Episode 90! Part 1 of Interview with Victoria Stapleton, Executive Director of School and Library Marketing
Welcome to episode 90 of our kidlitwomen* podcast! Usually, this podcast features an essay about an issue in the children's literature community (Monday) and a discussion about the essay (Wednesday).
In this episode, as a follow up to last week’s school visit survey episodes. Grace shares an interview with Victoria Stapleton, the executive director of school and library marketing at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (which is the main publisher of her books). This interview has been broken up into two parts. Please come back on wed to hear part 2.
On today's podcast you will hear:
Victoria Stapleton has a Bachelor’s degree from Reed College in Philosophy and religion and a Master’s degree from the Union Theological Seminary in Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical languages, Literature and Linguistics. She has been the Executive Director School & Library Marketing Little, Brown Books for Young Readers since June 2005. Her responsibilities include developing an overall strategy in the school and library marketing channel for over 150 titles per year and creating programming at institutional conferences to highlight authors and illustrators. She refuses to be photographed without large sunglasses.
Grace Lin, a NY Times bestselling author/ illustrator, won the Newbery Honor for Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and the Theodor Geisel Honor for Ling and Ting: Not Exactly the Same. Her most recent novel When the Sea Turned to Silver was a National Book Award Finalist and her most recent picture book, A Big Mooncake for Little Star, was awarded the Caldecott Honor. Grace is an occasional commentator for New England Public Radio and video essayist for PBS NewsHour (here & here), as well as the speaker of the popular TEDx talk, The Windows and Mirrors of Your Child’s Bookshelf. She can also be heard on the Book Friends Forever Podcast, with her longtime friend and editor Alvina Ling.
Victoria: So I'm Victoria Stapleton. I'm the executive director of school and library marketing at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
Grace: And what does that entail?
Victoria: I almost said something that would make your podcast not safe for children. So school and library marketing is a very strange little kitty cat in between trade marketing and publicity. So I do many of the things that publicists do, and I do many of the things that trade and retail marketing do, but I do them solely for librarian and educator markets, which are not the same thing.
Grace: How are they different, would you think?
Victoria: Schools are subject to a number of legalities and restrictions that are not present in public libraries or academic libraries. In addition, educators are tied to curriculum in ways that are not operable for public libraries.
Grace: So can you give me just one small example just to-
Victoria: Well, it really can affect the type of book that is purchased. So public library, because they have freedom to read and community service aspects of their mission, they can buy whatever book, regardless of content, that is of service to the community. A school needs to justify the purchase based on how it works with the curriculum and curriculum are determined every decade by boards of education. That oversimplifies it a bit. That trickles down, down, down, down, down, down to your local classroom.
Victoria: But say in the state of Massachusetts, the board of education determines something that's called a curriculum map, it can have standards, it can have content, so it determines, in fourth grade, we're going to learn about Massachusetts history, in fifth grade, we'll learn about US history, that sort of thing. What are the types of literacy skills a child should have in the third grade? What is the level of social science and social history information mastery that should be had in the 10th grade?
Victoria: These are maps that are determined by the board of education with input, but then they're changed about every decade or so. They vary from state to state, and they are fascinating documents. But then once those priorities are determined in a school... determined by a board of education then filtered down, individual schools figure out how to implement that and determine which books figure into how best to achieve those larger goals.
Grace: And your job is to figure out how our books, the publishers books can fit their needs?
Victoria: Part of my job is that.
Victoria: That is part of my job. Part of my job is... I write advertising. In fact, I wrote an ad yesterday or Friday, I should say. Part of my job is awards, part of my job is social media. Little, Brown Young Readers Twitter I think probably exceeds my follower base, but LB school was the first Twitter handle for our division. And we had the first Facebook page, we had the first Instagram. I'm trying not to make too many clicking noises into the thing again. I pitch for conferences and make sure that that all happens. So there is a little bit of everything that I do.
Grace: Well, that's actually a good segue, talking about conferences because I did a call out.
Victoria: Hi Nancy [inaudible 00:04:49]. How are you today? I am so happy that you're an engaged listener.
Grace: Yes. Nancy, thank you for your questions. I did a call out, and Nancy was one of the few who left comments on the Facebook page. But I did get quite a few direct messages, and almost all the direct messages dealt with conferences. It seemed like authors really, really wanted to know how to get... They're like, "How do I get my publisher to send me to these conferences?" They seem to think these conferences like ALA and NCTE and TLA, they were really huge deal. I was just saying earlier how for some of these authors, it's almost like on their bucket list to go one of these conferences.
Victoria: So first of all, you need a better bucket list.
Grace: So before we talk about how you choose and how they can get into conferences, I wanted to do a little backtracking and say like, since all these authors feel that these conferences are so important, are they really that important? Do you think they make a huge difference in the life of a author's career?
Victoria: It can make some difference. It's not a be all and end all. I know people who don't really do conferences and they do perfectly well. Their careers are perfectly good. I think it's important to say that there are many forces in determining conferences on both sides of the issue before a specific author is ever named that are important to understand. We're going to take NCTE is an example. A theme for NCTE will be determined by that year's programming committee quite far in advance.
Victoria: So the program committee consists of all the various streams. There's the elementary group, the middle grade group, the high school group, the college group, because it's teachers of English within those different strands, and I haven't named them all. there may be subgroups of interest, and they all determine within that overarching program theme, what could be their preferred set of programming panels.
Victoria: So NCTE will decide when we are seeing more activity and need among our members for visual literacy in the primary grades say for the sake of argument to narrow it down, grades three through five, we are going to need programs on that because that's what our membership tells us. A bunch of people decide that they're going to make program proposals about that. It can include authors, it cannot include authors.
Victoria: Say five different educators construct program proposals that go into that one stream of primary educators, and that little subgroup has to determine which program they want to kick up to the next level because at the next level, the secondary education people are saying, "Yeah, that's great. Visual literacy is great, but we have these needs on nonfiction." And the overall programming committee as I make hand gestures that no one can see, has to balance all the competing interest groups and their needs at the conference and then select the program proposals.
Victoria: So there's multiple levels of getting through this, and it is ultimately determined by the needs of the membership. The needs of the publisher to have a particular author or book presented at a conference is not something that is interesting NCTE. They like books and authors, but they're not super jazzed to prioritize a publisher or an author over the professional needs of their members.
Grace: So one big thing is how well your book fits in the need of the conference.
Victoria: This is going to be a lot more syllables. I'm super sorry, I love syllables. Never use a $20 word when you can use a $40 word is my mantra. How does your book fit into the conversation now? So, for example, it could be that there has been a lot of concern about visual literacy over the last five years, but none of the panels have really addressed it, or they have addressed it in the same way. In year six, you come up, "Well my program in the last five years has been approved." And then the program committee is like, "No, because you've been doing that, and it doesn't address the need. You're not addressing the current conversation. We've moved on." And so the panel is not approved.
Victoria: So educators are really looking at books and authors that will add to the conversation of the issue, how the book can be used in a classroom setting to address the needed issue. So they're looking for people who have books that will fit into the conversation and authors or illustrators who can speak intelligently and fluently to that conversation.
Grace: So do you think things such as gender or race identity come into play to those decisions? A lot of the things that we talk about is putting forth a diverse group of creators, and that was never... I don't think that was so much in the forefront in the past, but it's definitely come more recently.
Victoria: I have to think about this a lot because part of my job is identifying those conversations about books and understanding what the larger interests and themes are, and they are different than say five years ago. I think that there is a better attention and a better effort at de-centering a standard view in a way that is uncomfortable in a non college setting. I hope that makes sense. Because in college and graduate school, at least when I was old... When I was younger, because I'm old now, [inaudible 00:11:39] I'm feeling it, we would talk a lot about whose stories are being told, why are they being told, why is the information being presented in this way, that sort of thing. That it hasn't always been the topic of conversation or a priority of farther down in primary and K-12 education.
Victoria: I'm not saying they'd been ignorant of it, but they have a lot of things to do. A lot of things to do. Testing is a nightmare. There hasn't been the space to really prioritize this. But now, I think there is a renewed urgency on diversifying which perspectives are present in the conversation and how are they in conversation with each other.
Grace: Okay. I definitely want to get back to this topic, but I feel like I should keep going with how to get chosen since that was such a big thing. But I have more questions about that.
Victoria: Okay. How to get chosen.
Grace: Yes. [inaudible 00:12:56] are there certain traits in a book or author that make these conferences more beneficial for them? I was talking to Alvina about... She was talking about sales conferences, and she was saying how for some authors being the sales conference speaker, it would actually be a disservice to them. So are there certain traits that people have that would make it more beneficial than others? In other words, what kind of book or author would benefit the most from these conferences?
Victoria: Somebody who can talk about their book fluently. And I hate to say it, but there's a number of people who cannot do that. For whatever reason, they just cannot do it. They wrote this book, whatever particular book that is. Let's just say My Dragon Is Purple and Pink could have beautiful rich language, can I have a really well developed theme, could have a diversity of characters, but if the author cannot speak to what is going on in that book and that book is... and connect that book to larger conversations, then it is not helpful for that author to appear in public. It does a disservice to the book.
Grace: Yeah. That's how I feel too for a lot of things. That's why I almost feel like when people get their first book published, they should all take public speaking lessons or something.
Victoria: Well, this is a thing that I... Okay. Soapbox engaged. I was not an English major, and I came to children's publishing later in life. I think it was in my mid 30s. I did not read children's books when I was younger. People who listen to the Little, Brown School library podcasts know my fetish for Nixon. I'm sorry guys. But I didn't really. So I don't think of children's books as precious, and I'm not super attached to the narrative of hopes and dreams.
Victoria: To me, we're in business. This is a business enterprise. NCTE has to manage the business of the association. I have to manage the business of marketing the books in a way that best sells those books. So when I think about the decisions that I make about conferences, it is... I have to pay 2,500 to $3,000 to bring an author to a conference. All things rolled up in there, that's about how much it costs.
Victoria: If that author cannot speak adequately or coherently about that book, for whatever reason, and you would be surprised at people who cannot talk about their books, I have burned $3,000 that could have been spent otherwise more effectively. And I've permanently damaged that person's career. So I have to think carefully about that. I have to think about all the other books on the list. If I spend this $3,000 on the Dragon Is Purple and Pink, could be a really nice book, author can't speak to it.
Victoria: Here is another book called This Pig Does Not Care. Sorry to pick on pigs, but I am a little hungry and I would like some bacon right now. That book may not have as rich a language set, it's themes may not be as well developed, but that author can speak about the themes of that book more effectively and connect that book to a classroom more effectively. And sometimes, the more complete work of art is not the best thing for the classroom. The Pig Does Not Care might be more accessible.
Grace: I can see that.
Victoria: And so I have to balance all of that out and determine... And how someone speaks about their work is important.
Grace: And that's very tough for, I think, authors, me included, to learn that because come as an author not to be a showman, but it's actually like-
Grace: A while ago, I remember Monica... I'm sorry if-
Grace: ... Edinger, she wrote this blog post about, do you have to be a showman to be successful author or illustrator? And that was... It was a while ago, and there's a lot of authors that would come in and play the Banjo play the banjo or the ukulele and to sing songs and things like that. And people were starting to feel like, "Well, I can't put on this show-"
Victoria: You don't have to have a stick, and you don't have to wear a clown shoes, and you don't have to play ukulele. You don't. But you do have to speak fluently and in an engaging manner to a variety of audiences. You do have to have maybe not full jazz hands, maybe some jazz knuckles, to be able to engage an audience. Books are living things. You wrote a beautiful book about a big moon cake, but that book does not live unless it has an audience, even if it's an audience of one.
Victoria: And frequently, the job of an author and illustrator, and my job, is to help people receive that book and make it live in their minds and become different every time they read it. Because really all we're doing is telling each other stories over and over again.
Grace: Well, that's cool because in the very beginning, I asked you what your job is, and that's the heart of what your job is right there.
Victoria: Yes. I have often said that I have one of the best jobs ever. It is a strange thing for me to like my job because it involves many things I don't enjoy. I don't like leaving my house. People think this is a flippant thing to say. I really don't like leaving my house. I left my house yesterday, and I saw you and that was very nice, but that was probably not what I should have done. I don't like talking on the phone, I don't like meeting new people. I don't like airports, I don't like planes, I don't like most enclosed metal spaces, I don't like mail.
Victoria: I don't like phones, I think I probably said the phones, I don't like... There's a lot of things I just... But it is a magical alchemy of my job that somehow... My job involves all these things and probably half dozen other things I don't like doing, but I love my job because ultimately, my job is saying, "This is my friend, a big moon cake for little star. I think you could be friends as well."
Victoria: And there's something very magical and amazing about what I do. So we were at NCTE last November, I am a horrifyingly sick. And really, very rarely do I get sick at conferences, but I was really horrifyingly sick and spent very little time coherent. But one moment of coherence, and then I was like, "Yes, this is why I do what I do." I'm sitting there and there's Laurie Halse Anderson is sitting next to me.
Victoria: And I've known Laurie 25,000 years, worked with her at Simon & Schuster on her author visits and I was booking her author visits in 2001 and two. We're sitting there, we're chatting about different things, along comes Emily Pan, author of The Astonishing Color of After, which we published last year. Fantastic book. Hello, prints committee. Yes, that is a pejorative tone in my voice.
Victoria: This is the first time, really, they've met. I introduced them, and it turns out that one of the reasons Emily became a writer, she was inspired by an author visit by Laurie Halse Anderson-
Victoria: ... that I'm more than likely booked.
Grace: Wow. That's so cool.
Victoria: So I don't know what the outcome of any one thing I do in a day is because it's a very longterm investment. But every once in a while, I get that idea of, this made a difference to somebody. And look, as we're booking visits for Emily pan now, Kristi Michelle who works with me does that, who will that-
Grace: Affect later.
Victoria: ... later? And what will they make and what will they do and what they will create. And that's an amazing, wonderful, fantastic thing. So conferences can be important because these connections are made with educators or librarians and you can see possibilities, but they're not the be all and end all. There's many other ways to do this. And there's a lot more tools that we have now than what we had previously. We have the Little, Brown School and library podcast, I think you were on it, an episode of it, hopefully you'll will be on again. Everybody should read and should listen to it and subscribe and love it.
Victoria: Then we have various video formats that we [inaudible 00:22:52], with the editor book chat, with the editor book chat, with the illustrator, 10 questions in one minute, just to give people a flavor of what's going on, to introduce you on how they think and why that voice matters. There are school visits, and I know we have to talk about school visits because... Conferences can be important, but people... You shouldn't fixate on them. And it is a longterm thing. I have somebody going to TLA in the spring. It took me four years to get this person. It just requires a certain amount of patience.
Grace: So if an author does want to go to something like NCTE, what would be the best way to go about it? I know a lot of authors, they set up their own panels and directly-
Victoria: You want to set up your own panel directly, that is totally fine. Do not expect your publisher to pay for it. We touched on this as business a little bit. My budget for 2019 was set in April of 2018, and I didn't even know what was going to happen. In fact, the book list for 2019 is still changing. Conferences book a year in advance. So at NCTE 2018, I was discussing with people 2019. And again, I don't know what the fall 2019 booklist is yet. So I have to make commitments about my budget.
Victoria: Michelle had a really good analogy for this, but I don't know how I feel about this analogy. It's sort of like you have a Facebook friend in London, and you decide you want to go visit London, and then you text them once you land at Heathrow, "Hey, I'm in London. Can I stay at your house?" No, probably not. It's just that the assets are allocated out. That $3,000 is allocated out.
Victoria: And I'm happy for you that you took the initiative and gotten on a conference program, but that does not mean that I can pay for it because that's already been allocated out to educators who approached me or authors who approached me in advance and said, "Will you support me?" and I committed all of those assets. I have to know what I'm getting into.
Grace: So one thing some authors have talked to me about is that it's not even the transport, it's like they want to have a book signing or something like that. And then-
Victoria: I'll have a book signing with you if you come.
Grace: Okay. I know some authors can't even get a book signing even-
Victoria: And here is why.
Grace: That's what I wanted to see.
Victoria: I can say this because the NCTE programming came back last week. I have seven authors on programs, Random House or Simon & Schuster, Harper, they likely have 25 or 30. There's only so much time in a day that can be used on the exhibit floor for signings. It's a finite resource, and if I'm paying $3,000 for you to be at the conference and my priority needs to be to spend that time with you in the booth signing rather than Schmoe over here, author of The Pig Is Not Happy or The Pig Does Not Care, who went off and did this on their own and now wants to be in the booth at the same time. No.
Victoria: If I can accommodate that author, I will. If I don't have the time... because people who have gone through the process and have been approved and budgeted, I have to do that. I have to prioritize that. That's fair to those people. That's nice that you got on the program. Yay. I hope everybody goes in there, and I'll social media that, and I'll let people know, Yay. But if you go outside the process, that's fine, but understand that the budgeted folks have to take priority. I hope I explained that right.
Grace: Yeah. And I think it's good. And I think this is something that I've just slowly been coming to terms with or maybe just realizing. I think realizing is better. Because I never really thought about it before, but when we talk about equity and things like that, it's like for authors who have been at these conferences, you can't go every year, even if you have a book every year.
Victoria: And you can't go every year, and you can't go all the conferences every year. We had a discussion about one conference and people can kept coming back to us and wanting to participate and I'm like, "She's been there in the last three, and you're not giving me anything new or worth her time." It has to be worth your time. When I look at that... That's the other problem. If somebody comes to me with a program proposal, I'm like, "Okay, so you have a 60 minutes slot and you have eight authors on this program. Yeah, no, try again."
Victoria: Because I know from bitter experience, that's each person speaking for two minutes. Why would I spend $3,000 for you to speak for two minutes? No. No. Or the topic is not Germane. The topic has been done 80 million times before. I do pay attention to who organizes programs, and if you've burned me with having a very bad, poorly organized program, yeah, I'm never approving that again. You could come up with the best name for a program, the most stellar list of people to be on your program, but I know you can't handle it, I'm not putting my author out there to be embarrassed by something poor.
Grace: And from the author's viewpoint, it's just the idea that like you said, there's a limited amount of money, and if you went last year, yay, that was your turn. Now you have to let somebody else have a turn.
Victoria: It doesn't even always work out for... I don't love the metaphor of the turn because sometimes it's just... The Dragon Is Pink and Purple, it just doesn't merit it. You just don't have the skillset. It isn't a matter of your turn. We get into problems with, it's my turn now. No.
Grace: That's true.
Victoria: No. It's what makes the best sense. And I have to think about what is best for the book. I have to think about the longterm of the author. We talked about this with Laurie Halse Anderson and Emily Pan. In school and library marketing, we're thinking about, where is that book five years from now? Who is checking that book out? How many copies are on the shelf? What is the turn rate? Is it being connected to a classroom somewhere? Is there a utility to it beyond that publication year? We have to think about that.
Victoria: So I talk about budgets and the budgets are set for the year. That limits me in terms of back lists a little bit, but I do have to think creatively about the long term trajectory of your career, because we bought that book and I need that book to sell copies. I need it to earn out, I needed it to back list, I need it to continue contributing to the overall health of the company and the overall health of your career so that you get to publish more books because that's my job, that's my responsibility, to make the company money. Shareholder-owned operation. Super sorry. People don't like to talk about that, but it is true.
Victoria: But also, we are in business together. You agreed to be in business with me, so it's my job to do everything I can, responsibly, to make that successful, just as you're doing your part in writing the very best book that you can, going to the conferences and putting in great, creditable performances of talking about the book, when you go to school visits, creating a great experience for those kids so that they love you and they love the book. Me saying, "Okay," pitching you for the appropriate conferences, letting people know that you're available for school visits, helping you to price accordingly.
PLEASE COME BACK ON WEDNESDAY FOR PART 2 OF THIS INTERVIEW