Launching a Book in a Digital Age: A Call for Tips and Tricks

In the age of shrinking in-house publicity budgets, how might a writer or illustrator use social media to launch a book? I'll be presenting a session called "Launching a Book in a Digital Age" at the forthcoming New England Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators 2014 Conference, and I need your input.

What are some creative ideas and strategies that have worked for you or for others in launching a new book? Do you have practical tips on how to use tools like blogs, twitter, Facebook, etc. to draw attention to a title and make it stand out from the crowd? Please leave your suggestions in the comments below or tweet them with the hashtag #booklaunchtips.

This OPEN MIC Book Trailer Rocks My World

I usually try and create trailers for my books but what with our big move to California, I didn't get one together for OPEN MIC: RIFFS ON LIFE BETWEEN CULTURES IN TEN VOICES (Candlewick). That's why I was delighted when K.T. Horning of the University of Madison-Wisconsin's Cooperative Children's Book Center told me about this trailer created by Ali Khan, a brilliant, funny teen writer in the Madison Public Library's "Bubbler." I think you'll enjoy it as much as I did:

Ali, I love you! I will be the little old lady who hobbles up for an autograph some day, so don't forget me. Here's another video he made about rejecting stereotypes:

About the book trailer project:

Thanks to a recent Madison Civics Club Youth Grant, Madison Public Library and the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) were able to pilot an 8-week workshop series with teen writers at Simpson Street Free Press. The project highlighted titles from Read On Wisconsin, CCBC's literacy program that promotes high-quality books for children and teens throughout Wisconsin.

A Midwestern Girl at Heart

I thoroughly enjoyed my week of events in the Midwest. I presented the 8th annual lecture on Multicultural Children's Literature at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse, hosted by the Murphy Library. Next I headed for Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I attended the Festival of Faith and Writing to sit on a couple of panels as well as offer a solo talk entitled "It's Just Fiction: Ten Tips on Reading and Writing about Race, Culture, and Power."

In both communities, everyone was so ... nice. I know that can be a bland adjective, but believe me, after living in or near big cities my whole life, I delighted in the courtesies extended to me in these smaller college towns. If it wasn't for the W-word, I'd consider making my home in one of North America's so-called "flyover states." But I dumped my shovels in Boston before moving to the San Francisco Bay Area, and I never want to see them again. Besides, I can always visit, right?

Three Great Days in Wisconsin

Welcome bouquet in my hotel room? Nice start!

4th and 5th graders getting settled before my presentation.
Received this book of stories and poems prepared by the students.
Great teachers are the key to successful author visits.

Time for my lectures at the Murphy Library. Good signage, right?
Fielding good questions is more than half the fun.
On my lunch break, I drove up to Grandad Bluff Park to enjoy the view.
The University of Wisconsin—La Crosse from the Bluff.
Patrick Anderson of the LaCrosse Tribune attended and reported about the event.
It takes a village to host an author. Here's the planning team of librarians and School of Education leaders at The Waterfront Restaurant (highly recommended for dinner). Thank you, friends!

The route to the airport in St. Paul took me through this town.  Remember who lived here?
Yep, it's the Little House in the Big Woods.
Lake Pepin.

Three Great Days in Michigan

Confession: I love conference swag. This gift bag was waiting in my room at Calvin College's Prince Conference Center and Hotel, where Festival speakers were housed, fed, and basically cosseted.
The Festival kicked off with a plenary by Gene Luen Yang, "Is Art Selfish?" Other keynote speakers included James McBride, Miroslav Volf, and Anne Lamott.
Children's and YA authors abounded at the Festival, and as usual we enjoyed laughing, eating, and drinking. (From L to R: Swati Avasthi | CHASING SHADOWS, Pam Muñoz Ryan | THE DREAMER, and Deborah Heiligman | INTENTIONS.)
Enjoyed hearing Deb Heiligman talk about faith and science as presented in her award-winning book, CHARLES AND EMMA. "The Darwins' relationship is a microcosm of how people can talk about different views with deep love," she said.
Two-time Newbery honoree Gary Schmidt, who is on the faculty at Calvin, moderated a panel on writing young adult fiction. (from L to R: Gary Schmidt, Swati Avasthi, Pam Muñoz Ryan, and me.)
I participated in another discussion, "Power of the Word: Writing Towards Justice." (From L to R: Moderator Sarina Moore, Uwem Akpan | SAY YOU'RE ONE OF THEM, Ashley Lucas | RAZOR WIRE WOMEN, and me.)
Last but not least, the Festival was full of young talents, including Briana Meade, who writes brilliantly about young motherhood and faith. Briana spent part of her childhood living in a Karenni village, and her parents played a big part in inspiring and informing my novel Bamboo People.

Shattering the Multicultural Myth of the Market. Let's go.

"A young adult book featuring a protagonist who isn't of European descent will never become a bestseller."

"The majority of readers won't read a young adult novel featuring a protagonist who isn't of European descent."

We imagine these kinds of comments, spoken or unspoken, governing the publishing industry. In our guts, we know they're not true. We gripe about this issue. We try to disprove such claims through social media and conferences, panels and articles, speeches and radio shows. Unfortunately, nothing so far has resulted in such a young adult novel breaking through into widespread success.

The truth is that, for all of our good intentions, publishing is a for-profit industry.

Money changes minds.

"Adults don't read books for young readers." Harry Potter shattered that one, didn't it?

"Boys don't read girl books." Along came Suzanne Collins with Katniss, and middle-aged men were tearing through The Hunger Games trilogy.

Yesterday I tweeted this:
I got several suggestions including books like Joseph Bruchac's Killer of Enemies, The Living by Matt De La Peña, Fake ID by Lamar Giles, and Prophecy by Ellen Oh.

But Ellen raised a good question:
I do think that film can take a book to the next level, but it must achieve some widespread market success before moviemakers begin to pay attention. There are two necessities to achieve this kind of success.

First, storytellers — RISE UP! Write a great story that rings with authenticity featuring a protagonist we love who is not of European descent (I know the label stinks, but you get my drift.) It must be a page-turner. It must knock our story-hungry socks off.  By the last page, not only are we are ready to read it again,  we are reaching into our wallets to pre-order the sequel. We are tweeting, texting, status-ing, and insta-ing that book until our friends are convinced they must buy it right now or their quality of life will diminish.

I may complain about the market and choose to blame my lack of breakthrough success on the r-word, but let's get real—I need to write an AMAZING STORY. Once I've achieved this (and the veracity of such a claim has been thoroughly verified by countless words and reviews of readers who don't know me), I might be able to question why it didn't become a blockbuster.

I know that one part of us believes our mothers and thinks our books are beyond incredible, but another part says, "Maybe it was good, but get better, get better." Let's listen to that—time is short.

Second, readers, be on the hunt for such a story. In the old days, we relied solely on publishing houses to put publicity and marketing big bucks behind fiction. These days, social media and virality are increasingly key to launching a novel into bestseller status, which feels like the collective "we" have a bit more power.  How can we use that power to get behind a title? Maybe we can add our small voice of influence to help it sell like crazy.

Who is likely to discover a young adult novel with blockbuster potential featuring culturally marginalized protagonists (gosh, I hate race labels—what do you think of that one)? I trust indie booksellers and librarians. That's why I tune into their voices on twitter (feel free to follow my lists of 197 booksellers and 359 librarians.) If booksellers like Elizabeth Bluemle and librarians like Betsy Bird, champions of "add-your-own-label-here" books for years, don't discover this myth-shattering story, nobody will.

I believe that changing the market can and will happen. And when it does, I promise you I'll say I told you so.

It’s Just Fiction: Reading and Writing about Race, Culture, and Power

At the recent Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, MI, I had to tweak a presentation I've given over the past several years. A previous version focused on empowering writers with questions related to race, culture, and power to ask of ourselves and our stories. The Festival brings together writers and readers, so I presented "Ten Tips To See
 'Below the Waterline' of Stories," hoping that they might be useful while reading another person's story as well as in the revision of one's own work.

My goal is for us to SEE themes related to race, culture, and power with our conscious minds. Fiction is powerful, as propagandists know, and a "single story" of a group of people (as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie eloquently argued) transmitted "below the waterline" can be dangerous.


1. Look for an older magical negro or noble savage.

2. Notice a smart/good peer from a marginalized group who serves as a foil for a flawed hero. 

3. Check the cover or illustrations for misrepresentations of exoticization or whitewashing.

4. Ask when and how race is defined, if at all.

5. Notice if the setting, plot, and characters are in charge of the casting (because they must be.)

6. Pay attention to how beauty is defined (i.e, straight, silky hair; big, wide eyes, etc.)

7. Check for a “single story" that identifies a community or person on the margins of power.

8. Notice the presence of bridge characters.

9. Ask who has the power to bring about change and who has the power to be changed.

10. Question the storyteller’s (your) authenticity, privilege, and power, but not for the purposes of setting up an arbitrary apartheid system about who can tell the story.

For me, none of these lead to a deal-breaker when it comes to a book. In fact, I hate censorship.  I want to encourage us to see the powerful act of storytelling through slightly different eyes. It's helpful to consider the perspective from the margins, and to comprehend that the privilege of power (whether derived from class, nationality, education, accent, ethnicity, etc.) often enables us not to see.

Device-Free Day. You In?

I returned from the inspiring Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College yesterday to this tweet from Elizabeth Law, reader and editor extraordinaire:
If I could blush, I would have.

In an age of digital hullabaloo, one of my life goals is to avoid screens and plugs from sundown Saturday to sundown Sunday. Apparently, I've discoursed about that publicly. The problem was that I was reading the tweet first thing Sunday morning.

At the Festival, I was reminded again that maintaining a 24/7 digital connection can suck the storytelling right out of you. Creative work flourishes with the age-old practice of a weekly day of rest, during which we enjoy a five-senses attentive delight in the present.

That's why I am going to renew my device-free habit from sundown Saturday to sundown Sunday.

But this time, I don't want to do it just for me and my stories. I want to invite you into this practice with me (not exactly with my rules and schedule—feel free to make up your own), so that many, many good stories might emerge.

Join me in taking a one-day-a-week break from email, social media, and internet browsing, and/or refraining from screens and plugs altogether. During our digital break, let's rest, play, and be present in our places with our people. Let the stories come!

Hey, Grand Rapids! Is Spring There Yet?
Next week (April 10-14, 2014), I'm delighted to be participating in the Festival of Faith and Writing, "the biennial writing festival at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, celebrating matters of faith."

I'll be presenting a solo talk called "It's Just Fiction: Reading and Writing about Race, Culture, and Power," and am participating in a panel discussion on YA fiction with Swathi Avasti and Pam Muñoz Ryan. I'm also sitting on a panel focusing on writing and social justice with Uwem Akpan, a writer of fiction and Jesuit priest serving in Nigeria, and playwright Ashley Lucas. The framing question will be something like this: "To what extent can—or should—art serve to shine a light on injustice?"

Other Kid/YA book folks will be presenting at the Festival, including Gene Luen Yang (keynoting), Ron Koertge, Michele Wood, Marilyn Nelson, Richard Cowdrey, and Deborah Heiligman. Literary luminaries who write for adults, including Anne Lamott, James McBride, Miroslav Wolf, will also be there. Follow the Festival on twitter with this hashtag: #ffwgr, and here's the schedule of events and full list of speakers.