Episode 91! Part 2 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, Grace shares Part 2 of the 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 is part 2 of the interview. If you have not heard part 1, you can listen to it HERE.
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.
Grace: No. But actually, I think we've... I hope we've covered well enough for the listeners about how and why you get sent and things like that, because I want to ask... The things that I'm really interested in is... I did this previous recording with Betsy Bird, right?
Victoria: Yeah. Heard that one. I do actually listen to your podcast. Sometimes it's a little lame, but I do listen to it.
Grace: This is the part that's very fascinating to me. And she seemed to indicate that publishers purposely sent forth their cute men as an effective savvy library tactic.
Victoria: I like Betsy quite a bit. I like her personally, I like her blog. Betsy does not engage in this part of what happens. The listeners cannot see the look on my face, but you can. So it is not the case that a publisher says, "He's cute white boy, let's send him out there." We send who we think is going to get accepted. And this, I think, you see there's not so much in the panels but in who gets keynotes.
Victoria: So where this process is slightly different... We'll take NCTE again as an example. NCTE when they're programming keynotes, and this is the same for TLA, ALA, any of them, they want butts in seats for the keynotes. So they want the people who will attract the most butts into the seats. And if the collective wisdom of the membership of NCTE is that a very attractive young man is flavor of the month, who is NCTE to say no to them?
Victoria: Now, I think there is an interesting dynamic, and I don't really want to get into this whole conversation because I have opinions that are pungent and unpopular. But I think there is an unexamined aspect of being at conferences that librarians and educators do not wish to engage. And last week, I happened to listen to the episode that you did with Laura Jimenez, which is an important episode. The episodes are generally pretty good.
Grace: Thank you.
Victoria: But Laura Jimenez's episode as well as Meg Medina's and E.D Campbell's episodes were particularly important. And Laura speaks about a particular author and the touching of a particular author. I think the touching, I know who she's talking about, and it is horrifying. But it doesn't just happen with authors of Color. So I'll tell a story. Sorry. It's NCTE again, and this really did happen. And this was many, many years ago.
Victoria: An author with whom I am familiar and friendly in very casual way, does not publish with us, had been at a signing at his publishers booth, got up from the chair, and I don't know how, tore the back of his pants, the seat of his pants, and you can see his underwear. And he's walking along and women are following him, taking pictures. And he comes up to my booth and I'm like, "Oh my God. Oh my God." Because he's noticed.
Victoria: I, at that time, had a false front on my booth, so there was a storage space in the back of this privacy area, and I just shoved him back there and had him change his pants. He had an extra set of pants with him because he was getting ready to leave. He was getting ready to leave, and he just happen to have it. And I had to stand in front of that because women were trying to get around me to take pictures of him.
Victoria: There is an aspect of behavior, and this is an extreme example, but not that extreme. And there are many recent examples, and the person Laura Jimenez was speaking about cannot have moments of casual privacy at a conference because the sense of ownership by conference attendees. I have had people, librarians say to me, "Comment on the physicality of male authors of a variety of ethnicities," in ways that are... I am really like, "What the [inaudible 00:36:11] came out of your mouth right now? No", because many of the attendees, yes, they're there for a professional reason, but because there's so much entertainment and there's so much... It's a week away from home, it's letting off steam a little bit, some boundaries are lowered.
Victoria: And I'm friends with older librarians. By older, I mean older than 70, and stories of ALA from times of your would curl your hair and straighten mine right out. But this is not examined. There's a lot of things that we're asked to examine and yet some people don't get to examine.
Grace: Well, I just think about that story you told. If the roles were reversed and it was a woman who had ripped something and was in her underwear, that would be disgusting. All these men-
Victoria: Yes. And I was just like, "Okay, we're going to have some laughter here because we're in a public space and I don't need a riot." But I was like, "Do you know what you're doing here?" No. And I think it just... There's a lot of unexamined aspects of children's literature that I find amusing.
Grace: So do you think that's changing a little bit or not at all, with all this me too and all these discussions that we're trying to have?
Victoria: I think that most folks don't want to think about things that make them uncomfortable or reflect about their own behavior in a way that may give them pause. I certainly don't. I don't like feeling bad. I don't like feeling bad about myself. And I went to divinity school to work that out, and it did not take... But I think there... One of the benefits of social media is that we cannot escape certain conversations. Again, I listened to Laura Jimenez on the call out culture, I'm like... I have some differences there. That's fine.
Victoria: But I think it does lift up a number of areas for examination that would be extremely helpful if we were to have a non Twitter or non social media based about them. And when you say, "Why is all this happening on Twitter, and why is it so pungent on Twitter?" I'm like, "Because you're refusing to have these conversations in longer form in other places where we can have more discussion, more fluency, more in depth examination."
Victoria: So there are aspects of that. One of the things I do wish, and I mentioned this in passing before, and it is interesting to me about when I looked at the me two comments, I really wish that we could come to an understanding that we are engaged in business. You are an author, illustrator, you should know what your businesses. When you look at a marketing plan, you should be able, if not with your editor then with your agent, talk about the business sense of what is being proposed.
Victoria: Meg talked about pricing yourself correctly. Do Research. Do research. I saw some of these things about SCBW and I'm like, "Why did you ever think that was real? Why did it occur to you that..." I don't understand that. What is going on at SCBW that they're not actually educating about the business mechanics? And to me, as somebody who grew up not middle class in this country, I hear people talk about, "Well, it's vulgar to talk about money." And I'm like, "That's your privilege, sweetheart. I know where my money's coming from. I know where it's going."
Victoria: We do need to think carefully and more formally about, this is business. Business is protecting yourself through information, through understanding what the mechanics are. If you are not spending $3,000 for me to go to a conference, what is the alternative? If I am not in an ad, what is the alternative? Is their social media for this? What is the utility of that? You want me to go to this book festival for publicity, that takes me away from my house, it takes me away from... What is the objective? What will that get? Think about asking business questions.
Victoria: Now, I am going to address one question on here that... Thank you. It did Not come from somebody published by LBYR. I don't know who it's from. Why is it so hard to get no one asking something from a publisher? I don't understand that, because I... and people I publish know this. I say no all the time. If you are uncomfortable with what your publicist is telling you or your marketing person is telling you or your school and library person's telling you, the answer is not to keep nudging past a certain point. It is also, don't go answer shopping because we all talk to each other. We really, really do.
Victoria: I talk to the publicity people, I talk to the marketing people, we all know this. Talk to your editor and if you don't get a satisfactory answer out of your editor, talk to your agent. Your agent is there to manage your business, and if your agent is not managing your business, you need to have a think about your agent, because the agent is supposed to be there to advocate for you. Yes, I'm pounding the table. Ever so gently.
Victoria: We as publishers try to be helpful to each other because we know that most of the authors and illustrators publish with more than one publisher, that is just the reality of it, and so we try not to step on each other's toes, and we try to be respectful to each other. But that does not mean we coordinate activities. Because that's illegal.
Grace: That's true.
Victoria: So I know that whole horn book thing last fall I was like, "I don't what random house is doing and they don't know what I'm doing, and I'm not talking to Adrian about that." But I'm talking to Adrian [inaudible 00:42:49], we are enjoying a clear spirit based beverage in a dark location and we are not talking about you guys.
Grace: Well, that's good to know.
Victoria: It's not okay for us to do that.
Grace: Just in case people don't remember the horn book thing, it was a-
Victoria: Yeah. Hi Roger. I listened to that episode too.
Grace: Where the horn book had shown... What was it? It was publisher questions, no, Roger's questions.
Victoria: It's a special feature. It's five questions with Roger, and it's a publisher preview and it cost a lot of money. It cost a lot of money, and it had to be approved by him. Yeah, I said it. And each publisher determines who that is. By whatever unluckiness of the draw, it's eight white people, one of whom is a woman. But I don't know-
Grace: You don't know what the other ones are doing.
Victoria: I have no clue in the world, nor would it be appropriate for me to know.
Grace: But would it be appropriate for somebody like Roger or... I think he's an owl, to call you up and say, "Hey, do you know we have eight white people? Do you want to reconsider?" Is that appropriate?
Grace: So it's not appropriate?
Victoria: It's not, and here's why. I have to make the decision of who to advertise based on a variety of factors. And I'm thinking about that specific ad. Yes, it was a white guy who did the questions. When I looked at the facing ad, it was a bunch of other people in that. But those questions dealt with a graphic novel about body image and boys. About body image. Why is that not something I should advertise or promote?
Grace: I guess the problem was how the whole thing plays.
Victoria: This is going to happen. This is going to happen because we don't talk to each other. And Roger is right about one thing of like, it's not for him to say what's in the facing ad. He can say, "Okay..." because it is up to him. I know he didn't say this in the... but it was up to him to decide if you wanted to interview that person. And he can always say, "No, I don't want to interview that person." He said it to me, "I don't want to interview somebody."
Victoria: But that's not on me to decide that. And I know for some people that's going to be your abrogating your responsibility. There's a lot of places where I can and do think about what's adding to the conversation and what's the balance and what's... and I try very hard to do that. But sometimes the person who's going to get the ad is a white guy. I'm sorry. They exist.
Grace: whoa, I don't think that's-
Victoria: And some of them say really valuable things.
Grace: I don't think that the problem has been that it's going to be a white guy. I think the problem has been that historically, it's always been the white guy.
Victoria: I have to say I absolve myself. I'm sorry, I'm not always perfect about this, but at my company, we spend a lot of time thinking about this. Again, going back to NCTE, I have seven people, two of them are white, one of them as a man. I will say also that I proposed another pairing for NCTE and they would declined specifically because they were white guys. And I was like, "Okay."
Grace: And I think that's been a change, right?
Victoria: I want to be able as a publisher to promote the book and the author that has the most interesting fluent thing to say. I want to make sure that I as a marketing person, as a person engaged in culture, take active steps to de center my frame of reference. So what is it that I read for leisure? What do I listen to for leisure? What do I watch for leisure? How do I make myself a better member of the business of the industry and do credit to all of the people that I publish by diversifying what I experience and what I'm exposed? Exposure sounds so pejorative. Diversify the types of cultural expressions that are in me so that I can not default to one element. Does that make sense?
Grace: It does. And I guess that's what we've... I think that's why we need diverse books. That's what everybody who talks about diversity has been always trying to fight against the default-
Victoria: There is a lot of this that's about access to the larger official system. And the problem that we have now... And I do have to go somewhere and scream about something else and I will be literally screaming. I said, "We need diverse books," as an organization was in here a couple of weeks ago, and I'm like, "I think we do publish... We're getting better at publishing more books. We have to look at the dynamic that leads to sales."
Victoria: So again, God, it's NCTE all the day here today. In 2014, I gave the closing keynote at ALAN, and I was talking a lot about adult colonization of why literature, but also who gets to be published. Every single book, every single copy has to earn its space on the shelf. But it has to earn the next space on the shelf. If you want more Kekla Magoon you have to buy Kekla Magoon, that makes more Kekla Magoon and the person who reads like Kekla Magoon.
Victoria: You want to read more Grace Lin. You got a bio Grace Lin, and then that also make space for other Asian American authors as well because publishing, will just... Again, shareholder owned operation goes for the thing that will sell. Then in my position, I have to think about, "Okay, it's not just a story the books out there. How do I get coverage and access and people discussing these books?" And when I said what I said to him, "We need diverse boxes?" Yes, we need these books, but we need more people talking about these books.
Grace: And reading them.
Victoria: And we need people from these communities who are speaking to about them. Nerdy Book Club is very exciting, but what is the community of Color that is replicating that? Of teachers and librarians who began as local street level educators and librarians talking about what works in their classrooms. We have hijabi librarian, Ariana Hussein and that crew, but is there something in the African American communities? Is there something in the Latinx communities?
Victoria: One is the thing, can we lift up that? And I would love, "We need diverse books," just like, "We need diverse reviewing, we need diverse blogging, we need diverse twittering, we need... and I try to engage with people who are making programs that are people who are diverse and thinking about that. That's a priority for us. Thinking about newer people coming into the system. I was at a book event last week and I was like, "What is going to happen when all these people die because they are all 20,000 years old?"
Victoria: And it's a legit thing. But where is that energy? We need people. We need to lift up reviewers. We need to lift up the people who are speaking like... If Laura Jimenez has Booktoss, how often am I looking at Booktoss? Not that often, because I don't do a lot of graphic novels. Okay. I'm realizing, no, I need to engage that. I need to make sure that is more prominent, talking about that outlet, seeing what her view is and seeing what she has to say. Looking at crazy quotes, looking at a variety of sources, and then sending the books out and being adult enough that maybe they're not going to like them for some reason and accept that and put my big girl pants on.
Grace: That's the tough thing.
Victoria: But actually just say, "Yes, this is important." And I guess that's where my energy is right now. It's thinking about, how can I support the emergence of those voices in a way that is organic to them? Do I sign books? Do I quote in ads? Do I prioritize panel proposals from those folks? How do I do that? And that's how I'm rethinking my job right now with that.
Grace: So I know that you're running out of time-
Grace: Let me just pick two questions from... Because I have so many from listeners.
Victoria: Which one of Nancy's questions did I not answer.
Grace: I think everybody's interested in this. Is an author's social media activity or lack of important to a publisher's marketing department? I think everybody's interested in that.
Victoria: Okay. So this is John Green problem. People forget. They all looked at what happened with Looking for Alaska. Not Looking for Alaska, what's that damn book, the last one with the blue cover. Was it made a movie. I think [inaudible 00:52:32]. Sorry. I did whisper that. We're not supposed to talk about that. So it's got the blue cover. Not Turtles All The Way Down. But what's the other one? So he promised on his Twitter to sign all the pre orders, and people lost their minds and there was a jillion copies.
Victoria: But what people forget is, he built that social media following, not through his books, not through his author activity. He built it through his Vlog Brothers business with his brother. That was a different audience that he brought to that book. And then everybody thought, "Oh my gosh, if I'm not on Twitter all day, I'm never going to sell a book." That's not true. But you do have to have some social media presence. Stay out of good reads. Stay off it. Stay out of there. Don't look. Do not look.
Victoria: All four of my fingers, eight of my fingers, two thumbs, all my eyelashes staring at the microphone, don't look at it. Stay out of it. Never. But are there chats going on? So the middle grade chat. And sometimes all it is, is listening, paying attention to what those conversations are about and what is being prioritized and just learning what those chats are talking about because the NCTE chat, the Texas Library Association chat, the middle grade chat. There's a lot of Twitter chats where people can just be like, "This is what's working with my kids. What's not working with my kids?" Don't insert yourself. "Hey, here's my book." If it's like, "Here's the field of discussion right here in center field", my book is appropriate to these nosebleed seats behind home plate. You see what I mean?
Grace: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Victoria: Be organic about it, but don't think you have to spend all your time on social media. That's not your job. It's my job. Oh my God. That's my job.
Grace: We'll make it a little lower. All right. One more question and then... What are examples of books that have great crossover interest between commercial and school library? Maybe instead of that one, give us some examples of three books you believe have excellent school and library marketing hooks and why. And then you could also do... That's actually ties into our two last questions, which is what are the books you are excited about? So why don't you pick three books from Little Brown that's on your list now, why you're excited about them. How does it-
Victoria: That's an interesting assumption that I'm excited about.
Grace: Well, why do you think they make excellent school and library books?
Victoria: I'm a big believer in Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences. I believe people process information differently, and I'm very intrigued by visual literacy and visual processing of information right now. We do some of the best picture books in the business, and I think one of the reasons why that is, is we spend a lot of time thinking about how the visual messaging, the visual storytelling goes with us. And as we work more with graphic novels, I think that's something deeply interesting.
Victoria: Before I was in children's publishing, I was in graduate school, I think I mentioned I was in divinity school. My job then was working literally in a tower on 122nd and Broadway with Martin Luther's galleys.
Victoria: And with books printed before 1500 and how literacy and language and stories were communicated in a time of mass illiteracy, and how physical storytelling was communicated. So that is to say I tend to respond more to books that present multiple ways of processing the world, whether that's a novel like The Mysterious Benedict Society or a book like that we have coming up by Michaela Goade and Brittany Luby called Encounter because... and I was just editing the book chat with the illustrator video for that, talking about centering the animal perspective on these two humans. And that's interesting.
Victoria: I tend to like a book that portrays in a matter of fact, but thoroughly just... it sticks the learning all the way through, follows the logic of the book. But that depicts in a matter of fact way childhood ambition. So I love sharing Winston's books. People should be reading Sheri Winston all the damn(Bleep?) time. Yes, I picked near the end to swear. But she has president of the whole fifth and sixth grade books. Then The Sweetest Sound, which is a book about faith and Showbiz, for lack of a better term, but also her new book Jada Sly, Artist & Spy.
Victoria: It's about girls with ambitions, and it's unapologetic about the ambitions or working through, in a coherent manner, how young women think about ambition, why does it make them uncomfortable? And she tends to write characters who are not... they don't like simpering separate. They don't simper. They may have troubles, they may have issues, but they engage with the world. And I think those are books that do well with school and library, where they model engagement with the world. So I'm not going to...
Victoria: Notice, I didn't mention the plot. You can read the plot. It's the aboutness that matters. It's about ambition, it's about dealing with one's ambition, it's about dealing with grief, it's about dealing with moving to a new place, it's about self representation, it's about honesty. In a middle grade book, it's about knowing that the world is not arbitrary. The world is made of choices. The world is made of adult choices, and in YA book, it's about making your own choices.
Victoria: So I tend to respond better to that, and I think ultimately, the best school and library books connecting to the curriculum, it's not so much the topic. It's about presentation.
Grace: That's interesting. I got to think about that. Okay, so I know you have to go. So we're going to the last question. What is your biggest publishing dream?
Victoria: I knew you were going to ask this. I have to be honest with you, I already achieved my dream.
Grace: Which one was it?
Victoria: I had two dreams, one of which was achieved in the year of the Holy God, past 2009 when Jerry Pinkney got a gold sticker on his book. And the other dream was achieved this past January in Seattle when somebody called me on the phone and said, "Gracelyn has an honor for Big Mooncake."
Victoria: Those are it.
Victoria: I schemed a lot. I don't write, except little tiny habits and very flippant Twitter about my cat and my next glass of scotch. So I don't have that type of publishing dream. My secret dream is to have a little bungalow in Ladd's Addition Portland, Oregon, where I will have a garage and I can make all the weird crafts projects I want.
Grace: I'd like to see your crafts projects.
Victoria: I made a feather covered umbrella for Holly Black. I named it Oscar. I pick weird things about the street and make frames out of them.
Grace: That's cool.
Victoria: So weird things to get. And it's not any one... Sometimes I have like, "Oh, I would like to make that. How do we do that?" So I'm going to need a garage to make weird... I like to putter and you can't really put her in Brooklyn, at least not the part I live in. It's filled with old people and they get cranky about the noise.
Grace: Oh wow. Okay. So I know you have to go, but I want to thank you so much. This was a great-
Victoria: I will be fascinated to see which parts you cut out, kitty cat.
Grace: I don't think I'll cut put anything. I'll send it to you. Thank you very much, Victoria.
Victoria: Goodbye everyone. Please don't hate me or if you do, don't tell me.