librarians, educators, booksellers, authors, illustrators, agents, and even some people who license for television and other media. Anyone visiting it can search new and forthcoming titles (including books coming out the following season), get information on authors, illustrators and publishers when that's been provided, and keep track of searches they've done. Media contacts, who must first be vetted into the system, get special privileges that allow them to make review copy requests directly through the system to publishers. They can also use the system to send back clips or notification of their stories or segments.

We have had a very enthusiastic response to Reviewers Checklist from people across the industry as a reference tool and as a media tool. It's also been used to announce industry news and to post special Calls for Information for survey topics. We have lots of plans for it, including in the short-term moving the system to a new platform to make it much faster and more flexible.

What noteworthy changes in children's book promotion have you seen over the years? What are your predictions for the future?

The biggest changes have been that children's books are now are seen as having much more potential, so there are some very large budgets for a select number of books. There are more books and the business is more competitive. There are also a lot more self-published books and a lot of small, specialty publishers. Authors and illustrators have also become a lot more proactive in marketing their books, which I think is a good and necessary change because publishers have grown in size, and it's tough to get to the top of the lists.

The Internet has also had a tremendous impact on marketing. Author and illustrator websites, online stores, review sites, blogs, email marketing, and other vehicles provide new ways of creating excitement about new books and making more personal connections with consumers. I think the Internet will be increasingly important along with other electronic messaging. I also think that there will be more direct interaction with consumers.

As long as we're talking about books, are there any great new titles you'd like to highlight?

We're working on a number of very interesting novels right now, including My Childhood Under Fire: A Sarajevo Diary by Nadja Haglilbegovich (Kids Can, 2006)(excerpt), Strange Happenings: Five Tales of Transformation by Avi (Harcourt, 2006), Trigger (Bloomsbury, 2006), which is by Susan Vaught and about teen suicide, Stay With Me by Garret Freymann-Weyr (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), and Anatopsis by first-time author Chris Abouzeid (Dutton, 2006). There's also a new cookbook and fairytale collection, entitled Fairytale Feasts, which is by Jane Yolen, and a political spoof, Wilky: The White House Cockroach, by syndicated cartoonist Howie Schneider (Putnam, 2006). Others for young children are Robie Harris’s It's Not the Stork!: A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families, and Friends (Candlewick, 2006), which was previewed in a New York Times feature article; Ed Young’s family story My Mei Mei (Philomel, 2006)(author-illustrator interview); a Greek myths series by I Spy Author Jean Marzollo, and there’s Susan Goldman Rubin’s forthcoming biography of Andy Warhol – plus great books from National Geographic, Kane Miller and Kids Can Press.

Is there anything you'd like to add?

Just that children need books now more than ever to help them understand the larger world, and that we need to ensure they have access to excellent books in all genres in bookstores, libraries, schools and homes.

Cynsational Notes

See also school visits and other events as well as promotion resources.

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