Real Talk Publishing: Charisse Meloto and Sheila Marie Everett
Real Talk Publishing: The People Behind the Books
Real Talk Publishing: Charisse Meloto and Sheila Marie Everett
Charisse Meloto (far right) --- Executive Director of Publicity for Print and Digital Publishing at Scholastic --- has a desk that looks like a bright, tchotchke-filled mix of a kindergarten classroom and a museum. You can play with kinetic sand,which Charisse claims is really fun for people who come in for meetings (she’s right --- I was not immune to its charms), but simultaneously admire original artwork from Jon J
Muth (including an original sketch of a panda bear in shorts that Jon eventually turned into Stillwater in all of his Zen books) and look at various trinkets, including a key ornament and aminiature snow globe that Brian Selznick bought on various research trips. “These things make me smile,” said Charisse, as she pointed each one out and told me the story behind it.
But really, getting cool gifts from famous authors isn’t the only reason to become a publicist. There’s also the ability to be creative and plan one-of-a-kind author events; to think like a journalist and figure out the best “angle” for each book to ensure the largest audience discovers it; and, more than anything, to help deserving books get into the hands of the people who love them.
I had the opportunity to talk to Charisse, as well as Shelia Marie Everett (see photo on the above left) ---the Associate Director of Publicity at Scholastic --- about the world of children’s book publicity earlier this year. They shared all kinds of stories about their jobs, from the days they’ve had to drop everything because of an unexpected flight delay for a key executive to the times social media made a huge difference to a campaign. Here I share some of the biggest takeaways from our talk --- read below, and see if maybe, just maybe, you have a future career as a book publicist!
There’s no such thing as a typical day:
One of the first things I asked Charisse was, “Can you describe a typical day?” Her response? Laughter! Because, really, when you’re a publicist, nothing is exactly typical. “It’s always changing.”
This unpredictability is twofold. First, there’s the simple fact that publicists have such a multifaceted job. Publicists have to plan book tours, sometimes travel with authors on book tours,work to book interviews and reviews with national and local media, help their authors navigate the sticky world of social media, and more. There’s a beauty in this, though; as Sheila Marie said, “You can take a little time for each aspect of the job, as there always is something to do. You can say, ‘I don’t feel like pitching right now. I’m going to book travel instead, or call that author and go over their presentation.”
Another reason that “there’s no such thing as a typical day” is the fact that, as Charisse said, “your plans can be derailed in a minute.” Sheila Marie was actually a prime example of this --- even though she planned to attend our full interview, she was about 45 minutes late because she was “putting out a fire” --- something came up last minute and it absolutely couldn’t wait.
"Your plans can be derailed in a minute" - Charisse Meloto
Charisse had to do the same thing the day before --- David Fickling [Head of the British children’s publishing house David Fickling Books, which Scholastic will now be distributing in the United States] was flying from England to New York City for a big dinner to introduce his books to librarians and members of the book media (including yours truly!). However, a huge storm was scheduled to hit the day of his flight, so Charisse had to stop everything to troubleshoot; she had to change the flight, communicate the changes to David (which is not easy when he’s in a completely different time zone) and rearrange all of her other meetings.
“You have to be able to pivot pretty quickly,” Sheila Marie said. “You have to be able to say ‘Okay, this is what I thought my day was going to look like, but it’s going to look like a totally different day now, and that’s okay, too.’”
AND there’s no such thing as a typical campaign:
Sure, if you’re a publicist, it’s your job to make sure that people know about the book and, consequently, decide to buy it, but there are many different ways to do this.
As Sheila Marie explained, “it depends on who the authoris and what the goals are for the book…You’re asking yourself, ‘What are the opportunities? What are my goals? What is the best use of this person’s time?’”
For a debut author, it might be all about building exposure --- going on school and library visits, writing guest blog posts, getting reviews in the major trade publications --- just getting their name in front of as many people as possible.
For a big name author, you might have the opportunity to do something even bigger --- to make a splash in a creative, attention-grabbing way. That’s what Charisse did when she was working with bestselling author David Baldacci on the last book of the second arc of The 39 Clues. “I thought, ‘So, I have a big author. How am I going to maximize this? How am I going to do something that really stands out?’”
Charisse had met someone who worked at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History years before and they had kept in touch, and she recognized the museum would make a great partner in promoting The 39 Clues. “The 39 Clues books are so subversively educational --- they tackle key moments and famous figures in history! We came up with a plan for David Baldacci to host a virtual field trip of the Museum of American History that was tied to the series. David is such a history buff; he was the perfect author to do it.”
And sometimes, publicists do campaigns for different books at the same time. For instance, Scholastic has a lot of “multi-platform” middle grade series --- these series have interactive online game components that extend the reading experience, and frequently, each book in the series is written by a different author. As part of the launch of the “Worlds Collide” initiative, authors from each of these series --- 39 Clues, Infinity Ring and Spirit Animals --- came together for huge events around the country. “It was really exciting to see how the fans and readers of Rick Riordan, James Dashner and Brandon Mull’s books came together,” said Charisse. “And it was thrilling to see them discover new books and authors; a 39 Clues fan got to discover Infinity Ring and Spirit Animals. They got to see other authors. It was kind of a cross-pollination of our brands.”
Which brings us to our next point:
Author events are a lot of fun, but they’re also a lot of work.
You want your author to visit different parts of the country and read from his or her book? Cool! Now you have to figure out which cities, bookstores, schools and conferences your author is going to go to; publicize the event with local media in each city; book all the travel for your authors and, sometimes, travel with your authors. Whew!
For instance, when Shaun Tan --- an Australian author/illustrator who is rarely in the United States --- told Sheila Marie he was coming to America on the way to Germany, she arranged for him to speak at three regional conferences in four days. “We were silly together on planes, because he was recovering from jetlag and I was juggling all the details for three cities in four days!” If you want to be a publicist, you have to be on top of your logistics game.
As Tim Gunn would say, make it work!
This seems to be an ongoing theme in this article, but when you’re a publicist, you really have to be ready to roll with the punches.
Charisse experienced this more than a decade ago when working with Jane Goodall, the legendary primatologist, who wrote the October 1, 2001 book THE CHIMPANZEES IN LOVE: Saving Their World and Ours. Jane was only going to be in New York for one day, and Charisse had it all planned out --- she booked Jane to do “The Today Show” and photo shoots with both Time Magazine and USA Today. It turns out, that day was September 12th, 2001 --- one day after the World Trade Center bombings.
“We were all sort of shell-shocked about what had happened,” said Charisse --- you could actually see the towers from the Scholastic headquarters. “But Jane already was here. I had to find the focus that’s needed to get the job done.”
Charisse rearranged the TV interviews --- clearly Jane was not going to go on the air when a tragedy of this magnitude was shaking the country --- but she did manage to keep one of the photo shoots. The photographer came to Jane’s hotel room that September 12th, and Charisse met them there. “Would you believe that? As a publicist, you have to go with the flow and make the best of the situation.”
Find an angle:
If you’re a publicist, you have to make your book stand out, because, believe me, it’s not the only book on the market at any given moment.
Charisse is lucky --- before her job at Scholastic, she interned at news organizations like CBS and ABC and “like[s] to think like a journalist or a producer. I like to figure out a way to make something into an interesting human interest story.”
She recently did that when working with rapper and actor Nick Cannon’s poetry book NEON ALIENS ATE MY HOMEWORK: And Other Poems (February 24, 2015). “[Nick’s] a celebrity, great, but I needed to find a bigger story. Like, who knew that Nick Cannon’s mom kept the notebooks where he wrote his poems when he was a kid? And who knew that he was an illustrator and that he liked to draw? These are the things that you have to find out to do your job.”
Charisse also teased a lot of pitching angles out of one of the books that she said was “made for me to work on” --- WORDS IN THE DUST by then debut author Trent Reedy. The novel is based on one of Trent’s real life experiences --- Trent met a girl with a cleft palate while serving in Afghanistan, and he and his fellow soldiers pooled their money together so that she could get the surgery needed to correct her smile. When he left the country, he promised her that he would tell her story.
In addition to getting national TV coverage for the book, another angle, of course, was reaching out to military media and those outlets followed by family membersfighting in Afghanistan, because the book would touch them in a personal way. “So many people areaffected by stories like this --- so many kids! My brother-in-law is in the military and he was serving in Afghanistan when the book was published, so I had a personal connection to it. Someday I want my young nieces to read a book like this.” Plus, a portion of the proceeds went to Afghan women.
She also pitched it to media who covered children’s books, not only because it’s simply a great story, but also because Trent developed an amazing relationship with legendary author Katherine Paterson. When Trent was having a particularly horrible day in Afghanistan, his wife sent him a copy of BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA. He enjoyed it so much that he wrote Katherine a fan letter, and the two began a regular correspondence. Trent mentioned that he wanted to write when he returned home, and Katherine suggested the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she worked. He ended up enrolling, and Katherine picked him up from the airport when he flew to The Green Mountain State. Talk about an amazing story for book people everywhere! “I get goosebumps just saying this,” Charisse said.
“You’re not in a silo” --- Sheila Marie Everett
Even though being a publicist can be a fairly individualistic job --- each publicist is in charge of their own authors --- that doesn’t mean that everyone in the department sticks entirely to themselves, hoping to score better media hits than their colleagues.
“I think there’s some kind of old-time stereotype out there somewhere…that everybody’s in their own offices guarding their rolodexes,” said Shelia Marie. “We’re actually very collaborative. We want each other to succeed because then it means that everyone succeeds.”
“We’re actually very collaborative. We want each other to succeed because then it means that everyone succeeds.” - Sheila Marie Everett
There are some stories you remember forever
If you’ve been a publicist for long enough, you’ve done a lot of cool things --- met a bunch of authors, traveled to various conferences and events, and had some huge media hits.
Of course, some of the luster wears off after a while, but there are still moments and books that, years later, make publicists glow with pride --- or at least provide great cocktail party conversation.
For Sheila Marie, it was working on THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins --- yeah, that HUNGER GAMES. “When I first started at Scholastic, Suzanne was the first author who was assigned to me [with her middle grade series The Underland Chronicles]. She made me cry over a cockroach and I just was in; I was like, ‘this is an author I will follow anywhere.’
“So when the manuscript for THE HUNGER GAMES came in and we were allowed to read it in-house, everybody was on board immediately. Everybody loved it, everybody knew it was special and we just couldn’t wait to tell everyone. And as a publicist, it’s really exciting to feel like ‘this is a book I cannot wait to shout from the rooftops!’ So when galleys came in, it was a lot of conversation like, ‘Seriously, I know we’re meeting at this convention, but this is the book you have to read on the way back on the airplane. Do not pack it; put it in your carry-on!’ And from there the buzz grew. It went like wildfire…It was so exciting to have been a part of that.”
For Charisse, one of the most memorable things she’s done as a publicist was helping to organize an event for WONDERSTRUCK by Brian Selznick. “WONDERSTRUCK is partially about the deaf culture, so we had a sign language interpreter at all of the events,” Charisse said. “We did one event in California at someone’s house --- it was a fundraiser for adeaf community organization. It was completely silent, and it was the most moving and beautiful event I’ve been to. And even though it wasn’t at a big theater and didn’t have a ton of people --- Brian has spoken at events with 500 or more people --- it was unique and special and everyone there was so appreciative. “
Get to know your authors
You’re a much more effective publicist if you know your authors on a slightly more intimate level. That way, as Charisse explains, “You know how to maximize their time and when to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to something.”
You can also help break them out of their comfort zone, which is what Charisse had to do with one of her very first authors, Ann M. Martin, the woman behind the beloved The Baby-Sitters Club series. “Ann’s shy so I thought, ‘Hmm, maybe if I get to know her, we can talk about what she might be comfortable doing.’ Over time, we developed a PowerPoint presentation, and I think one of the most fun achievements was when she did a keynote for one of the regional [bookselling] shows. Not so long ago, she wouldn’t have been comfortable doing that.”
The more you know about your author, the more effective --- and happier --- you both will be.
The role is ever-changing
Sheila Marie and Charisse have both been at their jobs for a long time --- Sheila Marie for more than 10 years, and Charisse for 15!
This means that they’ve seen a lot of changes over the years, and have had to adjust accordingly. One of the biggest differences? Turnaround time. “Today you have to react faster, or you’re going to lose the opportunity,” Charisse said.
“There’s just so much online now that everything is faster,” Sheila Marie agreed. “Everything is very quick --- every response you need to give, every response you are expecting.” (I’ll admit that I’m guilty of this, asking them to get me headshots just days before I needed them).
Another huge change is the role of bloggers, who weren’t part of the equation when Sheila Marie and Charisse began in the business, but who can now make a huge impact on campaigns. Charisse explained that when they launched “This is Teen,” Scholastic’s online young adult community, in 2011, bloggers came to events and wrote about them, interviewed the authors and even live-tweeted. “That didn’t exist before! It’s almost like you have a peek into a party that you couldn’t go to. It used to be that if you couldn’t go to an event, you missed it. That was it. But now, you can see pictures on Twitter, on Facebook, on Tumblr. It’s immediate, so you feel like you’re a part of that community.”
Online buzz also changes the nature of the events themselves. Sheila Marie said that at one of the “This is Teen” events, guest author Maggie Stiefvater asked the audience, “’How many of you came tonight because you heard about this event online?’ and so many people had!”
Additionally, because of live tweets from previous events, attendees learned little-known information about the authors, like their food preferences. “Someone would bring M&Ms and we’d have this moment of ‘how’d you know that?’” said Charisse. “And then realize, ‘Oh! You saw it on social media.”
"There are so many ways to connect to your readers and get the word out. It’s totally different from anything that came before.” - Sheila Marie Everett
Social media also allows readers to connect with authors on a more intimate level, which is something that never happened before. “When I was a kid and writing letters, you were never really sure if it was a real person you were writing unless you got something back,” said Sheila Marie. “Now, you really get that response.”
Also, since there are so many kinds of social media, authors can choose what suits them the most. “If you like Instagram you can Instagram, if you like Twitter you can do Twitter, if you like Tumblr you can do Tumblr. There are so many ways to connect to your readers and get the word out. It’s totally different from anything that came before.”
So there you have it --- the publicity low-down straight from the experts themselves. And if you can see yourself in this position someday, be sure to take some communications, PR, marketing, journalism or English classes when you go to college --- maybe in 15 years, we’ll be interviewing you!
Any ideas on who you want to see as our next REAL TALK Publishing interviewee? Email firstname.lastname@example.org with ideas.