Marketing Is Storytelling: Susan Salzman Raab

Originally posted: Fri, May 8, 2009

by Sujata Shekar

“Marketing is storytelling,” said Susan Salzman Raab, President, Raab Associates, Inc., forging an instant bond with the authors and illustrators who had gathered to hear her speak at the SCBWI Metro New York Tuesday Professional Series event in October.

Raab has been in the book business for over 25 years. She founded Raab Associates in 1986 as an agency dedicated to promoting and marketing children’s books. Prior to founding the agency, Raab worked as publicity manager at Scholastic, Inc., publicist for juvenile books at Dell Publishing, and promotion associate for school and college books at Bantam Books. She serves as the Marketing Advisor to SCBWI and since 1994, has written the “To Market” column for SCBWI’s national Bulletin.

“What is marketing?” Raab began her speech with this fundamental question. She compared the process to creating a company and crafting a brand identity with the author as the CEO and the author’s books as the product line. Like any business owner, she said, an author must carve out a differentiated niche and take advantage of current trends that benefit his or her brand. Raab sees building an identity or public persona that is broader than a particular book or project as essential to creating context and an easily identifiable platform to potential buyers. Such an effort takes time.

“Marketing is no magic bullet.” Raab warned that it was rare for one book, interview, or article to catapult a career forward. But, she added, the reverse is also true: one gaffe does not ruin a career. She pointed out that while a public relations professional was expected to provide regular updates on work done, it was hard to predict success upfront or benchmark results against a target.

What are some specific steps? Raab recommended visiting schools, libraries and bookstores, setting up websites, posting on blogs, emailing targeted mailing list recipients, and attending industry events as valuable options.

Who should lead the marketing effort? Raab advised the audience to hire a public relations firm if they felt they had reached a career plateau or if publisher support had faded. Other worthwhile reasons include a book or series which the author believes is promising enough to invest in, or which deals with a controversial topic that needs a media buffer.

What about do-it-yourself marketing? Any time is a good time for self-marketing, Raab believes. She said that since authors know their own stories best, they are well equipped to market themselves. She urged authors to team up in organizing events or negotiating media coverage while continuing to work with their publishers and keeping them informed of independent marketing efforts. When deciding how much to spend on self marketing given the current economic situation, Raab disclosed that most marketing firms charged by project and duration of campaign, and actual numbers varied widely. One-off consults may be a less expensive option.

What about freelance marketing? Raab noted that the rising cost of paper and travel, as well as cutbacks in library and bookstore budgets, has lead to tight business conditions. This has caused experienced industry players to set up freelance marketing and special services companies, which may well be to the benefit of authors and illustrators looking to build their brands.

Finally, Raab managed to strike a positive note on the global economic slowdown. Her research showed that customers had cocooned themselves at home during previous recessionary cycles and were least likely to scrimp on products for their kids. If that historical trend holds true this time around, children’s books should be relatively well positioned.

Sujata Shekar recently finished her first middle grade novel Bacteriophylus and the Body Guard. She is currently working on a second novel for the same age group.

Closer Look:
Susan Salzman Raab on Authors’ Marketing Resources:
Besides the SCBWI and its bi-annual conference, Raab highlighted the Association of Booksellers for Children’s newsletter and the Library of Congress’ website for book fairs and festival dates.

She noted that BookExpo America was scheduled to be held in New York next year (May 28-31, 2009), presenting an opportunity for local authors to meet with leading industry professionals. Other outlets for writers to keep in touch with the business and each other were the American Library Association, The Cooperative Children’s Book Center and Yahoo Writers’ Groups. She encouraged use of media services companies and sites such as Bacon’s (now Cision, distributes press releases), Market Data Retrieval (helps reach specific interest groups such as, say, middle school teachers), Gebbie’s (hosts a comprehensive media directory), Harold Underdown’s The Purple Crayon (contains a wealth of articles and links) and Modern Postcard (enables direct mail campaigns with postcards).

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