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Barbara Marcus, President and Publisher of Random House Children's Division, Part 2

Real Talk Publishing: The People Behind the Books

Barbara Marcus, President and Publisher of Random House Children's Division, Part 2

For our third Real Talk Publishing feature, we talked to Barbara Marcus, the President and Publisher of Random House's Children's Division. As the head of the division, Barbara handles ALL things children's books, but she has a special place in her heart for marketing. In fact, she did the marketing campaigns for the Harry Potter series and helped with R.J. Palacio's modern classic, WONDER!

Below you can find the second part of this three-part interview, where Barbara talks about some of the most fun marketing campaigns she's worked on, including the Harry Potter series and WONDER! If you missed the first part of the interview --- which talks about the start of her career, the part of her job that makes her "heart sing" and how she manages to keep track of all things Random House Children's --- you can read it here.

TRC: I think that one part of our career that many of our readers will want to know about is HARRY POTTER!  Can you clarify how it was acquired by Scholastic?

BM: The agent was auctioning US rights at Bologna, and we came home and I gave it to my now almost 27-year-old daughter first, and she said “I’m going to get into trouble mom, this is better than Roald Dahl.” And I thought that was a pretty high bar.

Having grown up on fantasy --- my favorite --- I had asked the editors to “go to Ireland and find me some leprechauns and find me some fantasy,” because fantasy wasn’t being widely published at that moment. But I think Arthur Levine would have bought this anyway.

She said “I’m going to get into trouble mom, this is better than Roald Dahl.”

So it was an auction, and it was an unknown British author, just coming out in England. The money feels like nothing today, but bidding onthe first book went to $100,000. And Arthur came in and said, “we see this as a modern classic, it’s gonna sell forever.” I said, “If you love it, buy it.” And we put in another bid.

TRC: Do you remember what first stood out to you or your daughter about HARRY POTTER?

BM: Absolutely, and I always say this. I mean, Jo Rowling is a genius. And what she did is create regular kids in an extraordinary world. But at that point, Harry and Hermione and Ron were just such kids that you could identify with (well, maybe not Hermione). But both Ron and Harry were really regular. So theywere regular kids in this unbelievable, brilliant, extraordinary world. And that’s what it made so fabulous. It was just her genius.

TRC: How did it feel when HARRY POTTER because so successful? Were you guys surprised at how much it took off?

BM: Yes!I think no one knew at first.But you knew pretty quickly. I remember, it was the third book. And we were publishing them much closer together, because we were after the Brits --- the Brits were a year ahead of us. So we published two in one year, and then it was the third book. Iremember being in Chicago at an ALA and going to Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, and they were having a midnight party. Going there and seeing everyone --- you just knew that this was something different.

And it was also, again, back to Jo. She had such a vision on the way she wanted the books to be published. The idea that she wanted the kids to review it first, the idea that the books could not be sold before midnight on the date of publication. All the things she knew --- it became event publishing --- but the reason was, it was for the kids, it wasn’t for the reviewers. It wasn’t for the merchandisers. It was really about the books. The other thing she did --- which was hard but absolutely right to her (I don’t actually have an opinion) --- is she never let us do tie-in covers. We always kept the original covers on the books when there were movies coming out. This is what most people do [shows the original THE BOOK THIEF vs. THE BOOK THIEF tie-in]. But she wanted the books and the movies to be separate. I mean, there were so many things.

The books were so good, and she was so true to her audience, and the combination was really such a special experience.

TRC: Can you tell us about some of the most fun parts of working on that series?

BM: Well, definitely the stories of what was done to keep the books secret --- how the poor lawyer had to keep the one manuscript; when Arthur was editing it, he had to put it back in the safe each night…you couldn’t leave with the book at some point; the idea that there had to be guards to make sure no pieces of the books came out of the printer’s. And then in the end, with the distribution of the book --- making sure that it didn’t go on sale early.

But the most fun was going to the midnight parties…and getting to read it! I didn’t get to read it [in advance] because I became one of the talking heads promoting the book, and it didn’t serve me well to know what was in it because Jo didn’t want any secrets to go out.

And one of my other favorite things is that the weekend the last book came out in London, the number of kids who went to the emergency room went down because everyone was sitting home and reading. You just would read these facts and smile.

It became such a number of firsts in publishing --- we kept the book in hardcover and illustrated it and put foil on the cover! We did so many firsts --- making a kid’s book promoted in front of store. We had to argue to make it front of store in the big bookstore chains. All these things that we don’t even think about now, they were all firsts then.

The weekend the last book came out in London, the number of kids who went to the emergency room went down because everyone was sitting home and reading

And getting to do the marketing, because at the beginning, we could do anything you wanted. I grabbed a hat this morning because I thought it was raining when I left [ruffles through bag and pulls out a Harry Potter hat]. I mean, we made these hats. These aren’t the real hats --- it was just something we did the first year we published to hand out to our staff. And it wasn’t even published yet --- it was the first book.

And countdowns! We did those crazy countdowns of how many days til the books came out. So just thinking, how much fun can we make it? It wasn’t about business; we all became part of the world.We really embraced it.

I must admit I have been people’s advisers on senior theses in college on HARRY POTTER.

TRC: You left Scholastic right before the last book came out. Was that a hard decision to make? Why did you decide to leave then?

BM: Well, I had acquired the series, I had read it and it actually was part of the reason I was leaving. I just couldn’t imagine being there without that magic. It wasn’t a sad thing. It was the biggest thing I was ever going to accomplish at Scholastic, and so it just felt right, to leave the next person that opportunity.

TRC: Do you have a favorite campaign that you’ve worked on, either because it was very successful, or because it was fun?

BM: You mean besides POTTER, obviously! I think the WONDER campaign --- “Choose Kind, Choose Wonder.”  This is a kid that’s so deformed but has such a great sense of what life should be and how people should act. And I think that taking a book and spreading the word when you know it can make such a difference in so many people’s lives is so important.

As with many wonderful books, our marketing followed the heart and soul of the book with continued advertising, in-store signage, promotion and social media. Choose Kind has become part of the anti-bullying campaign, and the iconic cover of WONDER has also been an integral part of the campaign.

So this is part of a boxed set [shows some WONDER magnets] --- we’re doing a bunch of magnets that will go in a box. And these are such Auggie lines!

One could keep marketing this book forever.

TRC: Can you tell us about some Random House children's books coming out that you’re particularly excited about?

BM: In May we are publishing WE WERE LIARS by E. Lockhart, which is receiving amazing reads and strong adult reader responses as well as bookseller raves. In July, we have John Sandford and Michele Cook's UNCAGED, and in September, Carl Hiassen’s first YA novel SKINK: No Surrender. 


TRC: What were your favorite books when you were a teen and 20-something?

BM: My favorites were NINE STORIES by JD Salinger, THE AWAKENING by Kate Chopin, THE ASSISTANT by Bernard Malamud and books by Colette.

TRC: Your daughters are now in their 20s. Were they --- and are they --- big readers?

BM: Yes, especially my older daughter, who would accompany me to Books of Wonder, where Peter Glassman would select fantasy books for her to read. Today they are big readers reading all sorts of genres.

TRC: Through the years, did you run ideas by them about marketing campaigns or whether or not to acquire a title?

BM: [As mentioned earlier], Lucy read HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE and told me it was a must-have. They have read galleys, and I’ve discussed marketing campaigns with them. They still update me on social media.