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Barbara Marcus, President and Publisher of Random House Children's Division, Part 3

Real Talk Publishing: The People Behind the Books

Barbara Marcus, President and Publisher of Random House Children's Division, Part 3

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 final part of this three-part interview, where Barbara talks about marketing, gives some overall career advice and discusses the best adult books she's recently read. If you missed Part 1 --- where Barbara reveals the part of her job that makes her "heart sing" and how she manages to keep track of all things Random House Children's --- or Part 2 --- where Barbara talks about working on HARRY POTTER and WONDER --- make sure to check those out, too!


TRC: Can you talk a bit about marketing, and what makes someone good at it?  

BM: I think it comes back to seeing what makes a person behave in a certain way --- to really think about behavior. That’s what marketing is.

Marketing is “the four P’s” as well --- product, promotion, place and price; having the right book in the right place (be it a school, a store, a mass merchant) at the right price, with the right promotion. That can be either the retailer’s promotion or our promotion.

The end result of marketing is to first get a customer aware, and then to make them act.If marketing is successful, that’s what it will do. And so, how can that not be fascinating?

If you’re going to be in children’s books and a marketer, you really shouldn’t grow up.

I felt that in the old days of mass market publishing, you worked very, very hard on the covers, and then, because we were publishing just so much, you just put it out and made the cover do a lot of the work. And the cover definitely includes marketing --- you have to make the consumer stop. But then it’s like, “OK, there are a lot of books out there!” How are you going to add on to the beauty of the cover, the wonderness of the book, and get a customer to say “Oh my God, I’ve heard of this!” Or “Oh, I really need a book about going to the beach or learning to read or feeling a little disenfranchised or being bullied. I need a book like that.”

I’ve always believed it isn’t our job as marketers to assume something is going to happen. We have to try and make it happen--- make that connection. It’s great when somebody --- whether it’s a celebrity or a reviewer --- embraces a book, and I always think “Oh my god, I hope that happens!” But I’m always assuming that it might not happen. And so the marketer’s job is to make that connection through the variety of things that are at our fingertips --- advertising, publicity, point of sale, walking in the store.

TRC: Do you think there are certain people who might be better suited to a marketing job?

BM: Yes. I think people who really understand marketing are sort of like zealots or magicians.They can see themselves in the role of the person who is going to be interested in that book. So a marketer is someone who sees that yes, we’re publishing books for children, but that child may not have a credit card or a price. And they need to figure out “what are the words, or what’s the mood, or what’s the look, that’s going to make a parent or a teacher think, ‘this is going to work for me and my student, me and my child.’”

And then there’s just the thing about never growing up. If you’re going to be in children’s books and a marketer, you really shouldn’t grow up. But for a marketer, a man has to be a woman’s romance reader --- just get into the head of your potential customer.

TRC: I hear that you are in a book club that reads adult books. Are there any great adult books that you’ve read recently?

BM: I really liked Donna Tartt’s THE GOLDFINCH. I had seen the painting at The Frick Collection [in New York City] and then I saw it again at a museum in Bologna! Of the recent books I’ve read, that and THE GOOD LORD BIRD [by James McBride] are two of my favorite book club books.  I have some old fabulous ones that we’ve read, like Edith Wharton’s THE AGE OF INNOCENCE.

I must admit, because there are so many excellent children’s books being written, the bar really has been raised on adult books--- for me personally as a reader, but I also think in the world.

[after going home to look at her shelves at home, Barbara added some other recent favorite adult books: DEAR LIFE by Alice Munro, THE SHADOW OF THE WIND by Carlos Ruiz Zafon and THE UNWINDING: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer].

TRC: At a recent talk you gave to members of the Publishers Advertising and Marketing Association (PAMA), you said that in order to be successful, “hard work and luck and being smart” isn’t enough --- you really need good mentors. Why do you think that’s so important, and have you had any particularly strong mentors?

BM: I do think if you can have one, a few, manymentors at different stages in your career, it is really important. You’re observing somebody who not only does their job well, but also wants you to understand why they make the choices they make. So you get an opportunity to see a “master craftsman” at work in some way. And that’s why it’s important --- you really get to see what the opportunity is, what the creativity is and what the level of skill is.

I’ve had many mentors, and one of them was the man who was President of Bantam Books at the time, Oscar Dystel. He was one of the pioneers who invented the mass market paperback business, who really thought about how to expand readership with a format and a delivery system. Part of what was so brilliant is that they used magazine distributors --- that’s how they got to the grocery stores; that’s how they got to the drugstores; that’s how they got to the train stations. And in the old days, there used to be books in truck stops --- westerns by Louis L’Amour (there’s a Louis L’Amour room here at Random House). So, it was the smartness of creating a format that was appealing in size and price and putting it in places where people shop. Now that sounds like a no-brainer --- we know that Walmart and Target and airports are great places for impulse buys --- but at the time, it was really the format that drove them.

And then the next people I worked for were marketers who really took author tours to the next level, including Esther Margolis --- they put authors on “The Today Show,”and this was the early days when it wasn’t normal for authors to go on “The Today Show.”I got to really watch that whole area of pushing, rather than just waiting for the consumer to figure out they needed the book. They took the best of the marketing that existed in advertising and the movie business, and thought, how could it be applied to books?

And Richard Krinsley was another person who I felt was really instrumental when I was at Scholastic. Less so in a specific way, but in terms of learning  how to build a team and a hugely fabulous Scholastic empire, which is what it was for so many years, with the book clubs and the book fairs and the trade program.

By watching them and reporting to them, mentors really add to your skill list.

I kept saying, “I’m not sure I want to go to Scholastic in this capacity,” but once they brought this man in [who worked with me at Random House] who I thought was an excellent über-manager, it was appealing to me.

I could go on, but I would say that by watching them and reporting to them, mentors really add to your skill list.

TRC: In your recent talk, you also said “collaboration promotes success.” Can you talk about one of the most memorable collaborations in your career?

BM: When I was at Scholastic and was president of the division, my publisher was Jean Feiwel, who’s at Macmillan now. I always say, she was a brilliant publisher who had a great sense of marketing, and I was a great president and marketer who had a great taste in books. So the idea that we could take a company that had no trade program and make it into a place that had a huge number of bestsellers was something that only have happened with a collaboration.

And I think you see that all the time ---I definitely feel that there isn’t one person who can make a successful publishing program. Yes, you can have a brilliant editor who finds the absolutely right book and it’s going to be amazing, but that’s not a program.

And look at brilliant author/illustrator collaborations! We all know them from our favorite books, like GOODNIGHT MOON by Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd. I think in the business world, it takes a bit of a village, or collaboration.                                * Barbara with Newbery Medal winners at                                                                    Midwinter ALA in Seattle 

TRC: In your PAMA talk, you also mentioned that with the advent of technology, the environment has changed a lot in the past five years (with social media, viral videos, etc), and that publishing processes should change, too. How do you think they should change? 

BM: I think there are all sorts of ways. And I think we’re trying to figure out how to be part of the consumer’s experience, whether it’s e-books, enhanced e-books or apps. I think in the beginning, we just took the technology and said, “OK, we’re gonna decide how to deliver it to the consumer.” But in some ways, the consumer’s gonna tell us how they want to receive our books. And yes, we want to control it --- we’re a business --- but trying to figure out how it works for both is really part of it.

And then, marketing! The whole social media! The ways people find out about information. We are part of that information flow. And we’re good at it, but we have to get a million times better at all the social media and how to transform books into participating. It’s not easy. It’s much more fragmented, but of course it’s always an opportunity, it’s just harder. We just did a very funny viral video for the new Ann Brashares book, and that’s an example of what we’re trying to do more of.

In 24 hours, we got 8,000 views, which is pretty substantial for a book video. I don’t know what it’s up to now. And [at the time of the interview], the book’s not on sale until next week! So it’s the idea of “how do we do more of that?” I think what we all did is we created book trailers and put them up and nobody watched them --- 100 people watched them. And it’s not only that we have to do something that’s really entertaining to watch, but we have to figure out how to get people to know it exists. Same with apps, same with standalone e-books.

But it’s that whole process of realizing that they don’t come if you just create it. You have to figure out what the consumer’s interested in, and then deliver it to them electronically in a way that works for us and works for them. If it just works for the publisher, chances are it’s not going to work for the consumer.

TRC: You were recently at the Bologna Book Fair, the biggest children’s book fair in the world. What do you do while there?

BM: I met with our Penguin Random House companies in Spain and the UK. I also met with key licensors like Disney, Nickelodeon and DreamWorks, a few key agents, fellow foreign publishers and Huck Scarry, son of the fabulous writer and illustrator Richard Scarry. 

TRC: What was your favorite part of the fair this year? 

BM: The Random House party, which takes place the Sunday night before the Fair opens and is a chance to see all the foreign publishers and agents, as well as our colleagues from the US. It is a warm evening, and a chance to connect with friends and business associates you do not get to see regularly.