Last night, I was part of a focus group at Penguin Canada (thank you, Twitter!), talking about books and marketing and specifically about Penguin’s new YA imprint, Razorbill. This morning I’m still giddy and wired with that after-prom feeling. Maybe it was the giant cupcake, slathered with enough icing to skyrocket the blood sugar levels of an elephant. But I think it was the pleasure of sitting with like-minded strangers and talking about books.
You know when you’re with a real bookworm. The minute you click on a shared story, one you both love, their eyes light up. And when they’re excited, telling you about a book they’ve read and you haven’t, they wave their hands in the air as if they’re turning pages. And you lean in closer, and ask them to spell the author’s name again so you can go look up the book first chance you get — because this person cares about books the way you do, and if they recommend a title, it’s worth checking out.
Besides, who wouldn’t love to wander around inside the real, honest-to-goodness offices of a publishing house? It’s better than Disneyland. Books everywhere. Kind of like my house, come to think of it. I admit, I was nervous until I walked in and saw so many old friends on the boardroom bookshelves. (Ah — Guy Kay is here. This must be a good place.)
There were around ten of us. Most were women around my age, which is strange when you consider that we were there to talk about a YA imprint. But let’s face it — grown-ups read YA. And those of us ignoring the pizza and drooling over the books on the boardroom table were big-time YA readers, and some of us are raising little readers of our own.
After pizza and chit-chat, we moved into a larger boardroom. This time, there was a woman there to lead the discussion and ask us questions. The Penguin team, we were told, was watching us through a camera on the wall — very Big Brother. But we forgot about that, because the first order of business was to introduce ourselves by name, and by the last book we read. As soon as we were talking books, we were off.
For me, the interesting part (other than the kid-in-a-candy-store aspect) was seeing how much effort and research Penguin puts into reaching their readers. They want to know where we’re finding books and how we choose them. They want to know what readers want, what drives them to choose one website or book over another, what they’re looking for. Before the event, I filled in a four-page questionnaire about my reading, viewing and Internet habits. At one point, we were asked to pretend that we were in charge of marketing a new website: What, specifically, would we do to reach our target audience?
As a reader, I appreciate being asked for input. As a writer, I loved the peek behind the scenes. Sometimes it feels like the publishers have all the answers; it’s nice to know that they’re working just as hard as we writers are to find and reach an audience. They’re working with and for their writers, as well as for their readers, finding out what works and what doesn’t.
For me, the hardest question of the night was “what do you want from a publisher?” It was hard because I can answer it as a writer (help! guidance! great editing to make my book the best it can be!), but I was there last night as a reader. As a reader, I’m not sure that I think about publishers much, other than as a quality control. As a reader, I want good stories. It wouldn’t occur to me to look for more than that from a publisher, but Penguin is trying to find a way to offer more regardless. They want to bring readers and writers together.
I can’t help thinking that, from either side of the connection, it’s a good thing.
Thank you, Penguin, for a lovely evening. Thank you for the pizza and the giant cupcakes, and for the armload of free books. Thank you for the movie passes. That wasn’t necessary, but it made my husband happy. Thanks for soliciting my input. And thank you for the opportunity to talk about books and publishing with a room full of interesting, intelligent people.
I’m going to share some Twitter recommendations here, because these women know their books, and are very much worth following:
And, of course, Bronwyn: @B_Kienapple, Penguin’s online marketing coordinator
(If those of you who have book blogs want to send me the links, I’ll be happy to post those here as well! It was wonderful to meet you.)