Interview with Book Marketing Expert Catherine Balkin
WHAT’S A BALKIN AND WHO ARE THE BUDDIES?
I’m the Balkin. Well, I’m one of them. I’m one of the Catherine Balkins. My mother was another one, but then a Catherine Balkin in Australiafound me on Facebook. We have no idea if we are related but we hope so, since we felt like sisters when we met during a trip she and her husband made to New York City.
I’m from Buffalo, New York originally, although I lived in New York longer than I lived in Buffalo (about 35 years). Still, that’s where my roots are and where my childhood memories live. Soon I’ll be living in Tampa, Florida, where the Balkin Buddies office will be a bit bigger.
Once upon a time, I worked in advertising, then in publishing. The place I worked at the longest was HarperCollins, where I spent nearly 15 years working with the legendary Bill Morris until he died in 2003. I used to set up author appearances in schools, libraries and at conferences, and handled all marketing activities and events related to HarperCollins' participation in library and educational conferences. If you've ever been to an ALA, IRA, NCTE, ALAN, or TLA, you've probably met me. While at HarperCollins, I also created the first publisher's electronic listserv dedicated to serving teachers and librarians, providing information on awards, authors and illustrators, and the Balkin Buddies blog (http://balkinbuddies.blogspot.com) is something of an extension of that.
Soon after Bill’s death, I started my own author appearance business and thus, Balkin Buddies was born. So I’m still arranging author appearances in schools, libraries and at conferences, and I also do a bit of consulting for various publishers from time to time and a bit of freelance work every now and then. But mainly I work directly with authors and artists, and they, of course, are the buddies. Some of them are old friends, some of them are new. All of them are wonderful, creative, fun, unique, and great with kids.
With the economic downturn, many Balkin Buddies authors and artists have also begun doing online chats via Skype or iChat. One university professor in Florida used Adobe Connect to have her distance learning students in Seattlechat with an author in Tennessee. Online chats are a good deal cheaper than onsite visits. The honorariums are much lower because there’s less preparation time for the author or artist, and there are no expenses like hotel bills, airfare, train fare, or even gas mileage for the hosting organization. You can find more information about this on the online chat page at the Balkin Buddies website (www.BalkinBuddies.com), where you’ll also be directed to other pages with even more details. However, if you prefer, you can just phone or email me (718 857 7605,firstname.lastname@example.org) and I’ll be happy to talk to you directly, but please wait till after August 11, as I’ll be in the moving process until then. In the meantime, you can learn more about me on my Facebook page, although I must warn you, there are a lot of pictures of my two parrots.
Occasionally, I give talks myself, sometimes about author appearances, sometimes about online chats, sometimes about specific subjects I’m asked to address. On November 19, 2011, I will be giving a presentation with an illustrator I represent (Jan Spivey Gilchrist) NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) and we’ll be discussing collaboration between writers and illustrators and she will give a brief illustrating workshop. On November 21, 2011 at ALAN (Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of NCTE), I’ll be on a panel with a writer and a couple of teachers discussing Skype chats.
Deirdra: Can you tell us a little about “Balkin Buddies,” and what your organization does for authors and readers?
Catherine: I set up on-site speaking engagements for about 75 authors and illustrators in schools and libraries and at festivals, conferences, university programs, and any other type of event where they would get paid. I also set up Skype chats for about 40 authors and illustrators in the same types of venues, and for several of them I also set up on-site engagements. I also partially represent a few extra authors and illustrators who basically set up their own speaking engagements but I promote them on my site. Each year, I go to library and educational conferences like ALA, NCTE, and ALAN to promote my business, plus I have a blog which is dedicated to spreading news about my authors and illustrators books and events.
Deirdra: Can you tell us about your experience working with HarperCollins?
Catherine: I was the director of library promotion in the children's book division of HarperCollins and worked with the legendary Bill Morris. I set up speaking engagements for Harper authors and artists (just like I do now at Balkin Buddies). I also published a listserv, of which my current blog is an off-shoot. I also handled all matters related to Harper's participation in library and educational conferences: organizing the booth and autographing sessions, planning author parties, breakfasts, dinners, etc., creating promotional materials for the conferences. Because I worked there for nearly 15 years and Bill was there for nearly 50, we were often the people to go to when no one else knew the answer or where to go to find it. Before HarperCollins, I worked at Macmillan -- the one that was taken over by Simon and Schuster, not the current version.
Deirdra: What is your favorite part of working with authors and illustrators?
Catherine: It's a very personal kind of business, and a lot of them have become good friends. And of course, we all have something in common: we love good books.
Deirdra: How many books on average would you say you read a year?
Catherine: I don't really know. A couple hundred maybe. I have built-in bookcases in at least two rooms because I find it hard to part with the ones I especially like.
Deirdra: What are the worst mistakes authors make while trying to promote their own books?
Catherine: Failing to learn about the industry is probably the biggest mistake. I advise authors and artists to join SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators: www.scbwi.org), which puts out an excellent newsletter and also offers writers' conferences that feature speakers from publishing industry. The CBC (Children's Book Council: cbcbooks.org) is another good place to go for information.
Deirdra: What advice would you have for traditionally published authors regarding promotion?
Catherine: Every author should have a website that includes a bio, an annotated list of their titles that includes the awards they know it has won, information on how to order their books, information about or a link to their publisher. If they are available for speaking engagements, I'd also suggest they include descriptions of the types of programs they do, how many programs they can do a day, and an honorarium range. I know many people don't like to list their honorariums, but it helps the teachers and librarians a lot to know this kind of information even before they contact you for a variety of reasons (the librarian might be writing a grant, for example, or a teacher may need to let the PTA know how much they need to raise). I'd also suggest contacting their local libraries, schools and bookstores to let them know they're available for speaking and/or autographing. If the author has a publicist at her publishing house, I'd suggest picking his or her brain; and if the house has someone who handles author visits, the author might want to contact that person, too, for the same reason.
Deirdra: What advice would you have for self-published or indie-published authors?
Catherine: To start, I'd suggest hiring an editor to make sure their books are ready for publication. There are some excellent freelance children's book editors available. Here are three: Deborah Brodie (http://deborahbrodie.com/FAQs.html), Emma Dryden of Drydenbks(http://www.drydenbks.com/home.html), Catherine Frank of Catherine Frank Editorial Services, LLC (http://www.editedbycatherine.com). For promotion, I'd suggest hiring a publicist. Here are two very good ones: Media Masters (www.mmpublicity.comand ask for Tracey Daniels or Karen Wadsworth), and Raab Associates (www.raabassociates.com and ask for Susan Raab). For speaking engagements and promotion, every author should have a website with the kind of information I mentioned in my answer to the question above, and, again as above, should contact local libraries, schools, and bookstores to let them know about their books and availability for speaking and/or autographing. Depending on their finances, it would be a good idea to attend some local state library or reading conferences. Also, to make sure their books gets some visibility at these shows like traditionally published authors, I would recommend contacting Combined Book Exhibit (www.combinedbook.com) to find out how much they would charge for various conferences. The contact there is Peter Birch and he'll be able to help the author choose which conferences would be the best venues for his or her book(s).
If the author does not want to hire a publicist, there are a variety of ways to publicize his or her book(s):
Contests or raffles – Come up with a contest or raffle (and be sure to base it on some aspect of your book), and publicize it on your website and/or blog, and put up flyers about it at local schools, libraries, and bookstores (be sure to get their permission first – you might even be able to enlist their help).
Seek out children’s book awards (CBC can help with some of these), find out the guidelines for each and submit your book for every award it is eligible for
Set up a Google Alert for the title of your book and one for your name as well. Google will then alert you when it finds one or both on the internet. If the alert lets you know your book has been nominated for an award or received a good review, publicize this news via your website and/or blog and inform all the librarians, teachers, and booksellers you know.
Create bookmarks or postcards of your books (I’ve used 1-800-POSTCARDS.com and they’re quite helpful). Distribute them at conferences, bookstores, libraries, schools.
If you know parents on local PTAs, give them some of your bookmarks and find out if the school would like to have an author visit. If you are self-published, you might offer to do the visit for free if you can sell your books for autographing purposes.
This will be hard to do and will take a great deal of time and effort, but you might also try to develop mailing lists – one of librarians, one of teachers and university professors (teachers who teach future teachers), one of booksellers, and one of media contacts. I would not suggest you buy mailing lists, as they don’t always reach the people you want to reach. Truly good mailing lists take years to develop and maintain and the people who own them will sell them with great hesitation – and they will be costly. This is, in fact, why I suggest self-published and independent authors to hire publicists. They have such mailing lists and know the contacts on them personally. (For Balkin Buddies, I maintain a school and library mailing list and occasionally send books out for small publishers.)
Deirdra: What are your favorite kind of books to read and why?
Catherine: I don't really have a favorite kind of book -- or even a favorite age range. My tastes tend to be pretty eclectic. I read my authors' and illustrators' books, of course, and try to read those that have won major awards (Newbery, Caldecott, Printz, etc.), but I've always felt that books are like food. Sometimes I'm in the mood for fine dining (a Newbery winner), sometimes I'm in the mood for home cooking (a good midlist book), and sometimes I'm in the mood for junk food (the latest vampire book).
Deirdra: How do you feel about e-books?
Catherine: My husband used to read books on his Palm, but the Palm is now a thing of the past so some of the books he bought, he had to buy again. When will Kindle or Nook become a thing of the past? How many times will you have to buy the same book? This is the question that bothers me. Plus, okay, I'm old fashioned. I like the way a book feels in my hands. I appreciate how a book is designed and bound. I love that the 1920s paperback copy of WutheringHeights I found in my parents' attic when I was eight is still intact in my bookcase.
Deirdra: If you could give a message to authors what would it be?
Catherine: Educate yourself as much as possible about publishing. Writing a book is only 10% of the work. Getting it published, getting it promoted, and keeping it in print is 90%.
Deirdra: Have you ever thought about writing a book?
Catherine: Yes, I have. It's hard.
Deirdra: What other talents and hobbies do you have?
Catherine: I have two parrots and, being a reader, I have read every book about them I could find. I am now somewhat knowledgeable about them.
Deirdra: Where is your favorite place to read?
Catherine: It used to be the subway. Now it's my living room.
Deirdra: Do you have a favorite reading snack?
Catherine: No, I don't like to get crumbs on my precious books.
Deirdra: Is there any other message you would like to give the literary community?