Book Marketing Now: Tara Sullivan
An interview with award-winning author Tara Sullivan about marketing her new book, TREASURE OF THE WORLD, to schools and libraries through events and virtual tools.
Welcome to Book Marketing Now, a new monthly feature of Books, Marketing, & More where I share interviews with writers about their marketing and publishing journey as they share the inside scoop on releasing books into the current market!
Praise for Treasure of the World:
“Hoping to escape the harsh labor that binds her Bolivian mining village to the mountain called Cerro Rico, 12-year-old Ana risks life and soul to unchain herself and her family….Heartbreakingly splendid.” — Kirkus Reviews
“This utterly riveting first purchase offers a view of complex family dynamics and child labor that is shocking and powerful.” —School Library Journal
Full disclosure, I had the distinct pleasure of being a beta reader for Tara Sullivan’s Treasure of the World, so I can say with full confidence that this is a book worth having on your shelf. I’m not the only one who thinks so; it’s already received multiple starred reviews (as did her previous two novels!) and is poised to be a classroom mainstay. An award-winning author for young readers, Tara shares her best advice for books aimed at two distinct audiences; marketing directly to teachers; and thinking outside-the-box when it comes to virtual offerings.
Who do you see as the audience for your books and what is the best way you’ve found to reach them?
This is a more nuanced question than you’d think! Because I write middle grade, I really have two audiences. The first, of course, is my kid reader. I keep them in mind when I’m pacing my books and making decisions about how to accurately portray violence without sensationalizing it. They are who I write for when I strive for authenticity, ease of reading, and character vibrancy. BUT— and this is a big “but!”— I don’t think about them when I’m marketing at all.
My books are classified as “school and library” books, not “commercial” books. This means I’m not writing the kind of books that are a hot series; books kids can’t wait to get their hands on the next one and line up outside of bookstores to get. I write standalone books about contemporary human rights issues. Yes, there are plenty of kids who end up enjoying my books, but none of them are likely to go into a store and ask when “the next Tara Sullivan book” is coming out.
Since I’m not a commercial book author, I market to my second audience: teachers and librarians. These are the adults who buy my books and put them in the hands of kids. They are the “gatekeepers” to my kid readers and getting my book in front of them oils the hinges of that gate. A lot of the ways to successfully market to teachers and librarians are beyond my control: before publication I hope to get good reviews from Kirkus Reviews and the School Library Journal, for example, just like I hope, after publication, to make summer and state reading lists. But I have little control over whether or not these things happen.
The things I can control include working closely with the school and library division at my publisher (Penguin Random House) and doing whatever I can to make life easier for teachers. My books have discussion guides; I have lots of extension activities and resources on my website; and I offer a variety of school visit options. Teachers and librarians are the ones who will decide to stock my book on their shelves (or not) and whether to build a curriculum unit around them. I try to make the choice as easy for them as I can.
Do you do a lot of school visits? How do you market yourself to schools?
I love school visits! I used to be a teacher and school visits let me feel like I’m back in the classroom. If I had the bandwidth for it, I would definitely do more. But because of life and family commitments, I only do around a dozen per year. Usually, schools reach out to me if they’re interested.
I have a page on my website outlining my school visit offerings, but I don’t do much else to promote them. The main thing I do is try to say yes to anyone who comes to me and provide them with a great experience. I make sure there are a variety of options available: in-person and virtual, paid, low-cost, and free options. I have a ton of content on my website for teachers. Often this means that the teachers who ask me to visit me are already invested in my books, which makes for great events!
What are some of your best-practices when it comes to school visits?
If you’re planning on doing school visits, it’s good to bear in mind that how much time a class has been able to dedicate to your book will vary. Some schools have absolutely amazing scaffolding around author events: they will have read the book as a class or school; they will have done expansion activities—even across disciplines; they will already have talked and thought deeply about the book and the kids will be super-engaged. Other schools may have assigned your book as optional summer reading, or maybe only one class studied it, but they’d still like you to talk to an all-school assembly.
The solution? Have various ways to communicate the same content: always tease your books, but don’t give away the endings in case the class hasn’t finished it yet. Tell a little about the writing process and have both an auditorium lecture and a hands-on small class workshop to offer.
If you can do a great job for schools, you’re helping out a teacher and, hopefully, they will spread the word. The quality of author visits, like everything else in life, varies greatly. Make sure your visits are their own best marketing!
I imagine marketing your current book has been very different from marketing earlier books, events included. How have you handled the shift to virtual marketing due to the pandemic?
This has been such a different time to launch a book! My publisher chose not to create paper ARCs, school visits have gone virtual, launch parties won’t be in-person affairs with cake… the list goes on and on. I’m hoping that a lot of the “heavy lifting” marketing that is done by my publisher (inclusion on buzz lists, sending the book out for review) will still happen and have the same impact as a regular year but, as far as my personal contribution to marketing, it has been very different!
I think the biggest thing I’ve done differently was to make a suite of free online virtual school visit programs. With the pandemic, many schools are remote or hybrid (and, honestly, I’m in no mood to take my chances on travel!) and scheduling in-person school visits is impossible.
So, I decided to create a variety of activities that would translate to this model of education: fun activities that dive a bit deeper into the books and the research behind them that can be done either in a classroom setting as a group or individually, online.
Very cool! Tell us more about these new virtual school visits — how did you build them?
I decided on three basic offerings, using GoogleForms. The simplest is a quick Jeopardy game that quizzes content from the novel—who said what, where did this take place, etc. Next are the escape rooms, which are more involved: they can be done as individuals or in groups, and lead kids through learning more about the background behind the books. In order to move through the escape room, kids read websites, watch videos, and do puzzles to find and input the correct answers. Lastly, there are writing extensions where kids’ short essay answers are emailed directly to their teachers for review.
By providing these free resources, I hope to encourage teachers to continue to incorporate my books into their classrooms even through the pandemic.
What advice would you give to writers just starting out when it comes to marketing themselves?
Don’t feel like you have to do everything. If blogging sucks up all your creativity and writing time, don’t do it. Buttons, bookmarks, postcards, T-shirts, pens, etc… they’re expensive to produce and they don’t do much for you. Just because someone, somewhere, had some swag once that you thought was cool, doesn’t mean you need it.
That said, if a few high-quality products will make you super happy and your budget is flexible, go for it! My critique group and I have matching T-shirts made for our launch parties and, though expensive, they are totally worth it for the group shot.
One last piece of advice: Do invest in high quality book plates. When you get fan mail from a reader in California, Canada, or even Korea, it won’t break the bank to send them something to personalize their book. Book plates are also great for school visits: a bunch of kids won’t have turned in their pre-order form but will want to get the book once they’ve heard you talk. It’s nice to be able to leave a signed, personalized bookplate for each kid with their librarian. I order mine from UPrinting.
Finally… what tea is getting you through launch week right now!?
I love tea of all sorts… but getting through the marketing process requires serious caffeination. I have a favorite loose leaf black tea that my dad picked up for me on a trip to Malawi. It makes the best chai!
Tara Sullivan pulls from her international childhood to write Young Adult novels that address contemporary human rights issues. Her debut, Golden Boy, won the 2014 Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People Award, and was a YALSA, Kirkus and Wall Street Journal book of the year. Her second novel, The Bitter Side of Sweet, won the 2017 Children’s Africana Book Award: Honor and was an ALSC Notable Children’s Book of 2017. Check out her newest book, Treasure of the World, and find out more at http://www.TaraSullivanBooks.com
Do you have a book releasing this year? What are you doing to market your book or what questions do you have about marketing? Drop them in the comments!
Happy reading & writing!
Allison Pottern Hoch has happily made books her life’s work. She spent four years marketing and publicizing academic titles at The MIT Press before she went to work for Wellesley Books as a children’s bookseller and event coordinator. She is now living her dream: putting her B.A. in Creative Writing to good use as a novelist and as a writing/marketing coach for authors. She enjoys science fiction, cupcakes, and a hot cup of tea. For workshops & consults: pottern.com
Want to learn more from Allison? Check out her workshop Part of Your World: Character-Focused Worldbuilding in YA this Friday, Feb 26th at 10:30AM.
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