Monday, October 3, 2011

Guest Blogger Audrey Vernick: The Rodent Brain Approach

I’ve been known to say I’m figuring all this book-publicity stuff out as I go, but I think that might a little optimistic. I have no idea if I’m figuring it out. But I am definitely going.

In the beginning, I mostly had a stomach ache about all the things I knew I should be doing but wasn’t. Then I started to do some things—mailings, building an online presence, commissioning a book trailer, planning big events—and the source of my stomach ache shifted a bit. I was still worried about all I wasn’t doing, but now I was able to spread the worry out, as I had no idea if there was any worth to what I was doing. My picture books were all over the map—two nonfiction and two about a buffalo—heading to kindergarten and learning to play drums.

And now I’m in the funny position of trying to take the things that may or may not be working to help promote my picture books and applying them to my brand-spanking-new-to-the-world novel.

Oh! The Stomach Aches You’ll Suffer!

I know that for picture books, I need to appeal to the parents, teachers, librarians and booksellers who help match books with children. The same is still largely true with middle grade, but in a different way that I haven’t been able to wholly figure out yet. I spend a fair amount of time thinking about this.

Allow me, if I may, to draw your attention for just one moment to the psychological theorist Jean Piaget, who studied his own children as the basis for his child-development theories.

I have a twelve-year-old girl, a reader, right here in my house!

What attracts the twelve-year-old Vernick to a particular book?

The cover. Definitely. And the recommendation of a trusted friend. (Two factors that have strong effects on adult-reader-me, too.) And two factors that writer-me has no control over.
This is why I try not to think too much. But I have the kind of brain that gnaws at things: a rodent brain.

All this is a dizzying roundabout way of saying that though my path here has been heavily weighted and full of rodent-think, I ultimately arrived at a philosophy akin to the Shrinking Violets message: for now, until I figure out more, I’m doing the things that come naturally.
For a long time, blogging was not on that list. I was repeatedly told I had to start a blog. I started one in conjunction with my nonfiction baseball picture book and quickly learned that the world really doesn’t care how much I hate Yankees pitcher A.J. Burnett. Also: I am passionate about baseball, but I didn’t really enjoy blogging about it.

I was disheartened.

I was encouraged to try again. It’s possible I was a little bullied, too—pushed to try again even though I didn’t want to.

Still, I jumped in, reluctantly. I started a blog about literary friendships—real-life writer-friends and the friends people find in children’s books. I figured until I found my footing, I’d interview other writer and illustrator friends and shine a light on them.

I discovered some things that delighted me: a shocking number of children’s writers wanted to be young Laura Ingalls; Roald Dahl, a writer whose books were not on my childhood radar, had a profound impact on many of the writers and illustrators whose work I admire; and everyone, like me, seems to love James Marshall’s George and Martha.
My rodent brain, ever-gnawing, doubts there’s a direct connection between my blog and finding readers for my books. Unfortunately, I think my rodent brain is right.

I think the knowledge comes, but it comes slowly, more on a year-by-year basis than the week-by-week schedule I’d prefer. So I’ll keep gnawing and doing what feels right. And worrying about the things I’m not yet doing. And the efficacy of the things I am.

But I’m also taking pleasure in the connections I’m forging with authors and illustrators through my blog. By learning how inspired they were by the authors and illustrators who came before them—authors and illustrators who probably didn’t worry about social media expectations and effective platforms.

And really, this whole game, at its heart, is about connection. Chew on that, rodent brain.

~  ~  ~

In addition to writing for children, Audrey Vernick has published more than a dozen short stories for adults in a variety of magazines and literary journals. She receive an mfa from Sarah Lawrence College and has been honored twice by the New Jersey State Council of the Arts with its prestigious fiction fellowship. She also blogs about literary friendships.


Alison Pearce Stevens said...

What a great post! I've been wondering lately whether blogging and connecting with other writers would help me reach my audience. I have to say no (I also write nonfiction picture books and middle grade). But I do think the connections and friendships you make help tremendously. Thanks for sharing your experience and congratulations on your new novel!!

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

I agree it's a great post! I've also been doing more of what's in my comfort zone, because there are so many possible promo activities that nobody can ever do them all.

A couple of other items that pop to mind as I read this:

Blogging isn't a "must." People who don't like it don't have to do it. Really.

For anyone who writes picture books or middle-grade books: I recommend live events. Story times, book festivals, local fairs. Those events attract some YA readers, but they always bring out families with young children in droves. If I wrote PB or MG, I'd book as many of those events as possible. There are lots of towns and cities that have them; I never realized many until I wrote a book!

Authors often think they have to reach their readers directly or all is lost. But we can connect with readers indirectly, too. An author of children's books need not fret if her blog doesn't attract children, or if her local appearance draws mostly adults. Because the secondary audience is important, too: parents, teachers, librarians, grandparents, etc. In fact, the younger the child, the more likely that the child is not the one purchasing the book.

You're right that we all have to find our own comfort zones!

Susanna Leonard Hill said...

I love this post. It's nice to know I'm not the only one with a rodent-brain :) As a picture book author, I struggle all the time with the idea of reaching my audience - or at least the people who buy for them. Like many others, I love how blogging has connected me to the writing community, but if the purpose of my blog is supposed to be reaching consumers, well, I don't think I'm doing that.

Jennifer is correct that live events are most effective. But it would be nice to figure out a way to make our online presence productive too. I just haven't figured it out yet. Gnawing on that... :)

R.L. LaFevers said...

I meant to get in here last week and thank Audrey once again for her guest post. Nice to know it resonated with so many of you!

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