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Good Books Need Good Marketers:
A Conversation with
Publicity/Promotions Manager Donna Spurlock

By Anna Olswanger

Donna Spurlock's first job after graduating from Miami University in Ohio was working in a bookstore in Boston. She fell in love with bookselling and decided to become part of publishing the books that her customers wanted to read. In 1996 she joined Charlesbridge's customer service department. She soon became the customer service manager and credit manager, then the assistant to the Publicity/Promotions Coordinator. She is now the Publicity/Promotions Manager.


ANNA OLSWANGER: At what point in a book's history do you create the marketing plan?

DONNA SPURLOCK: About a year in advance we develop a marketing plan, which can include a promotional item or a novelty–an added bonus to the book that increases its inherent value. For example, we made the back endsheet of The Big Buck Adventure into a make-shift bank with slots for kids to save their quarters and dimes. But marketing generally concentrates on the season at hand–the months leading up to publication and the two to three months after publication.

OLSWANGER: What do you do then?

SPURLOCK: That's when we start researching specific outlets beyond bookstores. A book about trains, for example, will fit into hobbyist stores or railway gift shops. Also, we plan promotions to make the books stand out, such as book parties or events built around a specific book or author. We find out which associations or organizations would want to make the book available to their members or customers, and we contact newspapers, magazines, and newsletters that we think would be interested in promoting and reviewing the book. When the season is in full swing, the marketing team just keeps up this pace, but at the same time, we don't stop marketing or cross-promoting the backlist.

OLSWANGER: What is your most effective marketing tool?

SPURLOCK: The elements in marketing–sales, publicity, and promotion–are symbiotic. I don't think you could remove one of these and still garner the same results. Authors need to write good books, and good books need to have good editors and marketers. Direct sales, advertising, reviews and articles, author visits–all these contribute to marketing a book. But, putting books into the hands of readers–in our case, children–is what is most important, and our most effective tool is people who love bookselling. At Charlesbridge, almost every employee has a background in bookselling, whether in bookstores, libraries, or in other publishing houses.

OLSWANGER: When you are creating the marketing plan for a book, how much input do you want from the author?

SPURLOCK: I turn to authors first because they are the experts on their books. Through their research while writing, or through associations and organizations that they belong to, they can be a wellspring of leads to publicity, promotions, and sales. They're a source I want to tap into. Often, though, marketing is intuitive. For example, our book Extraordinary Girls is a book about girls for girls. I know that I'm going to call girls' clubs, the Girl Scouts, and girl's magazines, just because that makes sense.

OLSWANGER: How involved should an author be in the marketing of her book?

SPURLOCK: Communication between authors and marketing is imperative so that we can all put our best efforts behind the book. If authors don't let marketing know where they're visiting and what they're doing in the way of programs, we can't promote to local papers, local schools, and on our web site. And if orders start coming in without our knowing that an author visit is pending, we won't be able to treat the orders with rush service, or include posters, bookmarks, whatever would make the visit a success.

OLSWANGER: Does the marketing department influence the editorial department in deciding which manuscripts to acquire?

SPURLOCK: I wouldn't say that the marketing department influences the editorial department's decisions, but we do have a voice. We have ongoing discussions about what type of books we as a company should be looking for–what type of books would enhance our list and help us grow. Our mandate at Charlesbridge is for well-written stories with interesting characters, and books that educate and entertain. The marketing department has the advantage of being in contact with book buyers–retailers, wholesalers, catalog companies, and anyone else who sells books–on a daily basis. We pay close attention to trends and listen to what buyers want, whether it's books about the rain forest or books for girls. Acquisition, however, is a decision of the publishing committee, and that consists of the publisher, associate publisher, and the editorial director.

OLSWANGER: Does editorial work with marketing when the book is in production?

SPURLOCK: Editorial does show books in production to marketing, and if we have questions about the text, illustrations, or design, we make comments. We try to think about specific placement in bookstores and how to ensure that the book will look its best on the shelf. We also try to consider what customers may be looking for. We have our own personal opinions and wish-lists, which might mean adding a make-shift bank or a map of the ancient world to the text. Editorial does consider our suggestions and comments, but they are not obligated to change anything. And marketing doesn't act as an entity. We gather as individuals with our own questions, comments, and suggestions. We act as the book's test subjects.

OLSWANGER: Does marketing ever suggest book ideas to editorial?

SPURLOCK: Yes, we suggest subjects that we feel would be interesting and educational. If it's a subject that everyone agrees should be addressed, editorial will then either seek out manuscripts, or an author and illustrator for the project.

OLSWANGER: Where does Charlesbridge find authors for its licensed books?

SPURLOCK: In the case of the original The M&M's® Brand Counting Book, the author Barbara McGrath conceived of that idea and came to Charlesbridge. Sometimes authors submit original works, and sometimes the editorial department commissions authors.

OLSWANGER: Are licensed books harder or easier to market than "regular" books?

SPURLOCK: We don't approach marketing a licensed book differently than any other book. We understand that books with a product or character license have sparked controversy, but we think that if a book with M&M's®, for example, helps a child learn basic concepts or encourages that child to read, then it's a good book. All our books have educational value, which is what we try to focus on in our marketing plans. We ask ourselves what makes this book different or unique. Does it offer complete information, wonderful illustrations, or further study that would make it a book children will want to read over and over, and add to their collection?

OLSWANGER: From marketing's point of view, what's the profile of a "favorite" author?

Our favorite authors go to bookstores and sign books, visit schools and libraries. They talk about their book and are in the public eye, whether they seek out these opportunities or make appearances that I have arranged. They know that author visits, interviews, features, and speaking engagements get the word out

Copyright 2001 Anna Olswanger. All rights reserved.

Other interviews by Anna Olswanger are available at Anna Olswanger Books.

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