Monday, June 9, 2008

Katherine Applegate: A Marketing Journey

We have a real treat for you today. A few months ago, Mary and I were shocked and thrilled to discover that K. A. Applegate was an SVP reader! Surely someone such as Katherine, who had written hundreds of books that included such successful series as ANIMORPHS, EVERWORLD, MAKING OUT, and REMNANTS already knew everything she needed to know about marketing and promotion! We were also fascinated by her recent switch from series fiction to her most recent book, HOME OF THE BRAVE, which is the Golden Kite Winner this year. We managed to catch up with her in Italy, where she and her family are staving off a midlife crisis. She was gracious enough to share her marketing and promotional journey with us.

Some of your previous series have been wildly successful; Animorphs, Remnants, Everworld. How actively did you have to get involved in the marketing and promotion of these books?

Well, “wildly” might be overstating it a bit, but Animorphs did surprise us with its success. And here’s what’s interesting: we didn’t do any – I mean ANY – promo for it. I mention this not to encourage my fellow introverts to avoid marketing, because I think the Animorphs experience was atypical!

My husband, Michael, and I worked on that series, and several others, together, but when Animorphs came out, we’d just had our first child and we were writing a book a month. These were middle readers, roughly 150 ms. pages each. We were exhausted and a bit overwhelmed by life (having a child will do that to you.) And as a confirmed introvert -- not a recluse, mind you, just a pathological introvert -- the idea of even meeting with my editors in New York seemed overwhelming. My husband would have done it (he is, in fact, a pathological extrovert, but I try to focus on his good points), but at that point he was writing other things as well, and not really interested in pursuing children’s fiction. (He eventually came to his senses and has just launched a YA series called “Gone” with Harpercollins.)

Fortunately, Scholastic did a wonderful job marketing Animorphs. They did all the usual promo, along with some bells and whistles, like a PW cover. And middle readers (ages 8-12) can be a powerful marketing force all on their own. Once they commit to a series, they devour it. They’re a terrifically loyal readership.

Home of the Brave seems like a big departure from some of your earlier books. How did this story come to be written?

Eventually, after dozens of Animorphs and other books, I took a break from my writing to focus on parenting. Parenting, as many of you know first-hand, is terrifying and exhilarating and exhausting, all at the same time. It’s like military basic training, I suppose, except that the drill sergeant is two years old and smells like poop.

So when I’d finally caught up on my five-year sleep deficit, I knew I was ready to write what I’d begun to refer to has my “Real Book.” Nothing scared me anymore. I had survived toddler birthday parties.

By my definition, my real book would include words chosen with great care (and without deadline pressure.) It would include luxuries not always afforded to series writers: a beginning, a middle and an end. And it would have a character I could love wholeheartedly. Someone with problems even more compelling than dateless prom nights or incomplete grizzly bear morphs.

But who was that character? I lived in Minneapolis for a time and while I was there, refugees from sub-Saharan Africa were being settled in the city.

Every time I stepped into that exquisite, dangerous Minnesota cold, it seemed unimaginable to me that people could move to such an impossibly different place, a place where words are new and the food was new and the culture was new. And the icicles were most definitely new.

That’s how Kek, a refugee from Sudan, was born. And as he evolved, I did grow to love him. For his courage. And his good humor. And his essential optimism.

Was the reaction to this book different, right from the get-go?

I do think that people were surprised to hear such a different tone and cadence, not to mention format. Their surprise surprised me a bit, because I’ve written so many different kinds of books over the years – everything from adult romances to Little Mermaid books to horse books to Sweet Valley Twins (I ghosted 17 of those!). Still, to the extent that HOTB is more poetic in style and more serious in tone, I can see why it seems like such a departure. I have a picture book, The Buffalo Storm (Clarion) that came out at the same time as HOTB. It’s similar in tone – another experiment with poetry – and one reviewer in a lovely review, noting “It’s by the Animorphs author – gasp!!!”.

I’m actually doing a workshop at the SCBWI conference in August about genre-shifting, branding, and all the complexities involved when you’re trying to define a “career.” (Home of the Brave won the Golden Kite Award this year from SCBWI, and it took me about three weeks to come down off my cloud.)

You said in a comment here on the bog that in order to ensure this book got the attention it deserved, you'd have to be more active in promoting it. How did you come up with a plan/strategy?

Uh . . . plan? Strategy? That sounds so, well, logical. And organized. Labels that generally don’t apply to me. I did send the book to as many bloggers as I could find. And I had the best of intentions for doing much more. But it’s amazing how time-consuming the promo end of things can be, if you’re trying to continue to write new books. And get the kids to their soccer games before they end. And clean the litter box every two weeks, whether it needs it or not.

I can see why some people turn to publicity and marketing specialists to promote their books. It can be very labor-intensive. Writing a charming cover letter. Ensuring an address is current. Labeling and mailing. And then doing it all over again. And again.

And how you have another new series out, Roscoe Riley Rules. Can you tell us a
little about it?

Roscoe Riley Rules is a new book series targeted for beginning readers. I’d been
looking for a fun easy-to-read series that would appeal to my six-year-old son, and when I couldn’t find something that quite fit the bill, I decided to try my hand at writing one.

Roscoe is an irrepressible first-grader who, despite always trying to do the right thing, inevitably finds himself breaking the rules. In the first book, that rule turns out to be “We Do Not Glue Our Friends to Chairs. And no, it is not a tale generated by first-hand experience. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

What promotional plans do you have for this new series, if any? How do they differ from your promotional plans for Home of the Brave? In your experience, do publishers get more involved in promoting series?

I’m hoping to do a lot of web stuff (interviews, chats, etc.) this year, because I’m living in Italy for a year in an attempt to have a stylish mid-life crisis. Yes, I know you don’t feel sorry for me. But pasta goes straight to the thighs. And it’s hot, what with that whole Tuscan sun thing.

The timing works out pretty well, because series tend to have a slow build. I think doing school visits and bookstore signings will be more efficacious (and possible) when I return to the U.S. next spring.

Certainly publishers have a vested interest In seeing series flourish, but the allocation of resources varies tremendously, depending on what else in on a list in a given season, how a publisher is doing financially, how committed a publisher is to a certain genre. Many things enter into the marketing equation. Harpercollins has been great about putting marketing muscle behind Roscoe. They’re releasing three books at once to “hook” readers.

What challenges did you face with Roscoe Riley Rules. I have to tell you, I just finished writing a chapter book, and I found writing short very challenging!

This reading level looks deceptively easy, but I’ve discovered it’s tough to juggle the need for accessible vocabulary, short sentences, and kid-friendly humor!
I think chapter books and picture books often surprise writers. They look so easy. And they’re so damn hard!

What’s your writing schedule like?

I want to write every morning for 2 to 3 hours, but I rarely pull that off. I do feel that getting your butt into that chair, laptop at the ready, is 90% of the battle. It’s so easy to lose precious momentum and have to backtrack. It’s like exercise: you don’t have to want to do it. You just have to do it. (Forgive me, all. I believe I may have just quoted Dr. Phil.)

How do you, a self-confessed extreme introvert, do to recharge?

I am a devout believer in naps. Anywhere. Anytime.

Any last words of wisdom for SVP readers?

Actually, it’s more of a thank-you. I discovered SVP as I faced the unwelcome fact that receiving an award means you actually may have to deliver a speech. It’s a harsh quid pro quo, if you ask me (they can’t just MAIL it to you?). But when Home of the Brave received the Josette Frank award for best children’s fiction of the year from Bank Street College, I had to face the fact that writing is not always just about the lovely part where you sit around and make things up. It’s a job, like any job, and sometimes that means sucking it up and overcoming your introversion.

SVP helped me realize how many writers are introverts by nature, and how many of us struggle to find a comfortable balance in an extroverted world. My biggest epiphany: it is a huge equalizer when you just TELL people you’re an introvert. “I don’t do cocktail parties; I’m an introvert” is wonderfully liberating. As is, it turns out, “This speech will probably suck, but hey, I’m an introvert, so cut me some slack.” I paraphrase, but only slightly.

In the end, the best part of writing is still the making-things-up part. And the promo and parties and people? That’s just a small price to pay. Sometimes it’s even fun, believe it or not.

Thank you, SVP, for helping me through some tough moments. If I weren’t such an introvert, I’d say we should get together for coffee.

* * *

And in honor of Katherine's appearance here on the blog this week, we'll be giving away a CD of her recent Golden Kite Winner Home of the Brave to the first person who can guess what the "A" Stands for in K. A. Applegate. (No Googling!!)

* * *
And lastly, we'd like to announce the winner of the Fairy Godsisters Ink Grant:
LinDa LOddiNg, who lives in the Netherlands and has been actively working to set up a SCBWI Chapter there. She will be dusting the ashes off the tattered hem of her skirt and flying to Century City to attend the SCBWI National Conference, where she will not only fill her own well, but gather lots of information on how to launch a SCBWI chapter. Congratulations, Linda!


Mary Hershey said...

Katherine, thank you SO much for a generous, amazing and funny interview!

And, I'm throwing out the first guess for the A in your name. I'm pretty darn sure I'm right! Is it Animorph??

Robin, congrats on a fabulous interview.

We heart Katherine at SVP!
Mary Hershey

Stephanie J. Blake said...

A for Alexandra?

What a GREAT interview. Thanks!

Also, wonderful CHOICE for the scholarship!!!!!

Can't wait to meet Linda!

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Fascinating interview with a great author! Thanks so much.

Author "branding" is particularly interesting to me.

I was branded for a while as a Native author, and it was a bit of a struggle (both internally and externally) to branch out of that. (I still continue to write books about Native characters and themes, but now I'm also doing other kinds of books, too).

Plot Whisperer said...

Great interview.

Amazing success story.

I agree that getting yourself in front of the computer with the email off and phone disconnected is 90% of the battle.....


Katia said...

Thanks for a great interview.

And congratulations, Linda ! If you read this, send me an email, as I'm going to the conference, too. The emails I've sent you bounced back after you moved to Holland.


Linda Lodding said...

Looking forward to meeting many Shrinking Violet fans when in LA. And an ocean-sized thank you to my Fairy Godsisters for granting this wish! Just when I stopped believing in Fairy Godmothers along come this crew of wand-waving wish-granters.

Now where did I put those glass slippers...


Anonymous said...

Testing: I tried to leave a comment, but it didn't appear on the post, and I didn't receive a "saved for moderation" response either.

Maybe you do have my comment in your queue. This is just a test...

Thanks, Lisa

Anonymous said...

Okay, it worked this time. So to repeat my comment that got lost in virtual-world:

Simply a thank-you for a great blog from a fellow writer-introvert (though I write adult fiction). Lots of insights, inspiration, and ideas!

Robin L said...

OKay, since no one's guessed what the "A" stands for, we'll remove the Googling restriction. Ready, set, GOOGLE!!!

First one to post Katherine's middle name claims the audio CD of Home of the Brave!

Mary Hershey said...

And, did we mention it is autographed????? :-)

I'm going to try one more guess at the A initial-- a non-Google one. Is it Author-Extraordinaire?

Mary Hershey

Linda Lodding said...

Uh...does her middle name have anything to do with a blond girl, a habitually late rabbit and a very, very deep hole?

All the best,

Linda B. (Bertha? Babette? Bernice? Bathsheba?) Lodding

PS: Please disqualify my posting since I have the European time zone advantage and naturally could get here first ...but I can't wait to meet Katherine A. A. in L.A. AND read her "Home of the Brave"!

Can anyone else guess the "A"...?

Anonymous said...

My original guess is Ann, but since googling restrictions have been taken away, I shall google it up, lol.

Oh! I was wrong- turns out Linda was right. It's Alice (at least, according to wikipedia, it is).

So that probably means that I don't win, haha.

Oh, and btw, I found this via Cynthia's YA/MG roundup blog and I'm so glad I did. I loved Katherine's books when I was younger and have been wanting to check out some of her newer stuff lately. This'll be the perfect opportunity (that is, if I win, lol).

Robin L said...

Book chic, I think you DO win. Linda took herself out of the running due to the time difference. Plus, she did just win a grant, so I'm thinking she's not feeling too overlooked!

Email me at shrinkingviolet at with your snail mail address and we'll get your prize out to you! Congratulations! And how cool it's going to a long time K A Applegate fan!

Unknown said...

a is for alice no i did not google im just an expert