Publishing Profile: Caroline Sun, Publicity Director at HarperCollins Children’s Books

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Caroline SunA publicity director at HarperCollins Children’s Books with over a decade of experience in the publishing industry, Caroline Sun has seen her share of highs and lows, new initiatives and impactful children’s books. Today she shares a few memorable lessons from her career with us at YPG, as well as some of the changes she hopes for in the realm of acquiring and supporting diverse authors and books.

YPG: Why book publishing?

CS: I received a BA in English from Colgate University, and at first I thought I wanted to be a writer. I took writing workshops in New York, and I realized that I didn’t have a story to tell and I didn’t quite love the work of writing. But I loved books and I loved reading, so like everybody else I thought, “How do I get into publishing?” When most young people think of publishing, they only think about the author and editorial roles, which makes sense because those are the most obvious pieces. After taking a few informational interviews, I learned about the marketing and publicity side of things, and that was interesting to me because it felt more social and high energy. I started out in adult book publicity at Penguin for the first three years of my career and moved around a bit. But when I finally made the transition to children’s, it was clear that this is what I wanted and where I belonged. It was a good fit.

How was children’s publicity different from adult?

In the adult world, it felt much more delineated. The adult side is just bigger, so you’re a cog in your own little publicity wheel and all you know is what’s happening in your immediate environment. It wasn’t until I came to children’s that I think I really understood the publishing machine as a whole. I was at a lower level in adult so I didn’t go to the bigger meetings and I didn’t understand how all of the pieces played together. Now that I’ve been doing this for eleven years, I think I finally understand how it all works [laughing].

So do you think on the kids’ side, you get a little more into marketing? Is there more crossover?

We don’t have as much manpower as the adult side, so you almost have to work more closely. We’re constantly meeting with marketing and editorial and it feels more integrated, which is a good thing. It has to be a team effort mainly because you have limited resources and a huge list of books, and everyone’s working on picture books up to YA. It can be overwhelming, but I think it gives you a really strong foundation for learning how to build a campaign for a novel while also doing the same for a picture book which are two very different things. I like the fact that I can see the whole life of a book, more or less, and what I’m contributing that’s affecting the other pieces. It shows you that you’re doing something impactful, which is satisfying.

Do you take your publicity hits and then see whether there was a sales spike?

Harper has really good systems that can track when you get a sales bump. In general, publicity can be very difficult to quantify on the micro level because you can’t always track exactly what happens. You can get a bunch of media hits all at once, and it’s the aggregate of that, plus the marketing, that gives it momentum. But the correlation to a specific media outlet isn’t that easy to trace, unless it’s NPR, or like, the TODAY show. Those are two of the “slam dunks” when it comes to media leading to sales. What is unique about publicity is that it forces you to be creative because you literally have to be. You’re not spending budget to get these reviews and features and other editorial content in media – these aren’t ad dollars at work. Most of the media that you land is based off your own charm, your ability to sell someone on something based on nothing other than your relationships with your contacts, your pitch, and of course the product. Then to see a return for that, as small as it may be, is rewarding. I think some people struggle with the fact that you can send out one hundred emails and hear back from three people. It can feel like an uphill battle where the odds are stacked, but if those three people are significant people or you get more media from it, it’s worthwhile. There’s a lot of fun in publicity, but it can be difficult to show the fruit of your labor.

If there’s a big New York Times piece and it was a great review, will media come back to you, or do you then re-pitch?

Publicity can often beget more publicity, especially with a national hit like The New York Times. It can give you ammunition for further pitching or just leverage for other things. Publicity is like a game of strategy that way. It’s squeezing every ounce of value out of things other people may not see. I try to think that any type of publicity—even things that people may not see as the big splashy pieces—can add up to influence the group consciousness. If you have enough impressions and it’s just that repeated message, repeated image, people are all of a sudden like oh I know that book, I’ve heard about that book. And that’s because someone’s getting it out there, and it’s usually the publicist and marketing team.

Do you see yourself as the champion for your books?

That’s sort of the job description. We have a great team of nine people for something like six hundred books a year, so we try to champion as many as we can, but of course we have to pick and choose our battles with media and the giant-ness of our list – there’s an enormous amount of strategy involved. We have to be agile, which I think is fun and not for everybody, but it also challenges us every day to think quickly and move quickly.

How many books do you typically work on at one time?

Oh god, that’s like an impossible number. I think with publicity and most marketing departments, you’re working across several seasons at once. I have books that are still buzzing around from last year, but it’s because they’re authors that we’re building and we need to keep tending the fire. We’re here to answer long-tail questions from previous campaigns, and then we have the season we’re currently wrapping up, and we have the current season we’re in, and we have the fall which we’re preparing for. Then we’re doing the plans for winter ’17, and we’re about to launch summer ’17. We’re working across four or five seasons at any given time, years ahead and years prior, which makes it even more important for us to prioritize. It’s a huge number of books; but that’s the reality.

Do you get to become fairly close with your authors? Is it helpful when you have a good relationship with them, or can you get too personally invested?

You can have a personal connection only to an extent, but the sheer number of authors a publicist works with would become too much. Unfortunately, you can’t banter with six hundred people daily. There are certainly authors I’ve worked with for a long period of time where we chat, we’re Facebook friends–if that’s a barometer for anything. Someone like Kevin Henkes–I love him–he doesn’t use email, so I call him to talk to him about everything. I’ve been working with him for four years now; we chat on the phone, we talk about our families, and I love that feeling. Could I do that for every author? Never in a million years.  We have to be efficient with time management, but definitely there are many authors that I’ve worked with for a long time where I feel like there’s a certain level of familiarity, which is healthy. Getting to know the author helps you better understand the book, and the story behind the book. I think that’s always a big part of publicity, knowing why that author chose to write this book. What is the story, what is the genesis? That can really inform your pitching, which is important on a business level.

When a book hits the bestseller list, is that a really exciting moment for both you and the author?

Oh yeah, of course it is. When Julie Murphy hit #1 with Dumplin’, we were all ecstatic. We love that book and we all just worked so hard to get that important message out and highlight the beautiful package, and she’s just so lovely. So that was a really fun moment. With Kevin [Henkes] and Waiting, that was one of those books that we knew from the beginning was going to be something special. All of his books are wonderful, but we were looking to have a big and lasting impact for this one, and to have him on the list through the fall was really satisfying. Then he won a Caldecott Honor in January and that was the cherry on top. The bestseller list is incredibly powerful and incredibly rewarding. It is one of the few tangible ways to measure the “success” of your hard work.

How would you say your work/life balance is? Can you leave the work in the office?

When I started out there was no work-life balance, and I think that falls under “paying your dues” early on in your career. So the first five years in the industry I was working on the weekends, doing everything I needed to do to get the job done.  That was great because I had to learn, but I think as you do the job year after year, you become more efficient, you understand how to better use your time and just by nature you’re better at the job. I don’t take as much time to do the same things I was doing when I was a third-year associate publicist. I had a baby two years ago and that has forced me to be even more efficient at work because I have to get home. By having a family the work-life balance has become balanced because it has to be. Having smartphones now makes it so easy–wow, dating myself–because I can check to see if anything’s bubbling and respond in that moment.

Do you feel like you get to work on a diverse group of books?

I do. For the longest time our publicity department was structured loosely by editorial group, so I worked a lot with the Balzer + Bray imprint, which is wonderfully diverse. Now we are moving towards working more across imprints, so when we go into launch, we can pick projects we want to work on that aren’t necessarily from editors we’ve worked with in the past. We all work on so many different things, from nonfiction picture books to commercial YA and now being able to generally pick and choose the projects we want to work on is liberating. It gives us a lot of freedom and it also makes sure that a publicist who wants a book is getting that book and it’s not just going to someone by default. I definitely have more of an affinity for the literary side of things, so no matter what, I will always gravitate towards those books.

Do you feel like in the time since you’ve started, you’ve seen the publishing industry become more diverse in the content of books that we’re publishing?

This is something that I’ve spent a lot of time reading about and talking about. I know there are significant efforts being made, and a lot of good efforts. People are trying, but I don’t think we’ve yet seen the results of that effort. In my eight years in children’s books, I’ve seen a mixed bag. It’s definitely gotten better, but we’re starting at such an atrocious place that it’s kind of like we’ve had to dig ourselves out of the hole. Which I guess is still progress. We’re trying and I think it’s great that there are so many initiatives being taken and that there really is a focus on this issue. But there’s still a long way to go.

Do you think it’s just time, or is it that we haven’t had the right tools?

I think that, quite frankly, the publishing industry is very traditional. We’re steeped in our ways and things can feel archaic because this is how it’s “always been done.” We don’t necessarily embrace new challenges that might not be profitable, and I think that for the longest time books with diversity haven’t been seen as a profitable business. It’s hard to convince people who are business-minded and bottom line-minded to take that chance, and I think that what has changed the game now is the age of social media. It’s the era of Twitter, which is how We Need Diverse Books was formed. BookCon had this panel lined up, and it was all white men. Several authors were like this is insane, and they took to Twitter and created the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks, and from there it was revolutionary. Before there was a platform like Twitter or Facebook, people would still have thought that’s really messed up, but there was nowhere to express it. Now there’s a place to vocalize immediate outrage and have a crowd mentality foster a cause as easily as in 140 characters. So I think that’s what the significant change was two years ago. We Need Diverse Books really held people accountable in live time. It was like, I’m going to say something and you need to respond, and if you don’t, I’m just going to keep saying things and other people are going to see me say things and all of a sudden you look like a jerk. Sometimes I think [social media] can be seen as all pitchforks and aggressive activity, but with something as polarizing as Diversity, that slap in the face has been needed, because it’s clear that the gradual shift and the gentle shift is not something that our industry necessarily responds to.

I recently found this PW article that was written in 1994, and it is all about the lack of diversity among publishing industry employees. This article was written twenty-two years ago and it sounds like it could have been written yesterday. It seemed almost identical to something that I read about the diversity study Lee & Low did last year. It’s pathetic and depressing. I was like, wow, twenty years…kind of mind blowing. We Need Diverse Books is only two years old, and they’ve made such a significant shift in such a short amount of time that I’m really excited to see what can happen if we give them five, ten, fifteen years. It’s a powerful organization now; they have events and programs, fellowships, and awards. They’re working on both sides of it. They’re not just about getting books published from diverse voices, they’re also getting diverse people into publishing. They have an internship program, mentorship programs. I was recently at a panel for CBC Diversity, and an editor at Random House thanked We Need Diverse Books for being a little bit of a watch dog. She said, we need to be held accountable because otherwise it’s so easy to just nod your head and say oh you know, yeah, I like diverse books. But to actually do it and see the follow-through is something that there hasn’t been a lot of until now. What we needed desperately is advocacy. And not just from WNDB, but also internally. There are many editors and publishers who have picked up the mantle in-house, and I hope to do the same here at Harper.

Are there any books you’ve worked on that have defied those odds and been successful?

I’ve had the honor of working with several authors that have seen significant success. Thanhha Lai’s books – Inside Out & Back Again which won the National Book Award and a Newbery Honor, and her follow-up, Listen, Slowly, which was a New York Times bestseller. I worked on Kadir Nelson’s Heart and Soul and Nelson Mandela, and was able to secure really tremendous media for him like People magazine, NPR, USA Today, etc. This past year was a ton of fun with Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy which was a #1 New York Times bestseller and Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli that has such an organic groundswell of support in-house and in the media, and The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness that we launched with great fanfare. I think we are certainly making a lot of good acquisitions and doing a lot of great work, but there’s always more to be done. I would love to see us acquire more authors of color and diverse backgrounds and really champion those books. There is so much incredible talent to discover that can really add layers of representation to our list. Not just diversity of authors and diversity of books, but also diversity within diversity. What I want to avoid is having just one type of diverse book being published, which often falls into stereotypes and tropes, and a singularity in narrative. Everyone’s trying to do better, and I see in launch meetings that editors and publishers are really focusing on it, and that’s super encouraging. But it’s not just the acquisition; it’s then the sales and the marketing and the publicity side coming through to really support these books and see them through.

Do you have an impactful or proud moment that has stuck with you?

Oh man, you know, I have a lot. I must say, when I first landed here, I had a really great fall list. I think it was 2011. I had maybe a two month stretch of just giant books coming out. I had Everything On It by Shel Silverstein, his first posthumous poetry collection; Bumble Ardy by Maurice Sendak, his first book that he had authored and illustrated in thirty years; the launch of Wildwood by Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis; Heart and Soul by Kadir Nelson. Those were four huge books that were all pubbing within weeks of one another, and I was panicked. I was like oh my god I just got married and I just started this job and I don’t know what I’m doing.  But I’m so proud of the rollout of each one of those books. I remember for Shel Silverstein, a couple of the estate members were on NPR’s Morning Edition; they don’t do a lot of media traditionally, so I had to really make that process smooth and comfortable for them, and they luckily agreed to do it. Toni Markiet [Silverstein's editor] was interviewed too, and it was amazing, she nailed it. I remember it hit at #1 on the bestseller list and was #1 on Amazon for days and it was one of those moments where I was like, it all happened and it’s all coming together perfectly. The media for Maurice was just phenomenal. I think one of the highlights of my career was getting him on The Colbert Report where they did a two-part series called “Grimm Colberty Tales”—it was hilarious and amazing. Vanity Fair did a photo shoot with Annie Leibowitz and an interview by Dave Eggers. This is media you don’t get for anyone other than Maurice Sendak. Colin and Carson [of The Decemberists] are wildly famous and had this massive feature in the New York Times art section amongst tons of other media. And then there was Kadir, with this gorgeous nonfiction 100 page picture book on the story of the African American experience. It was in People Magazine and featured in USA Today and on NPR. That two-month period of insanity was so much fun; the kind of stuff that a publicist thrives on is that adrenaline fueled excitement, the thrill of it.

What are you reading right now that you’re excited about, or what upcoming books are you working on that you’re excited about?

I’m currently reading I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson. It won the Printz last year, and I’m only now getting to it. It’s remarkable. I love when I can pick up a book and within the first 2-3 pages, think, “wow, this is several notches above.” Her writing is unique and astounding. I recently read a few adult novels, just to give my brain a break from YA and children’s. Sometimes it’s important to work that other muscle.

A few books I’m excited about on my list coming up are Frazzled by Booki Vivat, our Associate Publicist, and kick-ass illustrator/author. I’m so thrilled to see her career kick-off. I have One Half from the East by Nadia Hashimi – an Afghan American author who is writing her first middle grade – she’s a bestselling adult novelist as well. She is a force and her book explores such unchartered territory in the children’s world. Hers is a needed voice. Further down the line I have several awesome picture books: Egg by Kevin Henkes (his 50th book!), The Legend of Rock Paper Scissor by Drew Daywalt and Adam Rex, and some exciting new things in the Margaret Wise Brown program.

In YA there’s Becky Albertalli’s new book The Upside of Unrequited and Julie Murphy’s Ramona Blue; both are SO so good. And then, of course, the highly anticipated The Hate U Give by Angela Thomas which is rooted in the Black Lives Matter movement and is more important than ever. There’s a lot of media buzz and in house love for that one already, which is exciting.

How do you keep the job interesting? You’re still excited to come to work after all these years. Is it the subject matter, the fact that the books are changing?

Well yes, the books are changing. That’s the great thing about working in publicity at a publishing house. The product changes every 4 months or so, and it keeps things energized and fresh. I love my team; I think we have a really fantastic publicity department, so they make it worth coming in every day just to hang out and be social.

I’m also extremely passionate in this diversity movement and seeing it come to the forefront. My husband [author Matt de la Peña] is on the board for We Need Diverse Books. He won the Newbery medal this year, and that’s a huge deal. He’s this Mexican American YA author who wrote a picture book and then won a Newbery, which is like, pretty insane. And the picture book [Last Stop on Market Street] is about an African American boy and his grandmother riding a bus and her teaching him to see the beauty in everyday things. I love that I’m in an industry where that can happen now. Even better that he’s my husband–I’m so proud of him and Christian Robinson (the illustrator), the industry, and especially the Newbery committee for making a statement. That was a ballsy move; it’s only the second picture book ever to win a Newbery. Watching this kind of progress being made gets me excited.

This conversation is obviously important to me, not just because of my background and where I come from, but I have a daughter. She’s half Chinese, a quarter Mexican, a quarter white. I need her to have books that she can relate to, that reflect her story but also expose her to other stories. Windows and mirrors. It’s our challenge to find these stories, and so watching the industry embrace this movement has been exciting. I’m a little bit of an impatient type and I want to see change now; I know that that’s impossible, but I want to play my part in it. The progress feels real, feels meaningful, and it’s sincere. I think that’s the most important place to start, from a place of sincerity and an actual wish to change. Again, it’s like we’ve always done it this way, we’ve been doing it just fine, why re-invent the wheel? It’s nice to have the feeling that this is one of those changes that people aren’t resistant to. That people are willing to make mistakes.

It’s all productive, hopefully. Constructive.

Either way, people are talking about it.

Talking about it is good. But it takes quite a bit of bravery to act and I think we have to dig deep to find and support our strongest voices in this movement. Nothing great has come out of anything easy. Someone once said to my husband “I’ve never said ‘no’ to something because it seems like it’s going to be hard work. That’s no way to live.” How simple, but true. People settle into a rhythm; they take the path of least resistance. So we’re trying to upend the apple cart, and it’s messy. I think we’re going to take a few steps backwards before we move forward, and I think we just have to hold hands and agree that it’s all part of the process.

This article was contributed by YPG member Sarah Woodruff. For more information, visit our Contributing Writers page.

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