June 17, 2010

Today’s expert is Jason Wells, Publicity and Marketing Director for Abrams Books for Young Readers and Amulet Books.

Wells began his career in publishing at age sixteen at a small publisher on Long Island. Before joining Abrams in 2002, he held positions at Penguin, DK, Hyperion, and Simon & Schuster. In 2007 he received his MLS from Pratt Institute. He has worked on the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney; Lauren Myracle’s TTYL and Flower Power books; Ian Falconer’s Olivia; NERDS and The Sisters Grimm series by Michael Buckley; Babar by Laurent de Brunhoff; The Jellybeans series by Laura Numeroff; Tonya Bolden’s Maritcha: A Nineteenth-Century American Girl and George Washington Carver; 365 Penguins by Jean Luc Fromental and illustrated by Joelle Jolivet; and the forthcoming My Uncle Martin’s Big Heart by Angela Farris Watkins, illustrated by Erica Velasquez (among other titles).

BBS:  Hi, Jason. Welcome to The Brown Bookshelf.

JW:   Glad to be here. I’ve long looked from afar at the work that you do. It’s thrilling to take part.

BBS:  What does your job as Publicity and Marketing Director entail?

JW:   I, with the people in my department, handle everything from setting up author and illustrator interviews and appearances, to pitching authors and illustrators for trade shows, submitting awards, coming up with clever marketing campaigns and much more. Of course, as director I also have to handle managing and motivating the team, and planning out the future.  One of the most important roles I play is as communicator—explaining how things work to authors and illustrators and relaying news to them, talking with our sales reps to help them feed information and promotions to customers, and working directly with librarians, booksellers, and the media to spread the word about our books and get feedback.

BBS:  What is your working relationship with the author/illustrator?

JW:   During the peak promotion period for the book there are calls, e-mails, and information shared back and forth. I like to think of relationships with authors and illustrators as open, in which they feel free to ask lots of questions to discover what is possible.

BBS:  These days, authors have a fair amount of marketing responsibilities—even when published traditionally.  In your view, what are the most effective ways they can spend their time and financial resources?

JW:   To be clear, the author’s involvement has a lot to do with how much time they have to devote to the project.  I’m not going to isolate specific things to do as every book is different. Not all book plans are the same. But in general, authors (if willing, and especially if new) should:

1)      Always consider every opportunity for promotion. We will often get requests from schools or stores that are nowhere near where the author lives. So if the publisher and author can work together to make these happen it is great. A publisher may not be able to always send an author somewhere but they can assist in other ways.

2)       Talk talk talk.  Publishers cannot fulfill every request an author may have, but talking about everything is important.

3)       Don’t ignore local resources. Some of the best campaigns start at home. If you can get a local librarian, bookseller, or media outlet to cheerlead, sometimes the rest of the world then takes notice.

BBS:  What marketing activities does a company like Abrams engage in when promoting a new title?

JW:   The list goes on and on. But here are some things we always do:

1)       Send review copies to key media, booksellers, librarians, and targeted subject areas that make sense.

2)       Keep our sales people informed of activities on the book, so they can then inform booksellers who will want to buy more copies.

3)       Exhibit books at trade shows, and bring in authors and illustrators when we can.

The list goes on and on though!

BBS:  Tell us the biggest error you see authors making with respect to their perspective on promotion?

JW:   I think there is a growing perception that publishers are less supportive than ever before. At least at Abrams, this is not true. So the worst thing an author can do is be distrustful of a publisher without talking to them first.  While answers may not always be what the author wants to hear, at Abrams, we want authors to be part of the process all along the way.

BBS:   There is a perception among many authors that the majority of promotional activities for PBs lie with them—versus the illustrator.  Is that accurate? If so, why do you think that is?

JW:   That is not accurate in my world, unless either party does not like to promote.  I love the “divide and conquer” approach. If the illustrator lives in point A and the author in point B, all the better for spreading the word.

BBS:   Any final advice on book promotion (including anything specific for authors/illustrators of color)?

JW:   In my experience authors and illustrators of color have access to some unique marketing arenas. I’d advise them to take advantage of as many of them as possible. 

BBS:   Drink the leftover milk (from your cereal), or pour it out?

JW:   Drink it, every day.

BBS:   Picket fence and front porch, or high-rise condo with doorman?

JW:   Picket fence and porch if it is waterfront, otherwise high-rise, doorman or not.

BBS:  Street smart, book smart, or smart alec ?

JW: Book smart alec.

BBS:   Let someone else pick all your clothes, or decide what you eat?

JW:   Clothes, for sure. Only two of my seven outfits a week usually make sense.

EXPERT SCOOP with Jennifer Rofé

January 22, 2010


Jennifer Rofé is a literary agent at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency (ABLA). Jennifer earned a BA in English with a minor in Social and Ethnic Relations from UC Davis, and has a background in secondary education. Jennifer has been on faculty for the Big Sur Writer’s Workshop; the San Francisco Writer’s Workshop; and WNBA, PCCWW and SCBWI conferences.


BBS:    Welcome to the Brown Bookshelf, Jennifer.

JR:      Thanks for having me!

BBS:    PBs have reportedly been a very tough sell for the past few years. Is that still the case today?

JR:      Across the board, the marketplace has become even more difficult on account of the economy. This has certainly affected the already challenging picture book market. But, they’re still selling, so take heart.

BBS:    What types of PBs are selling best right now? What types do publishers seem to be “over”?

JR:      Short, snappy, character-driven picture books are doing the best right now. Picture book writers should aim for texts under 1,000 words, though I encourage aiming for 500.

BBS:    When publishers say they’re looking for “multicultural” books, does that mean books with more than one culture represented–or does it mean books that feature a specific ethnic group? Does the definition of “multi-cultural” vary from publisher to publisher?

JR:      There’s no across-the-board answer to this question. I’d say it’s each and both. Ultimately, it’s important that an author’s representation of all characters be realistic and genuine. I, for one, find myself somewhat put off when it seems an author is including a rainbow of characters in an attempt to make her book multicultural.

BBS:    How does the unpublished PB author know when the time is right to seek representation for their work? Should they have a certain number of manuscripts in their portfolio?

JR:      For those writing only picture books, I do think it’s best to have at least three strong texts when looking for an agent. A challenge that picture book writers can run up against is that they may be very prolific, but a small percentage of their manuscripts will be viable for the market. Having an offer from a publisher is also a fine time to secure an agent.

BBS:    What are the qualities an author should look for in an agent?

JR:      A positive reputation and/or being connected to a well-respected agency are qualities authors should consider when looking for an agent. Beyond that, an author should consider if the agent has (recent) sales to major publishers and if the agent’s body of work aligns with the author’s project(s). There’s a great deal of information out there about agents, and authors should have no problem doing their research. Of course, this research should be done before querying agents.

BBS:    What are the qualities you look for in a prospective client?

JR:      First and foremost, I need to know if a prospective client is willing and able to revise – if not, then I won’t be able to work with the writer and I certainly won’t be able to connect her with an editor, who will expect revisions. I also consider how many projects/works in progress the writer has and if she is knowledgeable of the industry, belongs to a critique group of some sort, and is willing to spend time marketing her book once it’s published.

BBS:    What percentage of your current clients are African American (or people of color)? Do you actively seek out writers of color to represent? Why or why isn’t that a primary factor in your selection process?

JR:      Ten percent of my clients are “people of color”. Though this isn’t a primary factor in my selection process, I do find myself attracted to stories featuring multicultural characters where race isn’t the issue. For instance, Paris Pan Takes the Dare by Cynthea Liu (Penguin 2009) and the forthcoming How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy by Crystal Allen (HarperCollins 2011) feature a Chinese and African-American protagonist, respectively, but race is not the central focus of either story.

            I’ve never really explored why this is. It could be because of my own background, it could be a personal taste. I minored in Social and Ethnic Relations in college with a focus on multicultural literature, so this is something that has appealed to me for some time.

BBS:    It’s been suggested that the industry tends to keep Af-Am writers in a box regarding the types of books they’re willing to publish (i.e., street lit, historical fiction, historical non-fiction). Have you experienced this with any of your clients? Why or why not, do you think?

JR:      I haven’t experienced this with my clients, but I have been in the situation where a book featuring African American characters that the author intended for the mainstream audience was, had we gone with an interested publisher, slated to be published under the company’s “ethnic” imprint. As this wasn’t the author’s vision for the book, we went with another publisher.

BBS:    What are some of your favorite books recently written or illustrated by African Americans?

JR:      My current favorites are the picture book Around Our Way by none other than Tameka Brown (Abrams, 2010) and the middle grade How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy by Crystal Allen (HarperCollins, 2011).   :)

Outside of children’s lit, I’m a big Toni Morrison fan, and The Known World by Edward P. Jones is one of my all-time favorite books, so any chance I have to talk it up, I do. It’s a must read!

BBS:    How important is networking for the unpublished author? With whom should they be networking…editors? Agents? Other writers? Is it more important to network with one group above all others?

JR:      Networking definitely plays a role, and I think authors should be networking with other authors and attending conferences where they can meet agents and editors while learning about the industry. SCBWI ( is an absolute must for aspiring authors. But even more important, unpublished authors should be focusing on honing their craft. It doesn’t matter how many people you know if you don’t know your craft. 

BBS:    You speak to writers a lot and you give out lots of advice. What’s the one piece of advice you’d like to leave our readers with…that you almost hesitate to say out loud, but you know would make a tremendous difference in their writing careers if they heeded it?

JR:      Publishing is an art and a business. Aspiring authors need to really, truly study their craft. I have a client who literally takes published books apart to see how the author built and developed the story. An aspiring author should also aim to understand how his/her book fits within the business – where on the shelves would your book go? Who is your audience? How does your manuscript stack up to those currently being published? Is your idea marketable for a broad audience? If a writer is serious about being a published author, then he/she must study and do research.

BBS:    Thanks so much, Jennifer, for your straightforward and honest answers. In keeping with that openness…meatloaf or sushi?

JR:      Wimpy sushi. In other words, California and shrimp tempura rolls.

BBS:    New York or LA?

JR:      “From the South Bay to the Valley, from the West Side to the East Side…looks like another perfect day. I love L.A.”

BBS:    Charlie Brown or Lucy?

JR:      A delicate balance of both.


For more information on Jennifer Rofé and ABLA, visit


December 4, 2009

Being a new member of The Brown Bookshelf, and primarily a picture book writer, I thought it fitting that I dedicate myself to blogging about newbie/PB stuff. My mission is to provide inside info— tapping a broad spectrum of key decision makers that drive what is currently deemed marketable (and therefore, most likely to be purchased). I’ll also shed light on the present and evolving status of PBs in the industry.  

I’ll seek out the usual suspects to help us make sense of all this (editors, agents, and booksellers), but I’ll also access experts and gatekeepers whose thoughts we writers don’t often hear. Toward that end…

Tonya Pointer is a National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT), certified in the area of Elementary Education (K-6), and a member of the North Carolina Association for Educators (NCAE).

BBS:  Welcome to The Brown Bookshelf, Tonya.

TP:   Thank you.

BBS:  How long have you been working in the field of literacy/education?

TP:   I’ve worked in the educational field for 19 years…ranging from paraprofessional, teacher, literacy facilitator, and now reading specialist.

BBS:  What age group do you currently work with? What age groups have you worked with in the past?

TP:   Currently, I am a literacy coach for the second grade team at a local elementary school.  I’ve taught 4th grade, and reading to K – 5th grade students.

BBS:  What does your job entail?

TP:   I coach classroom teachers in implementing research based teaching practices to promote high student achievement.  This includes: facilitating team planning to align classroom instruction with state standards; modeling lessons to address all learning styles; co-teaching; and motivating teachers to improve teacher efficacy, collaboration and overall student development.

BBS:  What role do picture books play in improving a child’s literacy level?  Are there specific ways teachers can utilize them in the classroom to do so?

TP:   All genres of books are significant in educating a child.  Picture books are especially useful to promote the core values that underpin the curriculum, and to generate thoughtful debate on a range of issues. These discussions promote oral language development.  They also provide ideal material to develop students’ visual literacy, helping them to achieve stronger outcomes in the viewing mode of the English Learning Area.

Picture books serve as excellent tools for helping students link the text to the pictures, aiding in visualization and comprehension. They also help students make connections to personal experiences, to deepen their understanding of the story.  These books are often used to teach fluency, vocabulary and comprehension strategies for overall reading development. 

BBS:  As a writer of this genre, I’m interested in your opinion about what makes a superior picture book. As a specialist, what attributes do you specifically seek when selecting picture books to help a child improve his or her reading skills?

TP:   It depends on the child’s reading needs.  There are five main components of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension.  If a child is weak in phonemic awareness and phonics, I look for picture books that have simple, rhyming text with supporting pictures.  For vocabulary and comprehension development, books that use pictures to support context clues are important to aid in identifying the meaning of unknown words and understand the story.

BBS:  Picture books traditionally have been written for the pre-school to lower elementary set, but increasingly we hear they’re being utilized in the classroom with older children.  Has this been your experience? In what specific ways are they used? 

TP:   Yes.  As I stated, they are extremely useful in teaching comprehension strategies—especially to older students who are still developing fluency.  The illustrations aid in tracking comprehension because these students still spend a lot of effort in decoding text.  Pictures also provide support for students when they are constructing literal meaning such as the “who, what, where, when” in reference to story elements.  Older students often use the images in picture books to help clarify meaning of events, characters or vocabulary.

BBS:  Do you actively seek out books written by (or for) people of color, African-Americans in particular? Is this authorship information readily available to you, or is it difficult to obtain?

TP:   Actually, I purposely choose books from diverse cultures.  Students often have a deeper interest in books to which they can make connections.  These connections lead to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the author’s intentions.  Another reason I seek diversity is to broaden their knowledge base regarding their world.  Yes, locating minority authors is easily accessible.

BBS:  For all of the aspiring PB writers out there, what types of picture books could you use more of? What are some of the most popular picture books among the students at your school?

TP:   There are a plethora of picture books available to children. Lately, I find myself searching for more bi-lingual books for our students who are learning English as a second language. Picture books by Eric Carle, Patricia Polocco, and  Mildred Taylor are some of my students’ favorites.

BBS:  Thank you so much, Tonya, for the knowledge you have shared with us today. Before you leave us…Coffee or Cocoa?   

TP:   Cocoa

BBS:  Scrabble or Pictionary?

TP:   Scrabble

BBSFat Albert or Akeelah and the Bee

TP:  Fat Albert