For our series, MAKING OUR OWN MARKET, Kirsten Cappy of Curious City, a book consulting company, tackles the subject of marketing books created by or about African Americans.
Taking Book Marketing Off the Page, Out of the Park
For me, children’s book marketing on the Brown Bookshelf or off has never been about social media, press, coverage, or other perils of “self-promotion.” For me, marketing has always been about storytelling and discovery. The best marketing finds ways to:
- retell a story beyond the framework of the book
- engage readers deeper in the story
- create partners for the book by finding commonalities
- exhibit the book in unlikely locations
A bulleted list is meaningless, of course, without stories. Let me tell you a few. Let’s go out of the park and off the page to show how my small firm, Curious City used these marketing methods on a group of exceptional African American titles.
Beyond the Framework: Book Trailers
A book trailer is not a must in releasing a book. Yet, when we look at the challenges of getting a book stocked by a bookseller or the challenges of a reader walking into a store and saying, “that book is for me,” book trailers can be a way to bring the book to where readers are. A book trailer can “retell a story beyond the framework of the book” to a targeted online community, classroom, or a lone librarian or book buyer—all outside the confines of the traditional browsing experience.
How could I not want to open Don Tate’s illustrations for She Loved Baseball: The Effa Manley Story (HarperCollins) by Audrey Vernick to a wide audience? The day Don sent us the original scans of the art (complete with splashes of paint on the edges) was more than memorable. We choose to weave Don’s work with the narration of actor Dion Graham. Graham is known for TV roles including regular spots on The Wire and Law & Order, but for those in the book world, he is known as the voice of Kadir Nelson’s audio for We Are the Ship. Dion Graham’s is the kidlit voice of the Negro Leagues.
By sharing the trailer with bloggers who cared about female sports leaders or the Negro Leagues, we were able to “create partners for the book by finding commonalities.” Their blog posts would have been decent coverage for the book, but NJ author Audrey Vernick thought an additional partner might be the city of Newark where Effa Manley is still known. Audrey took the book and trailer to the firm that does publicity for Newark. Before we knew it, the city and minor league team based in Newark decided to honor Effa Manley with a special day at the ballpark that Effa and her husband had founded.
On a summer afternoon, cases and cases of the book were given away at the gate (courtesy of HarperCollins) and the book trailer played on the jumbotron. Dion Graham’s voice filled the stadium and Don Tate’s illustrations filled the screens. The team management liked the trailer so much, they played it in a free advertising jumbotron slot for the rest of the season, exposing the book to 1000’s of baseball fans. This was indeed an “unlikely location for an exhibit” of Don Tate’s work.
The book trailer can also be used to give voice to an African American character or subject when the author wants to be back stage, especially when the author of an African American title is White. We used the trailer for Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (FSG) to allow author Phillip Hoose to introduce Civil Rights heroine Claudette Colvin. After the intro, however, Phillip takes a step back (both in the visuals and the audio), clearly indicating that this is Claudette’s story, not his book.
Deep Reader Engagement: Reader Expression
Author Terry Farish had the privilege of becoming close to an extended family of Sudanese refugee girls and women in Portland, Maine. The mothers, worried about their daughters, welcomed Terry to write about their daughter’s struggle of being African and trying too quickly to become American. The Good Braider (Amazon Children’s Publishing) was vetted and blessed by the community before publication. After publication, however, Terry was hyper-aware of her whiteness. “Please, please do not put me behind an author table,” she said in our first meeting, “I do not want to be the face of this book. It is not my story.”
In “creating partners for the book by finding commonalities,” I reached out to a young Sudanese hip hop artist and shared a galley of the book with him. A few months later OD Bonny told me the book reminded him of his flight out of South Sudan alongside his brothers. I asked if we could pay to use one of his songs as the audio for a book trailer. He responded, “Why wouldn’t you want a song of your own? I’ll write it. Tonight.”
When I heard his song, “Girl From Juba,” I realized that it was not just marketing, but a reader’s genuine tribute to a work of fiction. An author can have no greater gift. I also realized that I did not need to be the one to produce this trailer. I transferred the book trailer funds to OD and the music video/book trailer was created with an all Sudanese American cast (save one Irish kid), crew, and director. The video had 1000 hits within a week, not of book professionals, but of Sudanese and African American young adults that follow OD’s music.
Getting a reader or a small group of readers deeply engaged can lead to a product which can become an incredible discovery tool for your book. A group of middle school students were the first ones to read Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice. Using photocopied galleys, librarian Kelley McDaniel led students in a discussion of Claudette’s life.
While Kelley was doing this, I was reading the book with a group of college Art Education majors. Together we designed a way for the middle school students to express their thoughts about Claudette in art. Because 14-year-old Claudette refused to give up her bus seat nine months before Rosa Parks became famous for doing the same, and because Claudette testified as a teenager in the court case that rang the death knell for transportation segregation, I proposed we exhibit the student’s art on a public bus.
Imagine the conversation I had with the bus company! They listened carefully and responded, “You want to talk about the abuse of African Americans onboard buses…on my bus system??” The NAACP representative who had planned to attend with me could not come at the last minute, so I had to figure out how to answer on my own. By the time I left, the bus company had not only said “yes,” but had given me old bus advertising signs to use as our canvasses.
Using a combination of small grant funds, school partnerships, and community sponsors like the NAACP, we launched the exhibit by flying Claudette Colvin in for a preview. After a lifetime of silence and before publication would make Claudette’s story national, this was the first time she had seen her words in print. The effect was breathtaking. This exhibit in an “unlikely location” toured the city for a month, introducing riders to a story they had never heard. You can read more about the reproducible Understanding Courage Project here and see more photos here.
Create Partners: Interns, Education, & WordPress
I have buckets of examples of how blogging on WordPress about the content of your title leads to discovery. When you take the non-fiction elements of your book (yes, even your novel) and explore them deeper in blog posts, you are creating delicious fodder for the search engines.
Working again with the local arts college, I designed a semester-long course of study on Bill Traylor, the outside artist brilliantly profiled in Don Tate’s book It Jes’ Happened (Lee & Low). An intern, Morgan Cremins, studied not only Taylor, but the illustration of Don Tate and R. Gregory Christie. Together Morgan and I built a website in support of the book where she blogged about all she had studied.
Paired with that site was an art curriculum created out of the same college’s Art Education department. The curriculum allows children to recognize, experience, and create with Bill Traylor’s visual lexicon. That curriculum served as an opening for Don Tate, R. Gregory Christie, the art educator Kelly McConnell, and myself to be the first outside educators to work at the American Folk Art Museum in New York. Tate and Christie appeared at the museum in conjunction with a Traylor exhibit. You can see photos of the appearance and art project here.
At the event, children created amazing art inspired by Bill Traylor. One of the most powerful moments came when Don Tate stepped forward to talk with kids about the depiction of African Americans in Bill Traylor’s work and in R. Gregory Christie’s illustrations. When a white 9-year-old raised his hand and asked the white staff educator why the Bill Traylor figure’s had the “bump on their back,” the educator became flustered and tried to move on. Don stood and explained that Bill Traylor emphasized the large “backends” of African Americans seen from his street corner in Montgomery, AL.
“As an African American man,” Tate said, “I am proud to have bigger lips, a bigger nose, and yes, maybe a bigger butt than my white friends. It is what makes me unique and I am proud of it.” The children, wide-eyed and smiling, accepted this as an uncomplicated and intriguing truth. And the program rolled on.
Books on the Brown Bookshelf share the same marketing challenges as any children’s book published, but they offer more opportunities to retell stories that break out of the framework of the book, pull children of all races deeper into the story, build crucial partnerships between different sides of the race equation, and have the freedom to exhibit themselves beyond the traditional confines of children’s publishing outlets. Let’s go off page, out of the park. and show kids the essential stories they have been missing.