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Marketing to the gatekeepers: Karys McEwen on marketing books for young people

In her final column for Junior, Karys McEwen explores what works (and what doesn’t) when marketing children’s literature to the people actually purchasing books—adults.

When it comes to marketing literature to children, it’s usually the adult gatekeepers that publishers and booksellers need to appeal to. Those funding the majority of book purchases—librarians, teachers, parents, guardians—are the people who have the power to put a book into the hands of a young person, or to even turn a book into a bestseller. As a school librarian, I don’t take that responsibility lightly. I rely on honest and well-thought-out marketing as one way to make informed decisions about what books go into my collection.

Speaking from my own experience, there are marketing attempts that work and those that don’t. A big green flag is online buzz generated from early reviews and a smart social media campaign, especially before the book is released. I keep an eye on Instagram and Twitter, as well as book blogs and Goodreads reviews from readers I know and trust. It Sounded Better in My Head by Nina Kenwood (Text) is an example of this: an Australian young adult novel whose publisher generated interest in the book both before and after it was published, to great effect. Posting charming animated videos based on the cover art, select quotes from early reviews and readers’ own flat lays of the book, as well as hosting a ‘Cosy Reading Night’ on Twitter all felt relevant to the content of the novel itself. This drew me in and led me to pre-order the book for my library.

A personal touch is another thing that pushes me to notice a particular book over another. If the author is involved in a genuine way, I am more likely to pay attention. Will Kostakis’ latest novel Monuments (Lothian) has been marketed successfully—both to me and my teenage students—because of his very funny and sometimes irreverent plugging of the book on his own social media accounts. After Will posted an image of his yiayia’s copy of Monuments bound in clingwrap for safekeeping, my students had a joyous conversation about the strange things our grandparents do. Although Will’s post wasn’t directly related to the book, this discussion led to nearly all of the kids wanting to read it. Authors promoting each other’s books in this personal way also works effectively, as it makes sense to trust those who are writers themselves to know a good story when they read it.

Comparison between books is also something I welcome, as it helps when it comes to pitching titles to readers. One of my students just read All That Impossible Space by Anna Morgan (Lothian) because the back cover states it is ‘perfect for fans of Cath Crowley and Fiona Wood’. When young people discover a book they enjoy, they immediately want something similar, so promoting a book as a ‘readalike’ is a surefire way to hook them. Of course, this needs to be a legitimate juxtaposition, not one for the sake of it. I cringe at how many promises of ‘the next Rainbow Rowell’ or ‘the next John Green’ I see being made (and broken).

Many publishers and booksellers promote books by showcasing the awards they have won or been shortlisted for, but for me this is not a reason to automatically purchase something. Undoubtedly the recognition for a book is significant, but a good librarian also understands that young people don’t pay much attention to what adults think has literary merit—although there is sometimes a crossover. (For example, this year’s CBCA Book of the Year Older Readers category winner, Between Us by Clare Atkins (Black Inc.), has been universally loved by my students.) Something like the Inky Awards are generally a better marker for success in terms of getting high library circulation, because the winners are books that teens themselves have voted on.

Finally, something I am repelled by is pushiness. Just like those restaurants that hire people to stand outside and coax diners in, we are all wary of marketing campaigns that go too far. I have had publishers or authors send their book to my school under the guise of receiving a free copy, only to send an invoice a few weeks later. There is a fine line between promoting a book and trying a bit too hard. Librarians and their young patrons are not oblivious to this behaviour.

Of course, I do find myself deferring to the kids time and time again. While I consistently seek out new reading material for my students, I also listen to what they have discovered themselves, and buy everything I possibly can from their recommendations. They come across some interesting things, from obscure graphic novels to self-published fanfiction. More than ever, I think, young people are taking charge and seeking out their own books. The internet has made this easier than in previous generations, but simple word of mouth between peers also has a substantial impact. In saying that though, when I asked my student book club recently how they discovered the book they are currently reading their answers were clear: I recommended it to them. Publishers and booksellers should keep marketing those excellent reads to the gatekeepers, so we can keep putting them into the eager hands of our young people.

Karys McEwen is the library manager at both Prahran and Richmond High Schools in Melbourne, as well as the president of CBCA Vic Branch


Category: Features Junior Opinion